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The Big Three of Literary

Analysis
Diction, Syntax and
Imagery
By Carol A. Tebbs, MA

INTRODUCTION

Students must learn some basic


analysis vocabulary and how to
apply it to what they read, so they may
generate meaningful commentary.

The Big Three of analysis:


diction, syntax and imagery.

Rhetorical terms (vocabulary) is


necessary to accurately convey style
(The Big Three).
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DICTION

Diction Defines Style / Character:

Diction is an authors choice of words


modified by his own unique style also
called the authors voice.

Like a good closet of clothes, a skillful


author selects the appropriate verbal
wardrobe:

to fit the occasion or situation


to reach his audience
to achieve his purpose.

DICTION

Some writers, like John Steinbeck in The


Grapes of Wrath and Cannery Row, use a
very wide range of diction to make their
characters distinctive.

For instance, the used car salesman speaks in


repeated clichs and slang such as, Its a
real bargain, or The deals a steal;

Some characters speak in more formal


language when they are repeating the edict
from the bank, You must vacate the
premises immediately.

Other characters speak in colloquial


language showing their lack of proper
education. Shucks, pa, Aint no use
fightin em. Many authors use various
sorts of diction to distinguish their characters4
one from the other.

DICTION
Type of
Diction

Audience

Purpose

Example

Sophisticated Highly
educated or
refined

To impress The meal was


exquisite

Formal

Strangers,
notables;
professional

To show
good
manners

My stomach is
full

Informal

Friends and
Colleagues

To share
feelings

My belly is
stuffed with food

Colloquial

Family and
close friends

To share
feelings
without
pretense

That there finger


lickin grub
stuffed my gut.

Slang

Close friends

To be cool
and in

That belly5
buster filled me
up.

DICTION

Denotation and Connotation are


Cultural Nuances of Diction:

In analysis, the dictionary definition of the word


birthday is simply the day one is born, or the
annual celebration of the date of birth. We call
the dictionary definition, denotation.

Authors, and especially poets, use loaded


words we call connotation that are packed
with extra meaning from their cultural
experience.

For instance, what American 16 year-old


doesnt know that birthday means drivers
license, and if he is lucky, maybe even a car.

But those definitions are NOT to be found in


the denotation of the word, birthday.

DICTION

People of any culture know additional


meanings or connotations that are
implied or come with many words.

In American culture, the word, birthday


has other connotations, such as: cake,
ice-cream, party, friends, and presents,
but they may not be universal in other
cultures that have their own
associations for birthday.

When analyzing poetry or prose


passages, you will notice many loaded
words where the author is counting on
your cultural understanding of
connotation to fill in the details from
your own experience.
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DICTION
Word

Denotation (dictionary
definition)

Connotation (cultural
definition)

Birthday The date of ones birth, or Party, presents, friends,


the annual celebration of
the event of ones birth

cake, candles, ice-cream,


relatives

Wedding

The ceremony where


vows of marriage are
exchanged between two
people

Friends, presents,
reception, bachelor party,
showers, tuxedo, wedding
dress, photos, cake,
relatives

War

Armed combat between


adversaries on a large
scale

Guns, bullets, killing,


blood, tears, fear, hatred,
loneliness, tanks, mortars,
violence,
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bombs, devastation

SYNTAX

Syntax Defines Style Through


Variety of Sentence Structure:

Syntax refers to sentence structure


and the variation of phrases and
clauses within, which the author
manipulates:
to fit the occasion or situation
to reach his audience
to achieve his purpose.

SYNTAX

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SYNTAX

A Sentence is a Clause:

All clauses have a subject (S), a verb


(V), and sometimes a direct object (DO)
and an indirect object (IO).

A sentence with only one subject (S) +


verb (V) combination is called a simple
sentence. Adding phrases to a simple
sentence can make it very long, but it is
still simple.

Sometimes a sentence has two or more


clauses (S+V) + (S+V), joined by a
coordinating conjunction such as: and,
but, or, and the result is a compound
sentence.
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SYNTAX

Sometimes, long sentences are


complex, with two or more subjectverb-object combinations (S+V) + (S+V)
joined by a subordinating conjunction
such as: however, although, which, that,
nonetheless, and many of the personal
pronouns that can sometimes be used
as subordinating conjunctions.

So the terms, simple, compound and


complex refer to the type of sentence
structure used by the author.
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SYNTAX

Another way to distinguish sentences is


by their function: declarative,
interrogatory, exclamatory or imperative.
Their end punctuation provides the biggest
clue to the sentence type.

