Update: 2009-05-24 06:50 PM +0800

TIL

TIL English Grammar

11. Diction

c11Dicti.htm

A compilation by U Kyaw Tun and staff of TIL (Tun Institute of Learning, http://www.tuninst.net ). Not for sale.

In the United States, periods and commas go inside quotation marks regardless of logic.
In the United Kingdom, Canada, and islands under the influence of British education, punctuation around quotation marks is more apt to follow logic. In American style, then, you would write: My favorite poem is Robert Frost's "Design." But in England you would write: My favorite poem is Robert Frost's "Design".

 

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To most of Westerners the "third-world" is a "third-rate-world" full of illiteracy, disease and poverty. Myanmars should described their country as a "neutral nation" instead of as a "third-world" nation. -- Editor

Your diction is simply your choice of words. There is no single, correct diction in the English language; instead, you choose different words or phrases for different contexts:
     to a friend - "a screw-up"
     to a child - "a mistake"
     to the police - "an accident"
     to an employer - "an oversight"

Editor's note: A Myanmar starting to learn English is appalled by the use of the same personal pronouns "I" and "you" when addressing to a friend, to a child, to an elder and to a rahan: (Buddhist monk). However, it is interesting to note that in French there are two forms of personal pronouns - "vous" and "tu" - in place of the English "you". In Bamah, the personal pronouns used in place of the English "I" are:
gna  -  while speaking to a close friend
kyun taw  - while speaking to a parent, an elder, an acquaintance or a stranger
ta. pyi. taw  -  while speaking to a rahan:

All of these expressions mean the same thing -- that is, they have the same denotation -- but you would not likely switch one for the other in any of these three situations: a police officer or employer would take "screw-up" as an insult, while your friends at the bar after a hockey game would take "oversight" as an affectation.

Contents of this page

Contents of this page

1101. Catch Phrases
1102. Connotations and Denotations
1151. Review: Diction

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1101. Catch Phrases

Under pressure to create (usually against a deadline), a writer will naturally use familiar verbal patterns rather than thinking up new ones. Inexperienced writers, however, will sometimes go further, and string together over-used phrases or even sentences. Consider the following example:
     When all is said and done, even a little aid can go a long way in a country suffering from famine.

The argument is commendable, but its written expression is poor and unoriginal. First, consider the phrase "when all is said and done". Once, this phrase was clever and original, but so many millions of writers and speakers have used it so many times over so many years that the phrase has become automatic and nearly meaningless. This type of worn-out phrase is called a catch phrase, and you should always avoid it in your writing, unless you are quoting someone else: you own, original words are always more interesting.

A particularly stale catch phrase -- especially one which was once particularly clever -- is a cliché. In the example given above, the phrase "a little aid can go a long way" fits into the formula "a little _ _ _ can go a long way", seriously lowers the quality of the writing. Essentially, a cliché is a catch phrase which can make people groan out loud, but the difference between the two is not that important -- just remember that neither usually belongs in your writing.

Editor's note: A Myanmar who is not used to reading much English would not know whether a phrase has become a 'catch phrase' or not. My advice is if you come across a phrase which is pleasing to you try to remember it and use it - after all there's just a negligible chance that you would ever become an English writer. However for academic and business purposes it is a good policy not to use 'clever' phrases.

Here are some more sample clichés and catch phrases from students' essays:
     the dictionary defines _ _ _ as . . .
     key to the future
     facing a dim future
     drive a wedge between
     starving students
     enough (for _ _ _ ) to handle
     in today's world
     the _ _ _  generation
     the impossible dream
     enough to worry about without . . .
     putting the cart before the horse
     a bird in the hand
     glitzy, high-tech world

There is no simple formula that you can apply to decide what is a cliché or a catch phrase, but the more you read, the better your sense of judgement will become. Remember, though -- if you think that a phrase in your writing is clever, and you know that someone has used the phrase before, then you are best rewriting it into your own words.


Special Considerations for Catch Phrases

While clichés and catch phrases have no place in academic essays, there are some times of writing where you should use pre-existing formulas. Such documents include scientific papers, legal briefs, maintenance logs, and police reports (to name a few) -- these are highly repetitive and largely predictable in their language, but they are meant to convey highly technical information in a standard, well-defined format, not to persuade or entertain a reader -- creativity in an auditor's report, for example, would not be highly prized.

