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Opinions of Thursday, 25 June 2015

Columnist: Azindoo, Abubakar Mohammed Marzuq

Literary discourse: Diction [part two]

By Abubakar Mohammed Marzuq Azindoo, Coordinator of Students and University Relations, University of Applied Management (UAM), Germany – Ghana Campus, McCarthy Hill, Accra and Tamale
Email: Tell: 0244755402


In a previous discourse, we started DICTION and its relevance to academic writing and other literary genres. Today, we continue the discourse from DENOTATIONS AND CONNOTATIONS. Before we proceed, we recap the learning outcomes:

Learning Outcomes

After working through this discourse, students and readers are expected to:

• Understand DICTION and its relevance to academic writing
• Comprehend DENOTATIONS and proper usage
• Identify CONNOTATIONS and correct usage
• Appreciate CATCH PHRASES and their application in the right contexts

Denotations and Connotations

The relationship between words and meanings is extremely complicated, and belongs to the field of semantics. As academic writers, we need to know that every word has the literal meaning and the implied meaning. Traditionally, grammarians have named these two meanings of words DENOTATION, a literal meaning and CONNOTATION, an implied meaning. This is an association (emotional or otherwise) which the word evokes.

For example, both “famous” and “notorious” have the denotation “well known”, but “famous” is used in positive contexts, while “notorious” has negative connotations. For another example, consider the following:

• Negative
The armed robber was LYNCHED by an irate mob at Yapalsi.
• Neutral
The armed robber was KILLED by police in self-defence at Yapalsi.
• Positive
The armed robber was fairly tried and EXECUTED at Yapalsi.

All the verbs (in uppercase) used in the above sentences carry the same literal meaning: putting to death. However, they evoke different feelings (connotations) to the reader. “LYNCHED” could stir feelings of sympathy with the victim and abhorrence of instant justice – a criminal conduct in civilized societies. “KILLING” in self-defence by the police could largely induce public empathy with them, and the death of the armed robber, in that context, might be seen by many as normal, since he might have attempted to kill the police. That the armed robber was fairly tried by a court of competent jurisdiction, found guilty, sentenced to death, and finally “EXECUTED” is enough to justify his death. He might have killed several people in his dastardly trade before his trial and execution. In that sense, many people, especially advocates of the rule of law, might see the death of the armed robber as a positive move and victory for the administration of justice.

It is pertinent to state that one word could be subjected to different connotations by different individuals in different contexts, depending on different levels of analysis. For instance, denotatively, “sleep” is normally observed in a calm manner. But connotatively, “sleep” could be very “aggressive”, especially when it involves two persons of different genders and aims at pleasure. Hahahahaaaa! Furthermore, the same “sleep” could be a source of sorrow when the destination of the person or persons involved is the cemetery. Hmmmmmmmmm! See examples below:

• Neutrality
Kofi enjoyed a sound SLEEP last night.
• Pleasure
Pagnaa often entertains her friends with stories about how she SLEEPS with her husband.
• Sorrow
It is inhuman to disturb the SLEEP of the departed at Zujung Cemetery in Tamale.

Catch Phrases

A catch phrase is an expression or idea overly used by the public perhaps for its phonetic beauty and semantic effect. It is often seen as a wise saying that originates from popular culture and from the arts. Catch phrases are spread through the various media of mass communication – TV, radio, film, newspapers, and magazines. Interpersonal communication also plays a role in spreading catch phrases in many societies.

A cliché is also an expression, idea, or element of a literary work which has been overused to the extent of losing its original meaning and impact. Sometimes, the excessive application of clichés
becomes pedestrian and irritating (Blake and Bly, 1993). Some scholars use clichés and catch phrases interchangeably, while others attempt to establish what they see as differences between the two stale expressions. But generally writers of non-fiction are advised to avoid clichés and catch phrases, which play little or no role in literary works of verifiable evidence.

There is no standard formula used to determine what constitutes a cliché or a catch phrase, but extensive reading is a sure way of enhancing one’s level of judgment and detection of clichés or catch phrases. Here is a piece of advice: it is always better to rewrite, in one’s own words, any clever phrase one thinks another person had used before. But in terms of quotation, one is at liberty to maintain the same clever phrase and acknowledge the source properly.

Special Considerations for Catch Phrases

While clichés and catch phrases have no place in academic essays, they could be indispensable in works that use pre-existing formulas. These works include kinds of scientific papers, legal briefs, maintenance logs, police reports, and intelligence data. Ideally, they are meant not to persuade or entertain readers, but to convey technical information in standard, conventionally defined formats. Here clichés and catch phrases become justifiable.

Dear reader, this discourse remains incomplete if we do not bring the observation of Glaser (1999), which summarises the relevance of diction:
Your diction, the exact words you choose and the settings in which you use them, means a great deal to the success of your writing. While your language should be appropriate to the situation, that generally still leaves plenty of room for variety. Skilful writers mix general and particular, abstract and concrete, long and short, learned and commonplace, connotative and neutral words to administer a series of small but telling surprises. Readers stay interested because they don't know exactly what's coming next.


Barba, F. (2012). Catchy phrases: over 2000 catchy slogans ideas, powerful copy connectors, catchy phrases for business tag lines, magnetic blog triggers, ... retrieved April 16, 2015 from: http/

Blake, G., & Bly, R. W. (1993). The elements of technical writing. New York: Macmillan Publishers.

Brown, I. (2011). The importance of diction in public speaking. Retrieved: May 23, 2015 from:

Glaser, J. (1999). Understanding style: practical ways to improve your writing. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Parkinson, J. (2003). Catchphrase, slogan and cliché: the origins and meanings of our favourite expressions. London: Michael O'Mara.

Sakyi-Baidoo, Y. (2003). Learning and communicating. (2nd ed.). Accra: Infinity Graphics.

Sekyi-Baidoo, Y. (2002). Semantics: an introduction. Kumasi: Will Press Ltd.