The declarative sentence makes a


statement and ends with a period (.). The
interrogative sentence ends with a question
mark (?), and the exclamatory sentence
ends with and exclamation point (!).

The imperative sentence ends with a period


(.), but it is distinguished because it starts
with a verb and the subject is understood.
The imperative is easiest to remember by
associating it with authority figures giving 13
orders: Clean up, Be quiet, Sit down.

SYNTAX

Beginning students, without sophisticated


vocabulary, can spot long sentences or short
sentences. To notice and comment on such
simple observations is helpful in discussing the
authors style.
Upper level students, should expand their
vocabulary to properly name the long and
short sentences and also noting the
placement of the main clause or subject and
verb (S+V) of important sentences.
The subject and verb (S+V) at the beginning
of the sentence is called a loose or
cumulative sentence.
If the sentence starts with subordinate clauses
and a chain of descriptive phrases with the
main subject-verb (S+V) combination at the
end, it is called a periodic sentence.
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SYNTAX

Periodic sentences are usually very long.


Example: Periodic sentence:
Down the hill near the old swimming hole
by the railroad tracks, not far from the
schoolhouse and near the old watermill,
the children (S) raced (V) to the barn.
The more common Cumulative
sentences vary in length and tend to be
shorter.
Example: Cumulative sentence:
The children (S) raced (V) to the barn by
way of the old schoolhouse next to the
swimming hole down by the railroad tracks
and near the old watermill.
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SYNTAX

Phrases do NOT have a Subject and a Verb:


Phrases are important to enrich the detail of the
sentence. Their function is to describe or modify
either the subject or the verb, or to replace a
noun.
Prepositional phrases add description and
work like adjectives modifying nouns or adverbs
modifying verbs. For instance, the prepositional
phrase can be used as an adjective as in, The
road (to school) ended. or as an adverb, The
road ended (beyond the bridge).
Appositive phrases are set off by commas
and simply restate the noun such as: Bob, my
friend, lives next door.
The Verbal phrases are actually verb words
with the en ing or ed ending working as
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nouns, adjectives or adverbs. They are:
participles, gerunds and infinitives.

SYNTAX

Participles do the work of adjectives (to modify


nouns or pronouns) or adverbs (to modify
verbs). For example the participle phrase can be
used as an adjective as in, The speeding car
crashed., or as an adverb in, The car crashed
speedily.

Gerunds are verb forms that replace nouns or


pronouns as in, Running is my best sport.

Infinitives always start with the word, to and


end with a verb, as in to work. They replace
nouns or pronouns as either the subject or
object of a sentence; as adverbs that modify
verbs, or as adjectives that modify nouns.
Infinitives are easy to spot because to followed
by a noun in the prepositional phase (to +
noun) is very different than the to followed by
a verb of the infinitive phrase (to + verb). 17

SYNTAX

Students wont often need to identify


or distinguish between verbal
phrases, but it is helpful to
understand the clear distinction
between phrases and clauses and
the different jobs they perform in the
sentence.

The major syntax features of any


literary work distinguishes the
authors style, much like a finger
print identifies a person.

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Syntax
Sentences =
Clauses:

Subject +

Verb +

Direct Object Indirect


+
Object

Must have,
unless sentence
is a command

Must have

Optional

Must first have a


direct object

Sentence Types

Simple =
One S+V

Compound =
Two equal S+Vs
joined by and,
but or yet

Complex = One
main S+V and
one or more
subordinate S+V

Compound/
Complex = Two
equal S+Vs, +
one or more
subordinate SV

Sentence
Patterns

Declarative =
makes a
statement

Interrogative =
asks a question

Exclamatory =
makes a strong
or sudden
statement

Imperative = a
command with
a verb and you
understood

Sentence Length

Periodic less
common with
S+V last

Cumulative
more common
with S+V first

Phrases:

No Subject

No Verb

Phrase Types

Prepositions
work as
adjectives or
adverbs

Appositives
work as a repeat
or clarification of
a noun

Verbals verb
words that work
as nouns, adjects
or adverbs

Types of Verbal
Phrases

Participles
verb words
ending in en,
ed or ing that
work as adverbs
or adjectives

Infinitives verb
words with to in
front that work as
nouns adjectives
or adverbs

Gerunds verb
words ending in
ed or ing that
work as nouns

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SYNTAX

Syntax also includes the authors


variations of sentence components as an
element of style used to emphasize his
message.

