Diction Lesson

Directions: Analyze the italicized word choices. Look up the terms in the online Oxford English Dictionary to determine unknown meanings and to analyze their effects.

1. The Center for Academic Integrity in Nashville studied 7,000 students [and] found that nearly 80 percent admitted to cheating at least once. “We’ve seen a dramatic increase in the more-explicit forms of cheating” and illegitimate “collaborating,” says Donald McCabe, associate provost at Rutgers University in Newark . . . He and others blame poor role models and lack of parental guidance for the growing acceptance of cheating . . . Add to that a pervasive change in societal values, and students can easily be snared if they lack a strong moral compass.

--Mark Clayton “A Whole Lot of Cheatin’ Going On” 1999

2. Further in Summer than the Birds
Pathetic from the Grass
A minor Nation celebrates
Its unobtrusive Mass.

No Ordinance be seen
So gradual the Grace
A pensive Custom it becomes
Enlarging Loneliness.

No Furrow on the Glow
Yet a Druidic Difference
Enhances Nature now

--Emily Dickinson’s Poem 1068

3. Not so long ago, I could freak people out by talking about cyberculture. It was fun. They'd laugh nervously when I'd say they'd be using email someday. They'd call me "cyberboy" and mean it as an insult. I felt like a renegade.

However frustrating it was to be an Internet evangelist in the late 1980's, it beat what I'm feeling now having won the battle. A journey into cyberspace is about as paradigm-threatening as an afternoon at the mall. The Internet is better, bigger, faster, and brighter, but the buzz is gone.

--Douglass Rushkoff “They Called Me Cyberboy” 1996

Choice or style of words in speech or writing


The selections above each contain words that contribute deeply to the overall meaning of the text. They also present words whose meaning students understand to some degree, and as a result, may not feel inclined to look up. In these circumstances, though, students often miss key dimensions of the word, and so modeling the process of looking something up can help them analyze better.


In “A Whole Lot of Cheatin’ Going On,” Mark Clayton draws on logos by presenting the results of a study and by citing an expert to interpret that data, to explain the rise in cheating in colleges. His source Donald McCabe helps suggests that “students can easily be snared” by cheating because of poor role models and societal changes.

Students understand that to be snared is to be caught in a trap, but who or what is usually caught when we use the word?

  • Snare means "To capture (small wild animals, birds, etc.) in a snare; to catch by entangling."

The OED explains, if students’ experience fails to remind them, that it is a term used to describe animals. McCabe in this way removes agency from the student—animals act based on instinct and survival—and further amplifies the point that it is society and parents who are to blame.


The Emily Dickinson poem, included because of the dictionary project documented in Cynthia L. Hallon’s “Student Lexicographers and the Emily Dickinson Lexicon,” presents a difficult passage that cannot be unlocked until students understand new meanings of familiar words.

The opening stanza contains several key words to which I draw their attention: “Further in Summer than the Birds / Pathetic from the Grass / A minor Nation celebrates / Its unobtrusive Mass.” I encourage them to examine all possible definitions for the terms in the OED and to consider the overlaps between words.

Specifically, what is the overlap in denotations between pathetic & minor crucial to understanding the poem? What is the overlap between minor and mass, which adds another layer of meaning? After a short OED scavenger hunt, many students eventually identify the musical associations of pathetic and minor as well as the religious dimensions of minor and mass.

  • Pathetic in definition 1b means “Designating or relating to art, music, etc., which is expressive of failure, inadequacy, or alienation”
  • Minor in definition 6 relates to music: “as minor tone”
  • Minor in definition 1a refers to a “Friar Minor, a Franciscan friar.”
  • Mass in definition 1 means “The liturgical celebration of the Eucharist”

They then struggle towards meaning: something musical comes from the grass, and Dickinson mentions animals—maybe it’s a bug? Could it be a cricket? Next, they see the religious metaphor Dickinson uses for the song, one that coincides with the “grace,” “spectral Canticle,” and “Druidic difference” in the poem—that’s a traditional way of seeing nature.


In the final example from Douglass Rushkoff’s “They Called Me Cyberboy,” students often take renegade to be synonymous with rebel. This is true, but it also often presents a very specific form of rebellion--religious.

    • Renegade means "A person who renounces his or her faith; an apostate; (in early use) spec. a Christian who converts to Islam"
    Once students know this meaning, they can more easily analyze why Rushkoff chose this word—he wants to suggest just how rebellious and innovative he was as an early proponent of the internet. He was rebelling against the normal order and ideology that had the power to make people believe just like blind faith. The internet was as life changing as a new religious belief system.

    The point of the exercise is to get students to look up words, even when, maybe even especially when, they already think they know the definition. They easily miss underlying meanings associated with perhaps religion, sex, and war if they don’t carefully examine diction.

    Whether students are considering diction in a literary text or a nonliterary one, they are applying close reading skills to understand how authors/speakers create meaning and persuasion—persuasion is as basic as getting others to see some aspect of the world in the way you do. Ultimately, students should realize that words have multiple meanings, and later lessons, potentially from these readings, can demonstrate how even dictionary definitions do not convey the full effects of diction.

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