On the other hand, catch phrases are not appropriate in less technical areas. Journalists, especially, are under a pressure to produce a large amount of writing quickly, and those who are less talented or unable to meet the pressure will often end up writing entire articles made up of over-used catch phrases like "war-torn Bosnia", "grieving parents", or "besieged capital".

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1102. Connotations and Denotations

The relationship between words and meanings is extremely complicated, and belongs to the field of semantics. For now, though, what you need to know is that words do not have single, simple meanings. Traditionally, grammarians have referred to the meanings of words in two parts:
     denotation - a literal meaning of the word
     connotation - an association (emotional or otherwise) which the word evokes

For example, both "woman" and "chick" have the denotation "adult female" in North American society, but "chick" has somewhat negative connotations, while "woman" is neutral.

For another example of connotations, consider the following:
     negative - There are over 2,000 vagrants in the city.
     neutral - There are over 2,000 people with no fixed address in the city.
     positive - There are over 2,000 homeless in the city.

All three of these expressions refer to exactly the same people, but they will invoke different associations in the reader's mind: a "vagrant" is a public nuisance while a "homeless" person is a worthy object of pity and charity. Presumably, someone writing an editorial in support of a new shelter would use the positive form, while someone writing an editorial in support of anti-loitering laws would use the negative form.

In this case, the dry legal expression "with no fixed address" quite deliberately avoids most of the positive or negative associations of the other two terms -- a legal specialist will try to avoid connotative language altogether when writing legislation, often resorting to archaic Latin or French terms which are not a part of ordinary spoken English, and thus, relatively free of strong emotional associations.

Many of the most obvious changes in the English language over the past few decades have had to do with the connotations of words which refer to groups of people. Since the 1950's, words like "Negro" and "crippled" have acquired strong negative connotations, and have been replaced either by words with neutral connotations (ie "black", "handicapped") or by words with deliberately positive connotations (ie "African-Canadian", "differently-abled").

Editor's note: Myanmars take pride in describing their homeland as a third-world country referring to the fact that during the cold-war days, before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Myanmar had sided neither with the capitalist-camp (the so-called first-world) nor with the communist-camp (the "second-world"), but had remained neutral (the "third-world"). However, in the West "third-world" is now used in a negative sense as a "third-rate-world" full of illiteracy, disease and poverty. Myanmars should described their country as a neutral nation instead of as a "third-world" nation. Myanmars should be always on the look out for such words by Westerners especially the Western-media who are very clever in the use of the English language to describe others in negative-sense.

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1151. Review: Diction

Decide whether the highlighted word or phrase in each of the following examples is appropriate for use in an academic essay.

01. Question: Bleeding-heart liberals have caused Canada's debt problems.

02. Question: The "sacred heart" is a common depiction of Jesus.

3. Question: The Internet has become very successful over the past two years.

4. Question: In 1812, General Brock was the hero of the day.

5. Question: The government will slash spending by three billion dollars.


Answers to Review questions
:

1. Question: Bleeding-heart liberals have caused Canada's debt problems.
Answer: The answer This phrase is inappropriate is correct.
Explanation: "Bleeding-heart liberals" is a cliché. It also carries strongly negative connotations, while academic writing should have a neutral tone.

2. Question: The "sacred heart" is a common depiction of Jesus.
Answer: The answer This phrase is appropriate is correct.
Explanation: "Sacred heart" is the name of the type of depiction, not a cliché or catch phrase, so it is appropriate here.

3. Question: The Internet has become very successful over the past two years.
Answer: The answer This phrase is appropriate is correct.
Explanation: The phrase "very successful" is common, but it does not attempt to be clever or different: "very" is a normal intensifier in English.

4. Question: In 1812, General Brock was the hero of the day.
Answer: The answer This phrase is inappropriate is correct.
Explanation: Although General Brock was a "hero" in the traditional, military sense, the phrase "hero of the day" has been used so often (and tries to sound so clever) that it has become a cliché.

5. Question: The government will slash spending by three billion dollars.
Answer: The answer This phrase is inappropriate is correct.
Explanation: "Slash spending" is an especially low-grade journalistic catch phrase (the worst of them alliterate), but the word "slash" also carries strongly negative connotations, while academic writing should keep a neutral tone.

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