When you’re writing, you might not give much conscious thought to your word choice—but maybe you should. In linguistics, the fancy term for word choice is “diction,” and it can make a world of difference in your writing. If you read and write a lot, you likely have an innate sense of how diction affects the tone of a piece. However, paying closer attention to word choice can help you fine tune your writing, especially as you’re revising. An important aspect of diction to remember is, surprisingly, etymology—specifically, is the word Latinate or Anglo Saxon (Germanic) in origin?
A Brief History of the English Language
Before looking at how diction affects the quality of your writing, you should understand how the English language developed. English is famous for its seemingly illogical idiosyncrasies—there often seems to be no rhyme or reason behind English spelling and grammar rules.
You can find the explanation for these oddities in English’s unique history. Despite all those Spanish, French, or Latin cognates you learned in high school, English is a Germanic language. However, Old English has more in common with modern German than with modern English, thanks to the Norman invasion of England.
Norman (French) Influence
In 1066, at the Battle of Hastings, WIlliam the Conqueror secured a crucial victory over the Anglo Saxons. As a result, the Norman invaders became the new ruling class in England. With this shift in power, the Norman language, an early version of French, became the language of the upper classes. The lower classes, however, continued to speak their native Old English.
Over hundreds of years, the Norman French of the upper classes and the Old English of the lower classes merged to create Middle English. English suddenly had many words with French (and therefore also Latin) origins that shared similar meanings to words with Anglo Saxon origins. Here are some examples:
Later, during the Renaissance, the highly educated preferred Latin to English. As a result, many Latin words and grammar rules bled into English. Did your teachers tell you to never end a sentence with a preposition? Or to never split an infinitive? These “rules” are examples of Latin grammar rules being applied to English.
Impact on Modern English
How does all this linguistic history affect modern English? The educated and the upper class used French and Latin, so intellectuals and those in higher social classes were more likely to understand French and Latin borrowings. As a result, Latinate words took on more high-brow, abstract, intellectual meanings.
The lower classes had little education and low social standing and were more likely to use words with Anglo Saxon origins. Consequently, people associated English’s native Anglo Saxon vocabulary with more concrete, down-to-earth ideas. In many cases, Old English came to be seen as crude or socially inappropriate. For example, most words people consider curse words in modern English have Anglo Saxon origins.
How Does English’s History Affect Writing?
Modern English has borrowed extensively from many languages. Consequently, good, natural-sounding writing should use words with a variety of etymological origins. In fact, roughly 60% of modern English vocabulary comes from Latin or French, and only around 25% retains a Germanic origin. However, you can significantly change the tone and readability of a piece of writing simply by altering the ratio of Latinate words to Germanic words.
When to Use Latinate or Germanic Vocabulary
Writing that’s too heavy on Latinate vocabulary can be hard to follow, and it’s often described with adjectives like “stuffy” and “dense”—just think about the language typically used in law textbooks. On the other end of the spectrum, writing that sticks to mostly Germanic vocabulary sounds very basic and plain, and it can easily become choppy—think about children’s books like Fun With Dick and Jane.
It’s also important to keep your audience in mind. Do you write to an educated audience or about scientific topics? If so, use more Latin vocabulary. Your audience will expect it (and will judge your writing negatively without it). And most scientific vocabulary was, in fact, drawn exclusively from Latin, so there often aren’t Germanic equivalents for many scientific terms.
But if you write to a general audience, children, or less educated adults, your readers will benefit from Germanic words. Readers will find the simpler, more concrete meanings of Germanic words easier to understand, which will make your writing clearer and more relatable.
Consider the following sentence, which uses almost exclusively Latinate diction:
“The infant observed the immature canine consuming its repast.”
You’ll likely agree that this (admittedly extreme) example is more difficult to understand than the same sentence using words with Anglo Saxon origins:
“The baby watched the young dog eating its meal.”
If you’re ever in doubt, choosing Anglo Saxon words over Latinate words will usually help readers better understand your message. However, appropriately using Latinate words can help you subtly, or not-so-subtly, alter the connotation and tone of a piece. For instance, “eat” tends to have a more neutral definition, while “consume” generally implies that larger quantities of food are being eaten, or that the food is being eaten quickly. Appropriately adjusting your diction will allow you to paint a clearer picture for your audience.
How to Determine Word Origin
If you’re not sure how to identify the origins of a particular word, you can, of course, consult a dictionary. But there are also a few tricks you can use to guess the origins of a word on your own. Latinate words usually have multiple syllables, and their meanings tend to be more broad, abstract, or scientific. In contrast, words with Germanic origins are often monosyllabic, and their meanings are far more concrete, limited, and blunt. As an example, compare a word like “communicate,” which comes from the Latin communicatus, to the word “tell”, which comes from the Old English tellan. You’ll likely agree that the two can be synonymous, but not always, because “tell” has a far narrower, more direct definition than “communicate.”
You probably won’t think about all of this when you’re drafting your next piece—and that’s totally fine! But the next time you’re working on revising a piece, pay a little more attention to your word choice. Is there a section that is overly complex, vague, or difficult to follow? Try replacing some Latinate words with Germanic synonyms. Is a particular section too simplistic, or is the flow a bit choppy? Use a few more Latinate words.
Diction is just one of many small adjustments that turn good writing into great writing. Unfortunately, it often doesn’t get the attention that it deserves. As you write and revise, keep this information in mind—you may be surprised at the polishing effect it has on your final piece!