Saturday, March 20, 2010

Shades of Meaning

Word choice is  an important trait of writing.  
Words have both denotation and connotation.

Denotation and Connotation 
  • Denotation refers to the literal meaning of a word, the "dictionary definition."¨ For example, if you look up the word snake in a dictionary, you will discover that one of its denotative meanings is "any of numerous scaly, legless, sometimes venomous reptiles having a long, tapering, cylindrical body and found in most tropical and temperate regions."
  • Connotation, on the other hand, refers to the associations that are connected to a certain word or the emotional suggestions related to that word. The connotative meanings of a word exist together with the denotative meanings. The connotations for the word snake  could include evil or danger.    

“A thesaurus can be dangerous 
in the wrong hands.”  

Shades of Meaning
Words have various intensities (strengths) and connotations.  When writing, we try to choose the word that best fits what we are trying to express.

A warning from Be careful when using the thesaurus. Each word listed as a synonym for the word you're looking up may have its own unique connotations or shades of meaning. Use a dictionary to be sure the synonym you are considering really fits what you are trying to say.

"Precision of language, please!" -- The Giver 
What is the difference between "vast" and "large"? 

Do you live in a "dwelling," in a  "house," or in a "home"?  The choice of word makes a difference. 

Is the item you're buying "cheap" or "inexpensive"?

Which would you want to be called?

For another example of connotations, consider the following:
negative   There are over 2,000 vagrants in the city.
neutral    There are over 2,000 people with no fixed address in the city.
positive    There are over 2,000 homeless in the city.

All three of these expressions refer to exactly the same people, but they will invoke different associations in the reader's mind: a "vagrant" is a public nuisance while a "homeless" person is a worthy object of pity and charity. Presumably, someone writing an editorial in support of a new shelter would use the positive form, while someone writing an editorial in support of anti-loitering laws would use the negative form.

Which word conveys a more favorable attitude. and which  word  carries a less favorable attitude?
 • refreshing – chilly
• plain – natural
• clever – sly • cackle – giggle
• snob – cultured
• cop – officer
• skinny – slender
• statesman – politician
• smile – smirk
• domineering – assertive

Is this true?  A recipe is denotative; an advertisement connotative.

How would you rank these from most positive to most negative?
Group 1 Thin, slim, lanky, skinny, gaunt, slender

Group 2 Aggressive, assertive, domineering, dynamic, pushy, forceful

Group 3 Shrewd, egghead, bright, clever, brilliant, cunning, smart, intelligent, brainy

If you were naming a sports team, which name would you pick?
These are potential names for new professional athletic teams: Poodles Toads Gazelles Hippos Buzzards Snails Meteors Ferrets Glaciers Maggots Sloth Mosquitoes Sleepers Zeniths Mares Spikes

Denotation is the literal meaning,  and connotation refers to the emotional weight of a word.