9.1 Introduction. Aristotle will now discuss diction and reasoning, although he covers reasoning more thoroughly in his book Rhetoric. Reasoning can be understood as the effect produced by language, such as proof, refutation, the production of emotion (namely pity and fear), and the establishment of importance and unimportance. Diction includes utterances, like commands, threats, and answers.
As Poetics is a work of literary theory, it seeks to define and systematically categorize every aspect of poetry—including relatively straightforward concepts like diction. This way, poetry as a whole can be more thoroughly discussed and analyzed.
9.2 Basic Concepts. Diction includes the following: phoneme, syllable, connective, noun, verb, conjunction, inflection, and utterance. Phonemes are distinct units of sound and vocalization, and Aristotle classifies them into three categories: the first are vowels, which are audible sounds that do not involve contact between organs of speech. The second are continuants, which are audible sounds that do involve contact between organs of speech, such as the sounds made by the letter s or r. The third are mutes, which involve contact between organs of speech but do not have an audible sound unless combined with another phoneme, like the vocalizations made by the letters g or d. A syllable is a vocalization comprised of a mute and a phoneme, and a connective is a vocalization that should not occur by itself but that is capable of creating significance in combination with other vocalizations, such as the words “around” and “about.”
Aristotle’s upcoming argument about the importance of non-standard speech in poetry only makes sense if he first establishes what exactly standard speech is. Here, he defines and explains language and speech right down to the speech organs required to make sounds, so that he can more easily explain how a poet should alter standard language to make it more interesting and artistic.
A conjunction marks the beginning, end, or division of a significant vocalization. Aristotle further claims that a noun is a significant vocalization that does not express tense and is insignificant without another element of diction, whereas a verb is a significant vocalization that does express tense but is still insignificant on its own, much like a noun.
Again, the rather technical tone adopted in this section of Poetics is typical of literary theory. Aristotle breaks down a single vocalization to its component parts so that he can better examine, study, and explain it.
An inflection is a noun or verb that expresses case (such as “of him” or “for him”), number (as in “person” or “persons”), or mode of expression (such as a question or command). Lastly, an utterance is any significant vocalization that can be significant on its own, unlike a noun or verb.
Aristotle’s breakdown of diction here allows readers to better understand exactly how an utterance is able to elicit emotion in tragedy. Different emotions are imitated though various inflections and modes of expression.
9.3 Classification of Nouns. Nouns can be simple (like the word “earth”) or double, and nouns are classified as current, non-standard, metaphorical, ornamental, coined, lengthened, shortened, or adapted. A current noun is in popular use among a given group of people, and a non-standard noun is one used by people outside a given group of people. Metaphor is a noun applied to something else, and an ornamental noun is descriptive, like an epithet. A coined noun is created by the poet, and a noun is lengthened if it is given longer vowels or more syllables than usual. Conversely, a noun is shortened if something is removed. An adapted noun is one in which something is added, as in “rightward” for “right.”
Aristotle later argues that a good poet uses all the elements of diction in constructing a poem, and he lays the groundwork for that argument here. Aristotle can’t maintain that a poet should use certain elements without first explaining in detail what those elements are. Again, Aristotle uses a systematic and categorical approach to explaining and defining poetry, which is typical of works of literary theory like Poetics.
9.4 Qualities of Poetic Style. Diction’s most important quality is clarity, as long as there is “no loss of dignity.” Clear diction is based on current words, but current words can lack dignity. Diction is out of the ordinary when it is made up of “exotic expressions,” which are non-standard words, metaphor, and lengthened words. There must be a balance between clarity and “exotic expressions,” Aristotle argues, as a poem that is constructed only of “exotic expressions” is incomprehensible. Thus, a poem must be both clear and out of the ordinary.
Aristotle believes that poems which consist only of current and standard words are unoriginal and inartistic; thus, such poems suffer a “loss of dignity.” Aristotle’s idea of “dignity” here is a poem that uses current words but has enough “exotic expressions” to be interesting. This “dignity” speaks to the importance of balance in poetry that is reflected throughout the book.
It is important for a poet to use all the parts of diction, but the most import is the use of metaphor. Good use of metaphor is the only thing that a poet cannot learn, and it “is a sign of a natural talent.”
This passage is the crux of the entire section—each of these elements should be represented in poetry, so they must be explained. Despite the importance of metaphor, Aristotle spends very little time explaining it, presumably because he believes that good use of metaphor can’t be learned.