What is diction and syntax?

1 Answer
Feb 4, 2016

Diction is the word choice that the writer goes with to elicit a specific result. It tends to establish a mood for a piece of writing.

Syntax is the structure of the writing, and is like a social contract you have with other writers as to how you ought to write at that time.

An interesting example is an excerpt from Shakespeare's Sonnet 73:


In me thou see'st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west;
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death's second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the deathbed whereon it must expire,
Consumed with that which it was nourished by.



Shakespeare chose very specific words. Let us pick out words or phrases that have to do with three of the identifiable themes:

  • near-end: twilight, sunset, black night, Death's second self, ashes, deathbed
  • disappearance/loss: fadeth, take away, expire, consumed
  • time/age: day, black night, youth, that [which it was nourished by]

Anything near an end can suggest some sort of death-like circumstance.

Disappearance or loss can suggest the imminent removal from this world.

The time or age words suggest a parallel of time with death-like circumstances and imminent removals, meaning that something about time would be the prevailing reason for worrying about such things.

Thus, we see that the diction Shakespeare had suggests an overarching theme of old age and gives a gloomy, dismal atmosphere/mood.


The syntax is obviously strange to modern readers. What about it is weird? Let's paraphrase the first four lines more into modern english, but keep the structure and meaning intact:

In me you see the moment when day turns into night
Just like after a sunset fades in the west,
Which night always snatches away,
Being just like a temporary form of death: sleep.

We should see that the speaker parallels his old age with the exact moment where day is almost night, and dreads a night in which he actually will die, because sleeping is really a way for you to temporarily lose consciousness.

In this form, we really feel the emphasis on the speaker's feelings, and not as much on what's happening around him. What's happening around him is ultimately being compared back to his feelings of dread.

We can paraphrase this again without retaining the syntax or line order, but still retaining the main point:

Just like how sunsets fade, night comes, and people sleep, I feel like I am on the brink of death.

This last paraphrase still conveys the same message, but in a clear, modern manner.

However, I believe the interesting undertones are lost; night time and sleep were more aggressive in the original wording (taking away the sunset, sealing up all in rest? That's intense action right there), but now, they are more passive.

Now, they are reduced to mere moments in time, and the connection with death is a bit less clear. The close of day is typically held as normal, right? So why is it being related to death? It doesn't make as much sense now, does it?

Night time and sleep, with the original syntax, felt more like threats to the speaker's old age, and puts focus on the speaker's fear of dying in his sleep.

Overall, you should see that the combination of specific diction and particular syntax emphasizes certain things over others, and can really change the way a piece of writing is perceived, and what in the writing feels like the central focus.