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Literary Language

Updated on March 20, 2017


It is necessary to distinguish three levels of organization in language. The level of semantics (meaning), there are levels of syntax and phonology, which together form the expression plane of language. The last two constitute what is often referred to as the ‘double articulation’ of linguistic forms phonemes, stress, rhythm and intonation and syntax of being the more abstract grammatical and lexical form of language. Syntax also refers to rules for ordering and connecting words into sentences.

The level of semantics studies the overall meaning of a text, the meaning derived from the way sentences/utterances are used and the way they are related to the context in which they are used or uttered and some rhetoric devices.


This is the choice of words of a writer. There are no two individuals using the same words in expressing their ideas or thoughts. The author can choose to use vague or concrete words, denotative or connotative words e.t.c.

Diction in its original, primary meaning refers the writer’s or the speaker’s distinctive vocabulary choices and style of expression in a poem or story. A secondary, common meaning of diction is the distinctiveness of speech, the art of speaking so that each word is clearly heard and understood to its fullest complexity and extremity, and concerns pronunciation and tone rather than word choice, or with its synonym articulation.

Diction has multiple concerns; register words being either formal or informal in social context is foremost. Literary diction analysis reveals how a passage establishes tone and characterization, e.g. a preponderance of verbs relating states of mind portrays an introspective character. Diction also has an impact upon word choice and syntax.

In literature, diction is usually judged with reference to the prevailing standards of proper writing and speech and is seen as the mark of quality of the writing. It is also understood as the selection of certain words or phrases that become peculiar to a writer. For instance, certain writers in the modern day and age, use archaic terms such as ‘thy’, ‘thee’ and ‘wherefore’ to imbue a Shakespearean mood to their work. Forms of diction include: Archaic diction (diction that is antique, that is rarely used), high diction (lofty sounding language) and low diction (everyday language). Each of these forms is to enhance the meaning or artistry of an author’s work. The principal meaning of diction is the selective and use of words or the manner of expression. Jack Meyers and D.Wukason (2003) suggested that sometimes diction is described in terms of four levels of language: formal as in serious discourse, informal as in relaxed but polite conversation; colloquial as in everyday usage; slang as in impolite and newly coined words. It is generally agreed that the qualities of proper diction are appropriateness, correctness and accuracy. The diction of every writer should reflect sufficient audience sensitivity because the ultimate goal of a writer’s message is the consumption of a targeted audience. Joe Glaser (1999) opines that your diction, the exact words you choose and the settings in which you use them, means a great deal to the success of your writing. While language should be appropriate to the situation that generally still leaves plenty room for variety. This means that skilful writers mix general and particular abstract and concrete, long and short, learned and common place, connotative and neutral words to administer a series of small but telling surprises. Readers stay interested because they don’t know exactly what is coming next.


Tone is another relevant factor in the study and analysis of stylistics. Cohen describes tone as ‘the author’s basic attitude towards the people, situation, emotions and ideas with which he/she has constructed the literary work.’(198).Tone is a literary compound of composition which encompasses the attitudes toward the subject and the audience implied in a literary work. Tone may be formal, informal, intimate, solemn, sober, playful, serious, ironic condescending, or many other possible attitudes. Each piece of literature has at least one theme, or central question about a topic and how the theme is approached within the work is known as the tone.

All pieces of literature, even official documents and technical documents, have some sort of tone. Authors create tone through the use of various other literary elements such as diction (word choice), syntax (the grammatical arrangement of words in a text for effect); imagery (vivid appeals to the senses) details, facts that are included or omitted and figurative language, the comparison of seemingly unrelated things for sub-textual purposes.

The term tone was originally applied solely to music. Thus appropriated word has come to represent attitudes and feelings a speaker (in poetry), a narrator (in fiction), or an author (in a non-literary prose) has towards the subject, situation and/or the intended audience. It is pertinent to recognize that the speaker or narrator is not to be confused with the author and that attitudes and feelings of the speaker or narrator should not be confused with those of the author. In general, the tone of a piece only refers to attitude of the author if writing is non-literary in nature.

In many cases, the tone of a worker may change and shift as the speaker or narrator’s perspective on a particular subject alters throughout the piece. Official and technical documentation tends to employ a formal tone throughout the piece. Authors set a tone in literary works by conveying emotions/feelings through words. The way a person feels about an ideal concept, event, or another person, can be quickly determined through facial expressions, gestures and in the tone of voice used. Diction and syntax often dictate what the author’s attitude towards his subject is at a time.

An example:

Charlie Surveyed the classroom but it was really his mother congratulating him for snatching the higher test grade, the smug smirk on his face growing brighter and brighter as he confirmed the inferiority of his peers.

The tone here is one of arrogance; the quip “inferiority of his peers” shows Charlie’s belief in his own prowess. The words “Surveyed” and ‘congratulating himself’ show Charlie as seeing himself better than the rest of his class. The diction, including the word ‘Snatching’ gives the reader a mental picture of someone quickly and effortlessly grabbing something, which proves once again Charlie’s pride. Characteristically, the ‘Smug Smirk’ provides a facial imagery of Charlie’s pride. The use of imagery in a text is helpful to develop a text’s tone.


A sentence is defined as an assemblage of words expressed in proper order and concussing to make a complete sense. A sentence is a linguistic unit consisting of one or more words that are grammatically linked. A sentence can include words grouped meaningfully to express a statement, question, exclamation, request, command or suggestion. A sentence is a set of words that in principle tells a complete thought, although it may make little sense taken in isolation out of context. Typically, a sentence contains a subject and predicate. According to Eka (2004), the sentence is structurally and functionally determined. Structurally, we can identify five subtypes of sentences in English. They are simple, compound, complex, multiple and compound complex. Functionally we can identify four subtypes of sentences: statements, imperative, interrogative and exclamation.

Azuike believes that the intention of examining sentences grammatically “is to provide unnecessary taxonomy of features but the examination of the combinatory patterns of these sentence types in the discourse.” (123). Structural grammarians like Quirk et tal (1972) recognize two major elements in a sentence-subject and predicate. The subject is what is being discussed or the performer of the action, and the predicate is the information about the subject and the predicate is such that the subject determines “concord” or complementation.

Figures of Speech

Figures of speech are devices through which words are used to express ideas more than their literary meaning. A figure of speech is a figurative language in the form of a single word or phrase, it can be a special repetition, arrangement or omission of words in the literal meaning, or a phrase with a specialized meaning not based on the literal meaning of the words. Figures of speech often provide emphasis, freshness of expression or clarity. However, clarity may also suffer from their use, as any figure of speech introduces an ambiguity between literal and figurative interpretation.

Richard Nordquest defines figure of speech as various rhetorical uses of language that depart from customary construction, order or significance. Figures of speech are used to deepen the reader’s subliminal understanding of the person, place or thing that is being described. Figures of speech also remind the reader and the writer alike that language is not the frosting, it’s the cake. The figures of speech reveal to us the apparently limitless plasticity of language itself. We are confronted, inescapable with the intoxicating possibility that we can make language do for us almost anything we want. (Arthur Quinn (1995).

According to Jay Heinrichs (2007), figures of speech change ordinary language through repetition, substitution, sound and word play the mess around with words – skipping them, swapping them and making them sound different. Every individual or writer uses figurative words in expressing his/her ideas through the use of these figures of speech: Simile, metaphor, oxymoron, personification, hyperbole, pun, alliteration etc.


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