Leonard Peikoff Grammar Course Lecture 7 Notes


Diction: subject with studies the choice of words for a thought or feeling. Compare with grammar, which studies the ways of putting words together once they’ve been selected. Diction studies the choice of word themselves.

English has a huge vocabulary which makes selecting proper word a bigger issue. Old English had 50k words, then Middle English had 100k, and Peikoff says Modern English has 500k words. English has tons of words because English borrows lots of words.

Original Anglo Saxon words are still the core words that get used a lot.

Connotation – Suggestion that the word evokes in speaker.
Denotation – What it stands for.

Why does this distinction arise? We refer to things in a context, in a specific situation, and some words acquire an aura of the contexts in which they are typically used.

Types of connotation: poetic, formal vs informal, adult vs child, etc.

Types of English

Formal English

Appropriate for serious writings. Concerned with exactness, literal accuracy. Don’t use shortcuts.

Fancier linguistic structure, higher vocabulary level.

Not appropriate for all contexts.

For example, bad for speaking. Need to communicate more simply in speaking compared to writing because people don’t have time to review/go back in speaking context that they do in writing.

Colloquial English

Reputable English for informal contexts.

Free use of abbreviations, short forms.

Some words can be formal in some contexts and colloquial in another.

Can indicate familiarity and friendliness.

Peikoff compares:

Colloquial: Try and get here on time.
Formal: Try to get here on time.

Colloquial: Stand-in (metaphor)
Formal: Substitute

Slang Compared to Colloquial

Colloquial form arises from need of human communication (formal English not always appropriate).

Slang arises from people playing with words, wanting to be in fashion.

Slang is often very vague, often changes quickly.

Use of Colloquialism/Slang

Okay but do it intentionally. Can be useful to use colloquial expressions or even slang in writing philosophy. Can help with conveying to reader that philosophy isn’t just ivory tower stuff. A student in the lecture brought up Rand writing a heavy passage on psycho-epistemology and then saying “all hell breaks loose” as an example. I found the passage in Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. I agree that it’s a good example:

After the first stage of learning certain fundamentals, there is no particular order in which a child learns new concepts; there is, for a while, a broad area of the optional, where he may learn simple, primary concepts and complex, derivative ones almost concurrently, depending on his own mental initiative and on the random influences of his environment. The particular order in which he learns new words is of no significance, at this stage, provided he understands their meanings. His full, independent conceptual development does not begin until he has acquired a sufficient vocabulary to be able to form sentences—i.e., to be able to think (at which time he can gradually bring order to his haphazard conceptual equipment). Up to that time, he is able to retain the referents of his concepts by perceptual, predominantly visual means; as his conceptual chain moves farther and farther away from perceptual concretes, the issue of verbal definitions becomes crucial. It is at this point that all hell breaks loose.

Another tip: Don’t use quotes around slang. That’s an affectation to say you’re above slang while still using it. Either use it or leave it out.

How To Choose Between Synonyms

Peikoff mentions a specific resource: Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of Synonyms & Antonyms. This appears to have notes that give guidance as to the uses of various related words.

  • focus on denotation first. Actual meaning of synonyms varies.
  • consider connotation.
  • If you have a super big list of words that feel right, you need to think about and narrow down your meaning because you don’t know what you want to say.

Peikoff compares “able”, “capable”, “competent”. Says “able” has strongest connotation in terms of praising the person’s ability, “capable” is a rung down, “competent” is a narrower thing about ability at a specific profession.

Peikoff’s basic method sounds like: think carefully about what you want to say so that you get a manageable list of candidate words, and then check the nuances of meaning for those words.

Peikoff’s Big Tips for Writing

Find the Right Level of Abstraction in Your Word Choice

Words differ in how concrete/general they are. Consider how concrete and vivid your word choice is and whether a more vivid/concrete choice of words would do better.

Peikoff says his first drafts have lots of abstract words like “factor” “element” and “situation”.

Example: Orwell translated a Bible passage he liked into what he considered bad modern English (Ecclesiastes 9:11).


Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.


I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill, but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Avoid Trite Words

Some words have gotten overused and now they’re just a bromide, so they are best avoided.

“last but not least”.
“clear as crystal”.

Avoid Using Overly Long Words

Example: “The man dismissed will be offered alternative work.” should use “other” for alternative.

Example: “This drug has proved successful in a percentage of cases.” use “some” instead of “percentage.”

Avoid Qualifiers Unless They’re Essential

“it seems to me”
“in a sense”
“on the one hand”
“rather” “very” “little”

Clutter up/dilute style.

Metaphors and Figures of Speech

  • Avoid Mixed Metaphors (E.g. “Washington is the guiding light upon whom we should lean for support.”)
  • Avoid Forced Metaphors. Examples:
    • The clergyman pointed to the corpse. “This is only the shell,” he said, “the nut is gone.”
    • When a headache and he went to bed, they were a noisy pair. (lol).

Accidental/Incorrect Use of Metaphorical Language

Example: “stampede”. If you don’t know that this usage is metaphorical:
“I won’t let myself be stampeded to a decision.”
then you might say something like:
“I won’t let myself be stampeded into stagnation.”

Using stampede regarding things like decisions is metaphorical cuz stampede has a connection to cattle running around. But the word still has the connotation of the cattle stuff, so if you use it in a word where there is a strong clash with that connotation, it sounds weird.

Peikoff gives some examples:

“This is a bottleneck which has to be ironed out.”


Expression unique to a particular language that can’t be translated word for word into another language.

E.g. “How are you.” How are you what? But we know what it means.

Lots of verbs require a certain preposition after them if they are followed by a prepositional phrase. Frequent violations of idiomatic English occur because people mix up which preposition they should use.


Attempt to get pleasing combination of sounds in your word choice.

Poor sentence: Shamefully, she shared her shoddy seat on the shopping spree.

All the “S’s” and “sh” together is considered bad. Alliteration can be okay but unpleasant sounds or too much of the same sound violates euphony.

Another example: juxtaposition of two words ending in ly (e.g. “completely unthinkingly”).

Avoid inadvertent rhymes.

Summing up, things to keep in mind:

  1. Exact denotations
  2. Appropriate connotations (formal/informal)
  3. Level of abstraction
  4. Natural language, not trite
  5. Correct idioms
  6. Correct use of euphony

Peikoff is a dictionary fan.

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