Diction and Practicing

Diction and Practicing

In the old world sense, the word diction is understood as the way of wording and phrasing a text through a certain arrangement of ideas or words. Diction basically has two modes – narrative and imitation of dramatic speech.

Diction and PracticingDiction is also understood as the way text in prose or poetry (verse) is recited with the proper delivery, intonation, and rhythm. Diction not only changes with the period, but also changes depending on whether it is realistic or artistic. Realistic diction will try to sound like an everyday exchange between persons whereas artistic diction uses rhythm and meter almost like a poetry recital. In the context of poetry, good diction will necessarily require a choice of words suited to poetry.

Diction of text whether in prose or poetry will use both sound and sense. Here, sound will mean spontaneous expression of emotion, for example like a cry. A cry can indicate joy, surprise, pain, grief, terror, or depression. The sound of diction lends the sense of rhetoric to what is being recited. The sound of the actor’s diction must always be able to convey the sense or meaning of the text.

Two Kinds of Diction

Diction, as we have said earlier is of two kinds – Realistic diction and Artistic diction. A difference can be made between two kinds of diction. Realistic diction does not use flowing melodic rhythms, instead it uses regular everyday mode of expression. This occurs when the actor seeks to play a character by showing the linguistic effect of the character’s emotions. This approach, typical of Bourgeois Tragedy (a form of tragedy developed in 18th century Europe that portrayed the man in the street as the central character) has come in for some criticism. It says the bourgeois actor is forever intervening and disrupting the flow of the language – bringing out a word, suspending an effect, and signifying that what he is saying now is important. This, according to the criticism can be understood as speaking a text and not acting it out.

Artistic diction changes in order to lend itself to rhythmic structure of the text that has to be spoken. Such diction does not hide its artistic roots. Everyday language and the prosodic scheme are kept at bay. The actor will base his acting according to the rhetorical framework instead of mimicking a realistic series of emotions through the rhythms of his speech. The actor will not mimic realistic emotions but will display the verbal construction of the text always contrasting “discursive and psychological.”

This type of diction isn’t easy to perform, as it has to be supported by the style of the performance as a whole – rejecting mimicry, theatricality, the defamiliarization of certain devices, and an artificial atmosphere.

The actor indicates his preference of the interpretation of the text by separating certain words or phrases. The actor also indicates the physical relationship he has established with his discourse and character. In this way, the actor discloses the structure of the sentence and his own (subjective) view of the spatial propositions of the text.

Diction and Interpretation

The actor’s diction is not just a technical mode of presentation that might or might not convince. It is more than that. The actor’s diction appears at the intersection of the text as it is presented physically and the text as it is understood intellectually. It gives character to one of the possible meanings of the text. Viewed from this prism, the actor is the final authoritative spokesperson of the dialogue and director, as he delivers the lines and embodies the character on stage.

As the final authoritative spokesperson of the text, the actor’s portrayal of the character may or may not coincide with the writer’s interpretation. Just as in the sentence, the act of enunciation is the final word over the utterance, diction is a hermeneutic act that imposes a certain volume, vocal flavor, corporality or modalization on the text that shape its meaning. Diction assigns a meaning for the listener and spectator. By giving the text a certain rhythm, a continuous or interrupted flow, by lending it the stresses and accidents of his body, the actor builds the fabula and takes the position on the events. This gestural and vocal enunciation gives the Mise-en-scène its dynamics and its tone.

In fiction, characters produce perfect sentences. They may also be shown to have poetic inclinations filled with Shakespeare-like similes and luminous golden metaphors that most people in real life aren’t clever enough to come up with on the spot or even at all. They never make mistakes when speaking or pronouncing except when having to do comedy or to show that the character is trying to suddenly come up with an explanation. Realistic dialogue too many times is free of mistakes and padding. It’s like the actors rehearsed their roles the night before, with each and every word closely examined and evaluated by a team of script writers.

An Acceptable Break from Reality

Real dialogue at times might not read well. Journalists are fully aware that interview subjects can be made to look silly by simply repeating their speech, word-for-word. The same is true for scriptwriting and acting. A detailed exploration of this is given here.

There are times when a character goes beyond fiction-speak, breaking out into a lengthy and spontaneous monologue which is delivered eloquently. Such lengthy monologues are especially at moments of charged emotion and plot intricacies. Such monologues can happen in real life too though they are rare.

Examples of literary work that are incompatible with natural speech would include Fairy Tales. There are exceptions to this style of work from works created through improvisation, either live or as part of the writing process. There will be those times when faltering or jumbled speech will be used intentionally against perfectly delivered lines to suggest that the character is tripping over words, attempting to be dishonest, or is just plain distracted.
Some writers use this style as they feel everyone in Real Life is borderline inarticulate, groping for words, faltering with “ums” and “ers” and never using words with more than two syllables.

Practicing Diction

If as an actor you are not getting the attention you deserve, it could be because you are unable to speak clearly. It should bother you because unclear speech can come in way of your acting potential. There is no need to feel dejected though as this can be corrected through practice. You can find out here how to pronounce words properly.

