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Don't Choose Wrong: Connotation vs. Denotation

“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” —Mark Twain

One of the best parts about writing is the fact that you get to pick your words. And we have so many words to choose from! Literally tens of thousands of beautiful words flitting through space, just waiting for you to pinpoint exactly which one to use to describe your protagonist, setting, or climactic scene. However, despite the fact that you have seemingly unlimited options when it comes to word choice, the meaning that you’re trying to express may narrow your selection significantly.

Word Choice

Photo by D. Sharon Pruitt

Denotations

Words have several layers of meaning. The literal definition of a word as accepted by Webster’s is the denotation. For example, the words beautiful, fair, handsome, attractive, and pretty essentially all mean the same thing; whatever or whomever is being described is going to be regarded as nice to look at.

Connotations

However, words also hold connotations, or implied meanings. This shows itself in two ways. There are words that have a harmless denotation, but once placed in a different context, a new connotation is evident. For example, the word slimy by itself can accurately describe a slug, a cluster of algae, or the feeling on your face after your mastiff has ensured that you were properly welcomed home. However, when slimy is used to describe a person, the reader recognizes that this person is not someone you want to ask to housesit while you head to the Bahamas for a week.

Words themselves have their own connotations as well. While slimy can be adapted depending on the context, there is a distinct difference between the words smile and smirk. The first is a good neutral choice that can be used in any scenario, while the second has a connotation of self-satisfaction or superiority.

Whenever you choose words, make sure that the connotation of your choices matches your written scenario. A word choice can make or break your scene.

PRACTICE

Write about winter for ten minutes, using only words with neutral connotations. Then take five minutes and rewrite your previous prose, but substitute words with loaded connotations. Post your practice in the comments, and leave feedback for others who have posted.

About Liz Bureman

Liz Bureman has a more-than-healthy interest in proper grammatical structure, accurate spelling, and the underappreciated semicolon. When she's not diagramming sentences and reading blogs about how terribly written the Twilight series is, she edits for the Write Practice, causes trouble in Denver, and plays guitar very slowly and poorly. You can follow her on Twitter (@epbure), where she tweets more about music of the mid-90s than writing.

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  • Debra Mauldin

    Thank you for the information on connotations. I like that you can convey, through words, what a person is feeling. I look forward to doing the practice.

  • http://www.facebook.com/panAngler Laurie Nylund

    Trapped in the wheelchair, the office window was her only view to the real world. Today, there was nothing to see—a blanket of white smothered everything in sight. The snowstorm that had been predicted every day for the last week had finally arrived.

    With no feeling in her legs and rotten circulation in the rest of her body, Anna was always cold. But the falling snow made her reach for a sweater. Shivering, she considered cranking up the heat, but the budget this month was already too tight; she didn’t dare. It wasn’t as if she was actually out in the elements. Nor would she be, until someone remembered to unbury the ramp that snaked out from her front door.

    Blindingly bright, the light glared on the monitor, making it impossible to escape even to her virtual world. Sighing, she rolled over and pulled the drapes shut, enclosing herself in her eight by eight tomb. No wonder winter and death have so much in common.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Suzie-Gallagher/100001281206171 Suzie Gallagher

      suitably depressing matching the cold

      • http://www.facebook.com/panAngler Laurie Nylund

        Given the tone of each of the posts so far, it seems we all agree on the depressing connotations that winter evokes. ;-)

    • plumjoppa

      Especially like that last paragraph. Nice word choices.

      • http://www.facebook.com/panAngler Laurie Nylund

        Thank you kindly. It’s cold and snowy here today, so writing this wasn’t too much of a stretch, though it is the first time I posted here.

    • http://KatieAxelson.com/ Katie Axelson

      Poor girl!

    • Juliana Austen

      I like that you have evoked a feeling of suffocating cold.

