Connotation vs. Denotation, or how to become your editor’s new BFF

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!

Happy writing!

About Jodi

Jodi L. Milner is a writer, mandala enthusiast, and educator. Her epic fantasy novel, Stonebearer’s Betrayal, was published in November 2018 and rereleased in Jan 2020. She has been published in several anthologies. When not writing, she can be found folding children and feeding the laundry, occasionally in that order.
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19 Responses to Connotation vs. Denotation, or how to become your editor’s new BFF

  1. ChildeJake says:

    Nice reminder of an important facet of writing. I hadn’t thought about this issue for awhile. And kudos on the reevaluation of your blogging/living schedule. I think we all have to do that from time to time. Happy writing to you too!

    • tsuchigari says:

      Thanks for coming by! I think Mark Twain is quoted saying: “The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter–it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

      I hope to get more posts up before baby comes! I have a feeling that after will be doubly difficult.

  2. Wow, Jodi! Well done. But, I’ve got to tell you, I went a little nuts with the title. I misread it, several times, and saw detonation, not denotation. A rather explosive mistake, yes?

  3. Wow, a new human? I would also re-prioritize my blog. Congrats!

    Thank you for this post. I too needed the refresher. And will keep my thesaurus handy.

    • tsuchigari says:

      Yep! Baby is due in November and although I’m getting most of my energy back I’m finding so many other things that need to be finished before then. I’ve fallen out of my writing habit and am starting to feel the pressure of unwritten words building.

      Happy Writing!

  4. cassim says:

    welcome back, jodi.

  5. Lara Dunning says:

    Great post. One word can say so much. Good reminder for those of us addicted to storytelling.

  6. Great advice. One word can change the entire meaning of what you wish to express.

  7. westwood says:

    I’m a bit ashamed, but I never actually knew the difference until now. Oops.

    • tsuchigari says:

      You’re in the right crowd, I had never heard the difference explained until that night. And I thought I had most all literary topics well covered! Thanks for stopping by!

  8. Congrats on the new addition, Jodi, and thanks for this post. As a writer, I spend a lot of time choosing (agonizing over?) words, and educating others about their denotations and connotations. Affect and effect are two of my favorites.

    Words are powerful, and as writers, we have to use them wisely, carefully, and with full knowledge of their impacts.

    • tsuchigari says:

      Agonizing is right! It is a long process that I feel many new writers don’t understand. There are so many that are so passionate when writing that first exciting draft that word choice isn’t their first concern.

      I still mix up, affect and effect – have to look it up every time!

  9. Nancy Sherman says:

    Here’s my extra thought: word choice goes beyond both denotation and connotation. The consonant sounds (hard vs. soft), the number of syllables, the starting letter, and the feel of the vowel or vowels all play into the correct word choice. I have just finished 17 revisions of a short story, worrying about all the word choices, being sure that the flow of the sentences assist the reader’s journey. My belief is that a short story falls somewhere between a poem and a novel; that’s what makes it such a word challenge.

    • tsuchigari says:

      That’s very true Nancy – not only does the meaning have to be there but it has to sound good. Many books lose points in my opinion because they forget this fact – they sound stiff, utilitarian.

      Good luck on the short story!

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