Vocabulary Quiz #11: Diction

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Diction is word choice. A word that is suitable in conversation or informal writing may lower the tone of writing intended for a general audience. Assuming that all of the following sentences are intended to be heard or read by a large general audience, choose the more appropriate word for each sentence.

1. The CEO visited the company’s factory in Cleveland for the purpose of ______ the proposed policy to allow parents with children to share one job.
a) promoting
b) touting

2. The senator said that something must be done for the single ______ who are unable to feed their children nutritious meals.
a) moms
b) mothers

3. Investigating the attack, police discovered that the vandalism was the work of a gang of ______ .
a) kids
b) seventeen-year-olds

4. Following the burglary, the perpetrator _________ .
a) fled the scene
b) took it on the lam

5. News just in: King Ludwig of Transylvania ________ at 3:20 a.m.
a) passed away
b) died

Answers and Explanations

1. The CEO visited the company’s factory in Cleveland for the purpose of promoting the proposed policy to allow parents with children to share one job.
a) promoting

The verb tout began as thieve’s cant for “to act as a lookout.” As a noun, a tout in racetrack parlance is a person who offers tips as to which horse is likely to win. Because of its less than respectable connotations, tout is not as neutral a term as promote.

2. The senator said that something must be done for the single mothers who are unable to feed their children nutritious meals.
b) mothers

The word mom, while not exactly slang, is a term of intimacy that is inappropriate to use as a generic term for mother. Even the word mother, although the general term for a woman who has borne a child, carries emotional overtones. The word woman might be an even better choice when a neutral tone is desired.

3. Investigating the attack, police discovered that the vandalism was the work of a gang of seventeen-year-olds.
b) seventeen-year-olds

The word kids is used in so many contexts to refer to so many age groups that it lacks precision. Parents call their children of any age “kids” as a term of affection, but in other contexts, kid may be intended as a pejorative term. Ex: He doesn’t know anything; he’s just a kid. Other possible replacements for kid, depending upon the age group meant: child, youth, teenager, adolescent.

4. Following the burglary, the perpetrator fled the scene.
a) fled the scene

The usual term for the act of running away from danger is to flee. Residents flee a burning building. Campers flee an attacking bear. “To take it on the lam” is a slang expression usually applied to the act of fleeing the police.

5. News just in: King Ludwig of Transylvania died at 3:20 a.m.
b) died

Passed away is a euphemism intended to obscure the starkness of death. In reporting the news, the most direct word is usually best.

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5 thoughts on “Vocabulary Quiz #11: Diction”

  1. About #1: “Tout” is a good example not only of word choice lowering the tone but of showing bias.
    About #2: It should be “single parents,” not mothers, but if the senator had used the word “mothers” that should be used, even though it’s not a quote.
    About #4: “Took it on the lam” sounds like Damon Runyon, but “fled the scene” sounds like police blotter talk. Wouldn’t just “fled” be best?
    About #5: “Passed away” implies that the deceased, those around the deceased, and the reader all believe that the deceased has entered another phase of being and hasn’t truly ceased to exist. “Died” is much preferred. However, it’s likely that as the baby boomers all die in the coming years, “passed away” will become an even more frequent choice. I’m a boomer, but I’m doing with “died.” Not that it’ll be up to me!

  2. The root word, going back to the Ancient Romans or earlier, has to do with speaking! That same root leads us to “dictation” and “dictator”. The fact that “mode of speaking” has slipped to the second item on the list is just an example of linguistic drift over 2000 years.
    According to the Oxford Dictionary online:
    1. the choice and use of words and phrases in speech or writing:
    “Wordsworth campaigned against exaggerated poetic diction.”
    synonyms: phrasing, wording, usage, vocabulary, expressions, idioms.
    2. the style of enunciation in speaking or singing:
    “Eliza began imitating Mr. Higgins’s careful diction.”
    synonyms: pronunciation, articulation, delivery, elocution, intonation, inflection.
    I will give an example from my own past from decades ago:
    “Mrs. Dixon always used exquisite diction.” Mrs. Dixon was a supervisor of elementary school teaching in my school system during the 1960s.
    A public example from the same decade: William Shatner’s precise diction stems from his early studying of Shakespearean acting at the Stratford Shakespearean Festival in Ontario (something that goes on for about half the year, including acting lessons).
    [Mr. Shatner had grown up as an English speaker in a Jewish family in Montreal, Quebec. That sounds like a formula for learning poor pronunciation! English plus French plus Yiddish plus some Hebrew!]
    Other people of that time noted for their excellent diction: Martin Luther King, Jr., John F. Kennedy, Eleanor Roosevelt, Adlai Stephenson, Chet Huntley, David Brinkley, Walter Cronkite, Hugh Downs, Jules Bergman. Of course, I love the diction shown in:
    “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade… Not because it is easy, but because it is hard.”
    “These are the voyages of the starship ‘Enterprise’. Her five-year mission: to seek out new life and new civilizations… To boldly go where no man has gone before.”

  3. I don’t think JFK or MLK, Jr. were admired for their diction in the sense of pronunciation. Both–Kennedy especially– had sub-dialectic accents that strayed enough from General American to be humorous to many. Think of the the Missile Crisis with Cuber. What they said was admired, how they said it, not so much.

  4. @Bill: How could anything written imply anything about the reader? And why does “passed away” imply an extended existence? It means “gone.” That doesn’t imply “moved” any more than it does “ceased to exist.”

    Why should it say “single parents”? If the senator said mothers or moms, he said mothers or moms. There is no “should” about it. This is about grammar, not political correctness.

  5. @venqax: I think that in most cultural groups, “passed away” DOES imply an extended existence.
    In Judaism, “passed away” does mean gone on to “Abraham’s bosom”.
    In Christianity and Islam, “passed away” does mean gone away to Heaven, or Hell, or Purgatory.
    To the Ancient Greeks, “passed away” (in whatever language or idiom) mean moved on to Hades (for most of us) or to Elysian Fields (for the fortunate ones). Hades was not a place for place for punishment, but rather just a dull and gray place on the other side of the River Styx.
    In Hinduism, “passed away” means to be moved to another existence via reincarnation — maybe even as a dog or a donkey or an insect if you had not been so good. For the really fortunate (and very good ones), it means passed away into union with the gods.
    To the Vikings, only the brave warriors passed away to Valhalla to live with the gods, goddesses, and Valkyries: Odin (Wotan), Thor, Twigg, Freya (Frigg), Loki. Tuesday is “Twigg’s day”, Wednesday is “Wotan’s day”, Thursday is “Thor’s day”, and Friday is “Freya’s day”.
    For my lack of knowledge, I will leave it up to you to figure out about Zarathustra, Zoroaster, The Buddha, Shintoism, Confucianism, and the ancient Aztecs, Mayans, & Incas.

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