Learning that Diction Matters

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How does an engineer become good with words? One word at a time.

Long before I knew the word diction, I understood the impact words have on everyday conversation. A simple change of a word could clarify a request or a direction. Adding a few adjectives made the meaning more precise. An adverb communicated the manner of an action. I came by this early understanding by the means my which parents communicated with us. In addition, my father would on occasion pontificate on the clarity of instructions. Napoleon elevated a relatively stupid man to be a general on his staff, the sole reason being that if this man understood the military order Napoleon wrote, it was, indeed, crystal clear–and the couriers were sent forth.

My parents instilled in us during family car trips the need to be absolutely clear. In assisting the driver as a navigator we were instructed to respond “Correct” and never “Right” when confirming a direction. Right: a direction. Correct: a confirmation. Diction mattered. Miscommunication could cause a delay, perhaps panic, and, potentially, an accident.

Learning to crochet and knit in my teenage years from my mother, I came to appreciate the specific language of yarn-overs (YO,) knit two together (k2tog,) and chain 3. Encoded in a shorthand-like a secret code, the patterns directed the sequence of stitches in a row–measuring the length in rows or inches to reach the required dimensions. Maintaining cars with my father, I learned about the precision of technical writing from the owner’s and maintenance manual. Several adjectives before each noun almost drew a picture in your head. However, having that diagram right next to the text enabled you to hold it close to the brake system we worked on.

As an engineer I have written award-winning technical papers and instructions on test methodology for my peers. Clear and precise communication takes time, and people appreciate it. Word usage impacts the clarity of communication. Word usage also reflects and creates a culture. High school teachers made me aware of this in the 1970s, which followed the US civil rights and feminist movements. Learning that diction matters became my basis for becoming an amateur social linguist.

I fervently believe in the power of diction to change culture. Language reflects culture–so, to change the culture, start changing your language.

Have a Productive Day,

Anne Meixner

Dear Reader, please share your comments and stories that are sparked by this piece. Do you have a love affair with words? Did your parents instill in you love of a topic that has stayed with you through the years, even if it is not directly related to your course of study? See Contribute for how you can share a story at The Engineers’ Daughter.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Carly says:

    The biggest lesson I ever had on why every word matters was when I was working in a different language. I finally understood 3-phase power (even after I had an engineering degree) when someone explained it to me in basic Swahili. So many people had explained it to me in technical English, but it didn’t click until all the technicality was gone.

    I completely agree that changing the words you use changes the impact you have on the culture and people around you. We should all watch our words to be as clear as possible and to influence the direction we want society to go.

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