Helpful pointers:

  • Always start slowly and carefully
  • Ensure the beginning and end of each word is crisp and make a clear distinction between words pronounced
  • Repeat the phrase, getting faster and faster

By now, you know that good diction plays a very important role in acting. Every word you utter must be clear and the audience should have no problem in understanding what you have said, even though it is a stage whisper or an aside.

Why are diction exercises necessary?

• The dialogue may be terrific and you may look really good but if your audience can’t follow what you’re saying, the purpose of your role is lost. With diction exercises, you will be able to articulate better. After all, practice makes perfect
• Diction exercises are the actor’s equivalent of a warm-up. They prepare and train you to speak with ease

The benefits of diction:
• Strengthens and stretches the muscles involved in speech
• Draws your attention to those speech patterns which may be lacking in perfection
• Do not confuse good diction with changing your accent. Good diction has nothing to do with accent. The emphasis is entirely on clarity of speech

Tongue Twisters are the most commonly used Diction Exercises. There are many of these, each focusing on either a single letter, or a letter combination. Not only are these fun to do but also produce good results. In case you have not heard of them earlier, these have been listed here for your benefit.

Diction Exercises

In this lesson are listed many exercises to help you improve your diction. To begin with, play the following read aloud (tongue twisters) exercise at home to get your tongue around some difficult and tricky sentence constructions. Pay close attention to proper pronunciation and make sure every sound you utter is clearly heard.

Let’s begin with consonants:
• High roller, low roller, lower roller
• I need a box of biscuits, a box of mixed biscuits, and a biscuit mixer
• Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers A peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked If Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers, Where’s the peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked?
• He thrusts his fists against the posts and still insists he sees the ghosts
• Friday’s Five Fresh Fish Specials
• Imagine an imaginary menagerie manager imagining managing an imaginary menagerie
• The Leith police dismisseth us
• Twixt this and six thick thistle sticks
• Red leather, yellow leather
• She sells seashells by the seashore, and the shells she sells are seashells
• Three free thugs set three thugs free
• Charles deftly switched straight flange strips
• Gwen glowered and grimaced at Glen’s gleaming greens
• The sixth Sick Sheikh’s sixth sheep’s sick

Now, let’s try vowels:
• Fancy! That fascinating character Harry McCann married Anne Hammond
• Lot lost his hot chocolate at the loft.
• Snoring Norris was marring the Aria

General exercises:
• Eleven benevolent elephants
• Girl gargoyle, guy gargoyle
• She stood on the balcony inexplicably mimicking him Hiccupping and amicably welcoming him in
• Six sick slick slim sycamore saplings


Practice these tongue twisters and you will notice they become even more challenging the more you say them. If you think this is not happening, just keep repeating it until it does!
• You know you need unique New York
• Toy boat
• Lemon liniment
• Three free throws
• Blue black bugs blood
• Red lorry, yellow lorry
• Giggle gaggle gurgle

Getting your sibilant sounds (words with the letter in them) correct is also necessary for good diction. The next exercise will help you pronounce words with these sound better

Diction Exercises for ‘S’ words:

• Six thick thistle sticks
• Theophilus Thistler, the thistle sifter, in sifting a sieve of unsifted thistles, thrust three thousand thistles through the thick of his thumb
• The shrewd shrew sold Sarah seven sliver fish slices
• Moses supposes his toses are roses, But Moses supposes erroneously, For nobody’s tosses are posies of roses As Moses supposes his toses to be
• Sister Susie sat on the sea shore sewing shirts for sailors

(Pronounce ‘toses’ to rhyme with ‘Moses’)

Diction Exercises for ‘B’ words:

• Betty bought a bit of butter
• But she found the butter bitter
• So Betty bought a bit of better butter to make the bitter butter better

Try this exercise too:
• Bill had a billboard
• Bill also had a board bill
• The board bill bored Bill
• So Bill sold his billboard And paid his board bill.
• Then the board bill
• No longer bored Bill
• But though he had no board bill
• Neither did he have his billboard!

• Did Doug dig Dick’s garden or did Dick dig Doug’s garden?
• Do drop in at the Dewdrop Inn

• Four furious friends fought for the phone
• Five flippant Frenchmen fly from France for fashions

• How was Harry hastened so hurriedly from the hunt?

• James just jostled Jean gently
• Jack the jailbird jacked a jeep

• Kiss her quick, kiss her quicker, kiss her quickest
• My cutlery cuts keenly and cleanly

• Literally literary
• Larry sent the latter a letter later
• Lucy lingered, looking longingly for her lost lap-dog

• You know New York
• You need New York
• You know you need unique New York

• Pearls, please, pretty Penelope
• Pretty Penelope, pretty Penelope
• Pearls, please, pretty Penelope
• Pretty Penelope Pring

• Quick kiss. Quicker kiss. Quickest kiss
• Quickly, quickly, quickly, quickly, quickly…

• Round the rugged rocks the ragged rascal ran
• Reading and writing are richly rewarding

• Ten tame tadpoles tucked tightly in a thin tall tin
• Two toads, totally tired, trying to trot to Tewkesbury

• Vincent vowed vengeance very vehemently
• Vera valued the valley violets

And lastly, this exercise is especially for your tongue
Red leather, yellow leather… Red lorry, yellow lorry…

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