A photograph of a house with a rough wood exterior.

Source: Dobřeň, Střezivojice, wood house, Pavel Hrdlička, Wikimedia

To get the true meaning of a writer’s intent, you need to look carefully at the words, or diction. When writers write, they carefully choose words that will help their readers “see” topics. As you are reading, notice the individual word choices made by the writer. Look at an example from Jennifer New’s essay “Thanksgiving: A personal history.” Pay attention to the red-letter words and see if you can figure out how the writer feels about her grandparents’ home.

Waiting at the end of the lane was not the house from the song, that home to which the sleigh knew the way. A few years earlier my grandparents had built a new house, all rough-hewn, untreated wood and exposed beams, in lieu of the white clapboard farmhouse where they had raised their children. I vaguely understood that this piece of contemporary architecture, circa 1974, was a twist on that traditional tune, but to me it was better: a magical, soaring place full of open spaces, surprises and light.

Upon entering the house, I’d stand and look up. Floating above were windows that seemed impossibly high, their curtains controlled by an electric switch. On another wall was an Oriental rug so vast it seemed to have come from a palace. Hidden doors, a glass fireplace that warmed rooms on both sides and faucets spouting water in high arcs fascinated me during each visit. In the basement, I’d roam through a virtual labyrinth of rooms filled with the possessions of relatives now gone. Butter urns, antique dolls and photo albums of stern-faced people competed fantastically with the intercoms and other gadgetry of the house.

Now, see if you can sort each word from the excerpt into one of two categories: words that refer to the house and words that refer to the writer’s attitude. Drag and drop each word into its proper column.

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A photograph of a decorated and lit Christmas tree in a living room

Source: Baum mond 2007, Ra Boe, Wikimedia

The words (the writer’s diction) combine to help create the writer’s attitude or tone. She feels a sense of awe and wonder when she enters her grandparents’ house. It’s a place that has many gadgets and many surprises. It is a place that fascinates her and is so large that she uses words like “vast” and “palace.” She describes the rooms as a “labyrinth,” which is an intricate combination of passages. This description indicates the large size of the house and how the rooms fit together almost like a puzzle. She also describes the contents of the rooms with a sense of wonder. The writer’s word choices, or diction, indicate her tone of fascination and awe to the reader.

Now, it’s your turn. Read the following excerpt of an essay by Garrison Keillor, who is best known for his radio show, A Prairie Home Companion. In this essay, Keillor is reminiscing about a Christmas from his youth. As you read, click on the words and phrases that help convey Keillor’s tone. You should find at least 10 words or phrases. If you choose correctly, the words will highlight.

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How did you do? Even if you missed a few words that indicate Keillor’s tone, you probably still get a general idea of how he felt about this Christmas.

Now, using the chart below, drag and drop the words from the middle column into the left or right column, depending on whether they describe Aunt Marie or the particular Christmas.

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1. Garrison Keillor’s use of diction when he talks about Aunt Marie is one of—

a. despair.
Try again.
b. happiness.
Try again.
c. irritation.
Correct! Keillor uses details, such as Aunt Marie’s “choked” voice and how she would “corner” people, to show his irritation.

2. Garrison Keillor’s use of diction in this excerpt indicates his attitude in general about this particular Christmas. His attitude is one of—

a. anger.
Try again.
b. disgust.
Correct! Even though Keillor describes the scene with the words “listless,” “depressed,” “whimpering,” and “misery,” he shows how disgusted he is by slamming the door on the childrens’s “heart-wrenching sobs.”
c. happiness.
Try again.

Understanding the writer’s tone when you are reading is important because if you misunderstand the tone, you may misinterpret the entire selection. For example, most of us associate holiday memories with happiness and nostalgia, but Keillor does just the opposite in this essay. Even though he writes in a humorous manner by exaggerating how miserable everyone is, he still indicates the negative overtones of this particular Christmas through diction.