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Diction & Tone: Striking the Right Balance

For a student in high school or college, the struggle when writing an essay is to use more formal diction and tone than they are accustomed to using. Students nowadays write “kinda” and “gunna” as though they were texting, not to mention “2” for to (or two even).

The pressing issue for students, then, is simply to write in a way that is grammatically correct. Though this is controversial, I don’t think they should even have to consciously think about their tone, audience, purpose, diction, etc.

But interestingly, one can go too far in the other direction in terms of diction, using language that is too formal and therefore sounds odd, inappropriate or pretentious. This is not a problem that undergrad students would typically have though.

I worked at a cool restaurant in Old Greenwich, Connecticut in my mid- twenties. As a waiter, you write little instructions for the cooks into the computer, which gets printed on the ticket, such as “no butter.” On my ticket, I don’t remember what the instructions were, but I used the conjunction “however” (technically a conjunctive adverb). Probably I was expressing my latent desire to be a writer or an English teacher. But at the time it caused a minor controversy.

Why should a waiter use such high-minded diction in his ticket for a Po Boy Sandwich? Why should the cooks have to suffer the indignity of reading such language?

“No sauce on the salad; however, bring oil and vinegar to the table.”

I probably used the semicolon too

It was ironic. I like being ironic, though it bothered my well-meaning, non-literary coworkers. But there was another issue at play, touching upon word choice.

Using “however” or “therefore” sets a formal tone. If the tone is meant to be more conversational, those conjunctions are out of place. Instead, simply use the coordinating conjunctions “but” or “so.”

Similar to Spanish, you would hardly hear the man on the street use “sin embargo,” but certainly you would hear him say “pero.”

This advice is more geared towards advanced writers. Students are typically just trying to write correctly and in as formal a tone as they can manage. But above that level of scholarship, one has to consider the audience and purpose to strike the appropriate tone and use the appropriate diction.

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