Diction: Latinate versus Anglo-Saxon

Diction = word choice

Synonym = a word’s twin in meaning, e.g. “big” and “large” are synonyms.

Ever wonder why English has so many freaking synonyms? Because it’s the lovechild of Germanic and French languages. (French isn’t called a romance language for no reason.) While having so many choices can be a wonderful thing, it can also be disastrous. With great vocabulary comes great responsibility. I’m talking to you, Christopher Paolini. Step away from the thesaurus.

You’ll notice the language split when two political candidates start campaigning and one plays the “smarter than thou” card and the other plays the “average Joe” card. Smarter-than-thou is going to try to dazzle you with an academic, million-dollar vocabulary. Average Joe is going to give you a pat on the back with neighbor-speak. Go back in time and see the difference between John Kerry and George W. Bush, two polar opposites in terms of diction.

Latinate words are sometimes also known as “purple language,” “flowery” or “five-dollar” words. These are the ones that hike up your reading level and slow down your audience. While they are pretty standard in academic works, nonfiction and romance, multisyllabic Latinate words are best avoided when possible. If a reader doesn’t understand your words, they are meaningless. Jargon tends to be Latinate.

Generally speaking, Anglo-Saxon words come from Germanic roots (i.e. Old English, German, and Old Norse) and are common words. They are shorter and simpler than Latinate words. Action, Adventure, and Thriller genres will use more of these because they read faster, quickening the pace and heightening the suspense. This, writers, is the kind of vocabulary you want to have your word babies with.

There’s nothing wrong with Latinate words. Literary works tend to favor them, and commercial works can sometimes use more of them.

Writing picture books, humor, or commercial fiction? Use more Anglo-Saxon words.

Has someone told you that your voice sounds “too MG” or “too YA” when you’re writing for an older audience? Try adding in more Latinate words, but keep most to two or three syllables.

Want a list of examples of Anglo-Saxon words and Latinate words? Wikipedia saves the day.

See video examples of the different types of diction here.

More resources that I found after Googling the subject:

Additional resource:

5-Minute Writing Exercise

Write down a list of 5–10 adjectives describing yourself or your protagonist. Look them up in the dictionary and see if they are based on Latin/French roots or Germanic (or Old English) roots. Then come up with a syllable that comes from the other family.

For example, “masculine” is Latinate. “Burly” is Old English.

Have fun! Share here if you’d like.

10 thoughts on “Diction: Latinate versus Anglo-Saxon

  1. Alexandrina Brant says:

    Reblogged this on Miss Alexandrina and commented:
    Reblog Thursday is back! (Ish) This reblog post is from all the way back in 2012, but I only stumbled across it a couple of days ago, as I only started following Lara’s blog last year.

    Ever wondered why synonyms are sometimes so very different to each other? Or why some words, especially in writing, are sesquipedalian and polysyllablic ( 😉 ) whilst others are short and simple? In this post, Lara explains how the roots of words can effect how they are read and which genres they better suit.

    Kind of explains how my Latin studies effected my propensity for lengthy sentences and florid oratories! 😛

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