Diction is the choice and the order of the words within a poem. Words can often serve multiple purposes, given their presence and arrangement. As a result, the poem as a whole can often be read on many different levels. When discussing diction, the reader should consider the different meanings that the words may have and how their arrangement in the poem contributes to or alters those meanings.
A poem’s diction is made up of two elements: the vocabulary that the poem uses and the syntax of those words. Start by analyzing the poem’s vocabulary. In particular, consider whether or not the words are simple or complex. For example, a word like love has many definitions, and these definitions depend largely on how the word is used. If the word refers to a relationship between two people, its meaning might be simple. However, if the word has multiple meanings then it may be more complex.
After analyzing the key vocabulary of a poem, the reader should turn to the syntax. Syntax is the way a poet arranges the words within a poem. Consider whether the poem has ordinary or unusual syntax. Ordinary syntax is an arrangement of words that follows the way people usually speak or write, while unusual syntax is an arrangement of words that deviates from the way that people usually speak and write. For example, the following sentence has ordinary syntax: “She took an apple from under the tree.” The same sentence can also be rearranged, creating unusual syntax. Examples of unusual syntax using the same basic sentence could be “From under the tree she took an apple” or “She, from under the tree, took an apple.”
How Vocabulary and Syntax Interact
The way that the vocabulary and syntax come together and interact with one another plays a large role in conveying the speaker's attitude or the tone of the poem. The tone of the poem, in turn, evokes certain feelings in the reader, creating the poem's mood and often contributing to its theme. In discussing the poem’s diction, the reader should examine the effect that the vocabulary has on the syntax and the effect of the syntax on the vocabulary. The writer of the poem chooses specific words and arranges them in a particular manner in order to create a specific effect. The effect might be to create a metaphor, establish a particular mood or contribute the to the poem’s theme. Therefore, understanding the syntax and vocabulary of a poem can have an enormous impact on a reader's understanding of the poem.
In the poem “Because I could not stop for Death,” Emily Dickinson uses simple vocabulary and a combination of usual and unusual syntax. For example, she uses the standard dictionary definitions of words like “kindly” and “stopped” instead of more complex terms. The effect of this vocabulary is that the poem has a colloquial, or casual and everyday, diction rather than formal diction, giving it an approachable and comforting tone. This tone, in turn, contributes to the effective personification of Death, one that makes him seem like an average person.