Research on Word Choice is Far from Pointless

The New York Times published an article detailing analysis on Jane Austin’s word choice in her novels. It looked at specific words used and how and when she chose to use them. The article’s authors also compared word choice of British narrative fiction published between 1710 and 1920 to illustrate how Austin’s use of language allows her novels to transcend time and remain popular long after their original publishing.

This is the type of analysis that really lights a fire within me.

The comments on the article really irked me. But that’s really my problem. Most people who didn’t understand the point of the research aren’t English majors or care about literary analysis.

I wrote a comment in response to someone else who said, “this is pointless.” My response was poorly written as I was intoxicated at the time I wrote it. Ha! But I want to reiterate my response here in more detail.

Why does linguistic literary analysis matter? More specifically, why is analyzing word choice (or diction) important?

Humans intuitively know when something is well written or when someone speaks well. A person’s choice of words is indicative of how well educated they are, and his/her ability to relay information in a clear and cohesive way comes down to the meticulous choosing of appropriate words.

A timely example of this happened as I was reading the article. My husband had Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back on the TV. I turned around at a moment when Silent Bob, who usually is ‘mute’ in most circumstances, decides to speak up.

Banky: You know what? I feel for you boys, I really do. But Miramax – you know, Miramax Films – paid me a shitload of money for “Bluntman and Chronic.” So it occurs to me that people badmouthing you on some website is NONE OF MY FUCKING CONCERN!

Silent Bob: Oh, but I think it is. We had a deal with you on the comics, remember? For likeness rights? And as we’re not only the artistic basis, but also obviously the character basis for your intellectual property, “Bluntman and Chronic,” when said property was optioned by Miramax Films, you were legally obliged to secure our permission to transfer the concept to another medium. As you failed to do that, Banky, you are in breach of the original contract. Ergo, you find yourself in a VERY actionable position.

[Banky stares at Silent Bob in disbelief]


People know instinctively that Silent Bob just said a lot of fancy and smart words, or high level of diction. So why the disbelief?

Silent Bob’s constant companion is Jay, whose language is often crude and vulgar. Because Bob is friends with someone whose word choice typically involves frequent use of four letter words, the viewer may think that Bob would speak similarly. But the writer – Kevin Smith (who also plays Silent Bob) – made the conscientious decision to have Bob speak with higher diction. He uses words and phrases like “artistic basis”, “intellectual property”, “optioned by”, “legally obliged”, “transfer the concept to another medium”, “breach”, “ergo”, and “actionable”. There are many words he could have chose instead of these, but it would change the overall tone that Smith was going for.

Banky is in disbelief at what he just heard. Surely the audience feels the same way, and perhaps those viewers who are more in tune with Jay’s diction may feel a little lost at what Silent Bob is trying to convey. This is done with purpose. Many of these words and phrases rarely come up in casual conversation, but they are appropriately used in this situation between two men who have business dealings with each other.

Kevin Smith used diction – or word choice – as a rhetorical device to create a dimension to Silent Bob that is contrary to Jay and even Bob’s silent use of body language. Smith most likely originally wrote that piece of dialog more simply, then he went back and chose elevated diction to create a sense of irony.

This is what makes good writing.

Writing is a skill that takes a lot of thought and revision. Speaking well requires the same amount of conscious effort and practice. So when we come upon works that we know is well written upon first reading, what most people don’t think about is how it came to be well written in the first place: putting an enormous amount of thought into what words to use and how to use them.

First you have to know what the words mean, which is known as semantics. Then you have to know how to use that word in a sentence – known as syntax. From there, you can go even further with your writing by looking at pragmatics, “the study of what words mean in particular situations” (Merriam-Webster definition). You know to change the type of words you use depending on your purpose and audience; you wouldn’t speak to your boss the way you would speak with a close friend. The words you use in a cover letter when applying for a job would perhaps sounds stuffy if you used those same words when writing to a friend.

All these considerations is called rhetoric.

These are all skills you picked up subconsciously as you learned your native language starting as a baby. You know how to do change your diction depending on who you speak/write to without much thought and effort. However, if you take the time to really think about what words you use and the context you use them, you can play with different ways of saying the same thing to give a sense of emotion, to create foreshadowing, to exaggerate in a way that creates subtle irony, or to create a certain tone. There are so many different ways a piece of writing or speech can change meaning or emotion just based on the words that are used.

The NYTimes article was looking at Austin’s use of intensifiers from a pragmatic point of view. She consciously chose those types of words to use in specific situations to create irony and foreshadowing. A reader who is not consciously aware of what they are reading will still appreciate the diction on a surface level. But when you really get down to the individual words and where they’re placed and how they’re used, it allows you to see how a masterpiece is created. Having her novels charted against other published works at the time just based purely on choice of words, people can see that her choices were deliberate and not by happenstance. While intensifiers appear in other novels by other authors, it was HOW she used the words that gives her novels the vitality that other novels do not have.

When writers and speakers take the time to carefully consider each word they use, the result will automatically be appreciated by the reader or listener. Great writing and great speeches come from a lot of hard work: a lot of time and effort and thinking and revising and stepping back and rewriting and scrapping chunks that just don’t add anything meaningful to the piece as a whole… and and and…

So no, the research was not pointless. Quite the opposite. It’s just another way of looking at literature from the point of view of using new technology to identify what makes writing great.


TL;DR Why does this matter? Because knowing how words work and how they can be used will make you a better writer and/or speaker. Or as my husband likes to say to his students, “You can use diction to manipulate your audience.”