Diction: Syntax

The term diction signifies the kinds of words, phrases, sentence structures, and figurative language that constitute any work of literature. A writer’s diction can be analyzed under a great variety of categories, such as the degree to which the vocabulary and phrasing is abstract or concrete, Latin or Anglo-Saxon in origin, colloquial or formal, technical or common, literal or figurative.

(M. H. Abrams, A Glossary of Literary Terms)

This quotation from Abrams’ Glossary (which is recommended reading for all students of English literature) tells us that diction is a basic feature of all literature. For this reason, everything we look at in the other three modules is part of or related to diction. But by way of introduction we shall begin by looking at diction as syntax (or word order), before moving on to look at word choice on the next page.

An important way in which language organises itself into units of meaning is through its syntax. The order in which words appear in a sentence is to a large extent conventional because it is based in rules of grammar, which themselves are based on the habits of language users within a particular language community. At its most basic level, English is an S-V-O language, which means that in simple declarative sentences, the subject comes first, followed by a verb and then an object, as in ‘Steve ate a banana’ or ‘Michelle kills a fly’. Other languages have other ways of doing this, some of which are extremely alien to the Germanic languages (English, German, Norwegian, Dutch, etc.). We are, simply put, used to words appearing in a certain order, which is predictable enough that we can understood what is being said or written.

Syntax, however, is in fact very flexible, even without breaking the rules of grammar, and it is crucially important to the making of literature. The significance of syntax is most readily visible in poetry, but it matters in all literary forms, because of the following reasons:

  1. There is a close correspondence between word order and plot

  2. Word order can be used to emphasise and highlight certain elements

  3. Word order can be used for obfuscation and deferral

We shall look at each of these claims in turn. First, we may think of individual sentences as small narratives in their own right, and for that reason it becomes important when and where a sentence divulges certain items of information. Consider these two sentences that are also little narratives (for a more sophisticated discussion of what exactly constitutes a narrative, look at this page):

A. When I arrived at the train station after a hard run the train had already left.

B. The train had already left when I arrived at the train station after a hard run.

They contain the same clauses with the same words, but in different orders. The first little narrative – A – begins by telling us that there is a speaker who reaches their destination. It then lets us know that the speaker has been trying their best to get there in time. Finally we understand that their efforts have been futile, because the train – which we infer from our context clues that they wanted to catch (or they wanted to catch someone leaving on it) has already left the station.

In the second example – B – the first thing we learn is that the train is already gone before the speaker arrives, and that they are probably sweaty and winded. We understand that the sentences highlight and emphasise some things and that other things are deferred or delayed.

There will be no Nobel prizes forthcoming for these two sentences, but they might at least function to clarify the three points listed above.


Please take some time to think about this question and fill in your answer in the field below. When you complete the quiz you will get to read the “correct” answer, which is really not so much a correct answer as it is our suggestion to how to respond to the question.

Welcome to your syntax quiz

How does the syntax determine how information is either highlighted or deferred in the two examples, and how does it affect our response to what we read?



Having seen how important word order is, next we need to look at word choice, because equally important as the order in which the words are presented is the sense and quality of the words themselves. Our next port of call is therefore word choice, or what is also known as diction.

Next: Diction: Word Order