I’ve made a liar out of myself already, promising a weekly post and then letting almost a month slip by without a word. Fear not, in addition to growing a new human I’ve been working on projects that have needed doing in regards to family organization and personal priorities. Taking a break also made it very clear just how much stress I was under trying to keep to a fixed blogging schedule.
Anyway – here’s today’s topic!
Recently I had the privilege of listening to fantastic freelance editor Tristi Pinkston talk about the many pitfalls for writers to avoid during the revision/editing process. Among many other great ideas and advice she shared with us the importance of making sure that we are ever vigilant in choosing the right word for the right effect. Yes, denotation doesn’t always agree with connotation.
Lost? Here’s a quick grammar lesson:
Denotation: the definition of a word, as found in a dictionary.
Connotation: the meaning we give a word in a given situation, what it makes us feel.
Put simply, there are words that work in a phrase when the feeling of the word isn’t considered. However those words tend to change the intended feeling of the moment. They might be negative when the thought was in fact positive.
One illustration is the phrase, “They might live in a house, but I live in a home.”
The words “house” and “home” have the same meanings but the feelings associated with each are very distinct. A home is generally thought of as a place of warmth and caring where a house is merely a structure where one might live. With this in mind the above phrase comes across as condescending and judgmental.
Here are other examples:
- The skinny boy won the race.
- The slender boy won the race.
- A pushy woman badgered the cashier about coupon policy.
- An aggressive woman badgered the cashier about coupon policy.
- The spelling bee champion wore a smug grin as he exited the stage with his trophy.
- The spelling bee champion wore a proud grin as he exited the stage with his trophy.
In each example there is a clear difference between the feelings generated by the describing word. One word choice in each pair is clearly more negative than the other. The word “skinny” conjures up the image of an underfed boy who is possibly neglected. “Aggressive” makes the woman seem as if she were about to physically attack the cashier. “Smug” makes us wonder if the champion had somehow cheated.
Depending on the context either might be correct. Perhaps the story was about a neglected skinny boy who finally had something to be proud about. However, if you get it wrong, it will break the connection between reader and writer.
Choose those words carefully!