Some common variations of emphasis


are:
word order (inversion)
juxtaposition of opposites (oxymoron)
repetition of words, phrases or clauses
rhetorical questions to explore ideas
(not expecting and answer)
variations of punctuation

The careful reader will spot them easily.

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SYNTAX

For example, when poet Stephen


Crane says:
Do not weep, maiden for war is kind,
we should immediately recognize the
extreme disparity between the words,
war and kind.

The denotation of the two words is


opposite in meaning, and

The connotation of the two words is


opposite in meaning, which should
signal the reader that something is very
wrong, and the author is using
juxtaposition to show it.
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SYNTAX
Syntax variations

Examples of syntax variations for emphasis

Inversion

Carried (V), she (S) was, by others in her study group.


The verb of the sentence is placed before the subject.

Juxtaposition

Do not weep, maiden, for war is kind. The italicized


words are opposite in meaning giving a sudden
contrast of ideas that signals something is wrong.

Repetition

I have a dream that all men are equal; I have a dream


that my sons can aspire to the highest positions; I have
a dream is a clause that is repeated 17 times in the
famous Martin Luther King speech for dramatic effect.

Rhetorical
Question

Shall we not rise up and be counted, make our cause


be known? If we do not, we are fool-hardy in that
choice. A question posed, and then answered. The
function is to prod the listener to thought.

Parallel Structure

Marlene enjoyed the outdoor sports of skiing, hiking


and riding horses, but much preferred the indoor sport
of ice-skating. Items or ideas in a series must appear in
the same grammatical form.

Punctuation

I heard a fly buzz when I died He landed Where I


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could not see to see. Here, the dash is used to signal
an extended pause for dramatic effect.

IMAGERY

Imagery refers to words that


appeal to the five senses:
sight, sound, taste, feel, smell;
or create a mental picture for
the reader.

The figurative language of


imagery also includes simile
(like or as comparisons) and
metaphor (direct comparisons
with is).
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IMAGERY

Imagery is Description and a Function of


Style:
All great writers paint word pictures with
their descriptive imagery. They show us
about settings and characters rather than
tell us.

Many authors are especially notable for their


skill at complex and detailed imagery such
as the non-fiction essay writer, Annie
Dillard, author of A Pilgrim at Tinker
Creek, and fiction writer, F. Scott Fitzgerald

Dillard describes the gory detail of a praying


mantis chewing the innards out of a live
wasp at the same time that he (the wasp)
was squeezing a honey bee to death to lick
her disgorged honey.
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IMAGERY

He [J. Henry Fabre] describes a bee-eating


wasp, the Philanthus, who has killed a honeybee.
If the bee is heavy with honey, the wasp
squeezes its crop so as to make her disgorge
the delicious syrup, which she drinks by licking
the tongue which her unfortunate victim, in her
death agony, sticks out of her mouth at full
length.(visual) (gustatory) (tactile)
At the moment of some such horrible banquet, I
have seen the Wasp, with her prey, seized by the
Mantis: the bandit was rifled by another bandit.
And here is an awful detail: while the Mantis
held her transfixed under the points of the double
saw and was already munching her belly, the
Wasp continued to lick the honey of her Bee,
unable to relinquish the delicious food even amid
the terrors of death.
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Let us hasten to cast a veil over these horrors.

IMAGERY
Imagery

Figurative language

Visual words: red, blue, all colors,


shapely, ugly, pretty, handsome, tall,
short, barren, wooded

Simile: She is nothing like the


Sun

Auditory words: (onomatopoeia)


cracked, clang, snap, loud, whisper,
discordant, harmonious, cacophony,
blare, trumpet, melodious, raspy,
croaking

Her eyes were as big as saucers


when she saw the horror movie.

Gustatory words: delicious, sweet,


sour, tart, tangy, scrumptious, hot,
cold, spicy, creamy, warm, crunchy

Metaphor: The window darkened


upon my soul and none could
discern me hiding within.

Tactile words: soft, scratchy, silky,


rough, hard, dented, knobby, satiny,
weathered, pliable, flexible

There are many, many variations


of metaphors, but all function as
direct comparisons.

Olfactory words: stinky, perfumed,


odorous, reeking, stench, putrid,
steamy, sweaty, pungent

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IMAGERY

Students who can recognize the


nuances of diction, syntax and
imagery in what they read are
well along the way toward using
those same tools to write an
effective analysis of prose or
poetry; fiction or non-fiction.

Argumentation is a more
advanced skill for later mastery.
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