One of the worst problems plaguing high school writers is their misunderstanding that when writing a formal essay they must use formal diction. It is probably one of the largest hurdles any writing teacher will have to vault their students over, and most times it feels like they are weighed down with years of being allowed to write in this manner.
There are, of course, six different levels of diction:
- Formal – Used in professional writing, edited for grammatical exactness, making use of concrete description: “I am not sanguine about the decision of the Woodlake Union High School Board.”
- Informal – Used in personal narratives, but still edited for grammar, making use of more informal vocabulary: “I am not optimistic about the school board’s decision.”
- Conversational – Used in everyday speech in a formal setting, such as places of employment. “I’m not comfortable about the board’s decision.”
- Colloquial – Used in everyday speech, and it is unfortunately what many of my students think is proper English communication: “I’m not cool with what the brass decided.”
- Slang – Used in very informal circumstances, usually by people of the same cultural niche. “I’m ticked off at what the suits did.”
- Vulgar – Use of profanity as adjectives, adverbs and sometimes as nouns. “I’m *&#($.”
So how do we break students from this error of diction? I struggled for years with students, not allowing them to use second person, giving them zeroes on essays where they used #4, #5 or even #6, forcing them to rewrite their essays for better grades, until one day I hit upon an idea.
Respond in the margins of their paper literally to their colloquial and slang-ridden diction.
A student writes: “I really hate it when somebody talks bad about me behind my back.”
I comment: “By talking bad, do you mean they have a speech impediment? Also, I really hate it when people talk behind me because I can’t hear them.”
Student reaction is always the same. They laugh, and then they have a moment of clarity where they see their error in writing such things, and then they really try to change the level of their diction.
This is also coupled with giving them a paragraph written in colloquial or slang-y diction and having them re-write it. For example, give them a paragraph written this way, a conversation between two teenagers, and have them rewrite the conversation, not allowing them to change any of the points made in the conversation, but as if two 50 year old college professors were speaking.
In most cases, the problem becomes manageable.