Diction: Word Choice

As explained here, the properties of language are such that words often have multiple meanings (denotations) as well as a wealth of possible associations (connotations). This makes it so that a writer has to take special care about which words they use. Crucially, it also means that we as readers and interpreters of literature have to pay special attention to words. Word choice cannot be arbitrary. A necessary element of interpreting works of literature is to be curious and suspicious of what words do. We need to pay particular attention to words that appear in noteworthy positions or which are repeated. Poets and authors worth their salt tend to think carefully about these things.

As a rule, the more heightened and concentrated the form, the more suspicious we need to be about the words we read. This means that – again – poetry is the form of literature where diction is most strikingly important, but in reality it is equally central to all forms of literature (fiction and non-fiction). The example we will look at here, from Ernest Hemingway’s short story “In Another Country” (1926) is not a poem, but it demonstrates how the placement and choice of words alone can set a mood and introduce a theme.

This is the first paragraph of the short story:

In the fall the war was always there, but we did not go to it any more. It was cold in the fall in Milan and the dark came very early. Then the electric lights came on, and it was pleasant along the streets looking in the windows. There was much game hanging outside the shops, and the snow powdered in the fur of the foxes and the wind blew their tails. The deer hung stiff and heavy and empty, and small birds blew in the wind and the wind turned their feathers. It was a cold fall and the wind came down from the mountains.

Later we learn that the narrator is a wounded soldier and we hear about the people he meets at the hospital in Milan and their fates during and after the First World War. In studying this paragraph we will try to look only at word choice and word placement (word choice and word order/syntax), but we will soon discover that those two things are intimately connected to things we have already discussed (semiotics, mimesis, diegesis, denotations and connotations) as well as things we will discuss later (tropes and verbal imagery).

Reading for Diction

Looking at the passage as a whole, its most striking trait is the repetition of certain words in different configurations. The sentences keep revolving around the word ‘fall’ and several words associated with gloom and low temperatures: ‘cold,’ ‘wind,’ ‘dark,’ ‘snow,’ ‘blew,’ ‘stiff,’ ‘heavy,’ ’empty’ – and sometimes their opposites: ‘lights,’ ‘pleasant’. We shall begin by looking at the senses and connotations of these words, beginning with one of the most frequently repeated, namely ‘fall’. In American English, the denotation of this word is the season that comes after summer and before winter, what the British call the autumn. Whenever this time of year makes an appearance in a work of literature it arouses a sense of something approaching its end, as opposed to spring, which tends to be associated with youth, innocence and hope.

The word, however, has at least two other meanings that seem to play a role in this context: that of sin and that of death. ‘The Fall’ is the name used for the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise after which humanity was cursed with ancestral ‘original sin’. According to many types of Christian theology, this implies that all men and women are born sinners and that only communion with God might save us from this state. The cruelties of WWI seemed to confirm this pessimistic view of humankind to many observers. More straightforwardly, ‘to fall’ is also synonymous with ‘to die,’ which was not uncommon, to say the least, among participants in the war. Many also committed suicide after it had ended.

Under normal circumstances we may not have suspected that this simple word should contain such grave associations, but given the context – and more importantly – given the conspicuous repetition of this word in the first two as well as the final sentence of the paragraph, this strongly indicates that the word deserves to be given special attention.

Looking back to what was said about the word ‘down’ here, we may also pick up a general and instinctual negative association that does not necessarily tie up with Christianity. ‘Fall,’ then, contributes to creating a mood – a gloomy and pessimistic one – and to introducing a theme: the perennial human capacity for violence and evil. Reading the rest of the short story (which you should) appears to confirm that this interpretation holds water. It is not a happy tale.

Furthermore, we may quickly establish that the words ‘cold,’ ‘snow’ and ‘wind’ hint that this autumn is in fact pretty close to winter. A typical association that comes with ‘cold’ and the season of winter is, yet again, death. In conjunction with ‘fall’ and the general mood of the passage, this strengthens our impression of what its theme might be. This is strengthened even further by the game that hangs outside the shops: carcasses of foxes and deer, gutted and quite dead. Finally, the word ‘wind,’ which is also very frequent, contributes to the theme and the mood, bringing to mind the phrase ‘the winds of war’. It is a persistent reminder that outside Milan the war is ‘always there’ and although they do not ‘go to it anymore,’ its presence remains strong enough to ruffle feathers and blow its coldness straight into the skin.

Diction = Word Choice + Word Order

All of this is made even more fuzzily powerful by the syntax. There is something strange and disturbing going on here. Consider the first two and a half sentences: ‘In the fall the war was always there, but we did not go to it any more. It was cold in the fall in Milan and the dark came very early. Then the electric lights came on …’. This is both somewhat childlike and somewhat incoherent. First off, the similarities in diction and syntax between ‘In the fall the war …’ and ‘It was cold in the fall …’ seem very odd. No one talks like this except children and those that are somewhat mentally addled, by drugs, perhaps, or trauma. But this is not talking – it is literature. Our narrator may be both traumatized and drugged, but it is not just him: the narrative itself seems to be in a sort of haze or dreamlike state, judging by its strange rhythms. The phrase ‘we did not go to it anymore’ is also peculiar, for the same reasons.

Next, there is a grammatical disruption. In the first two sentences, the narrative describes the general situation in Milan, but the next sentence appears to describe a specific event in time: ‘Then the electric lights came on, and it was pleasant …’. Normally, one would perhaps write ‘Then the electric lights would come on, and it would be pleasant …’ in order for the mode to remain the same, but here the text shifts from one mode to another, without warning. Again, this is similar in effect to the repetitions discussed in the previous paragraph: it suggests that the narrator’s mind is somewhat disturbed, distracted and disrupted by the events he has gone through, but at the same time it creates a feeling that the narrative itself is what is disjointed, creating a feeling of unease that we cannot quite place, but which is palpable and important.

The remainder of the passage and the short story as a whole contain more in the same vein. We suggest you look at it yourself to see what you can find, but we will return to this passage in the next section, on tropes and imagery – which you may proceed to now, unless you want to return to the overview page for the Literature module.

Next: Tropes and imagery