  • plumjoppa

    How can this be possible that I am standing here locked out of my house on a cold day? I asked my son many times to change that lock but he was always too busy to take a moment to do it. That blowup snowman I bought at Walmart smiles at me as if it’s wondering what my next move will be. I have to think quickly. The weatherman said a high of 28 degrees today. My cell phone is in my purse in the house. No key under the mat because I was afraid of a break in. My car is
    locked, so I can’t even get in out of the cold. That just leaves the neighbor ¼ mile
    away. I will have to chance the walk across our shared driveway and hope that my knee doesn’t give out or I slip on an icy patch. I start to walk and it’s
    painful. As I walk past the bank of evergreens, the wind picks up and I feel my eyes start to water. My ears feel like they will fall off. The driveway is full of frozen mud ruts, and I’m at least grateful that my slippers have rubber soles. As I approach the neighbor’s house, I have to push down the rumors of how his mother died while living there. People do fall down the stairs sometimes,
    especially the elderly.

    How can this be possible that I am wobbling here, locked out of my house on a frigid day? I begged my oldest boy a million times to fix that lock but he was always too busy to spare a split second to help me. That blowup snowman I paid too much for at Walmart smirks at me as if it’s waiting for the punch line to this joke. I have make this old brain think. The weatherman said a high of 28 degrees today. My cell phone is mocking me from my pocketbook inside my home. No key under the mat because I was fearful of a rapist in the night. My car is locked, so I can’t even get shelter from the iciness soaking into my bones. That just leaves the neighbor a corn field’s distance away. I will have to suffer the walk down our shared driveway and pray that my knee doesn’t shatter or I crash down onto a frozen ice puddle. I begin to shift my weight and it’s excruciating. As I lumber out of the protection of the creaking evergreens, the gale wind whips at me, and I feel my eyes start to sting. My ears feel like they will crystallize and crumble. The driveway is riddled with frozen mud outcrops, and I’m at least grateful that my slippers have rubber grippers. As I limp closer to the neighbor’s house, I tell myself to ignore the rumors of how his mother met the grim reaper while visiting there. People do tumble down the stairs to their death sometimes, especially the old timers like me.

    • http://www.facebook.com/panAngler Laurie Nylund

      I loved the inclusion the Walmart blowup snowman. I’ve always thought they had an evil aspect. That mental picture meshed nicely with the the mother’s plight.

      • plumjoppa

        Thanks for the kind comments. Yes, our protagonist does get warm, but there’s more to the neighbor’s story. It’s based on a true story, but I never thought about writing it until the “winter” prompt came along.

    • http://KatieAxelson.com/ Katie Axelson

      I like this. Does our protagonist get warm? Does he/she get back into the house?

    • Juliana Austen

      Thanks for putting both versions up – interesting to see how word choices can crank up the tension.

      • plumjoppa

        It was difficult to choose words without connotation, but also tough to go back in and add better words after the fact.

    • Christy B

      I like that you gave the before and after versions. And how you call it the blowup snowman – I never liked those either. I think they look tacky. But anyhow, this was a dire circumstance painted out with a touch of humor. I like it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Suzie-Gallagher/100001281206171 Suzie Gallagher

    Cold permeated from every rust encrusted hole, filling her body through to her very bones. Would she ever be warm again. Shivering she angled facing away from the long closed mall. Snow had stopped melting on the bonnet, it was sticking, agreeing with her that the car was completely cold.
    The heater had died with the engine as the last of the diesel choked out. She smiled as she imagined her luck running out with the fuel. No home, no job, no food and now no way of moving. Tomorrow she would trudge around the mall keeping warm, trying to get a job, eating leftovers from the people with eyes bigger than their bellies. Tomorrow would be a good day.

    NEWSFLASH
    This morning a young homeless woman was found dead in her car. She had been dead for at least six hours.

    • http://www.facebook.com/panAngler Laurie Nylund

      Optimism in the face of such grimness is always a good hook. The cruel twist at the end was a fitting metaphor for winter, which never seems to bring anything good.

      • Juliana Austen

        “Her luck running out with the fuel…” Lovely writing as always.

    • http://KatieAxelson.com/ Katie Axelson

      Wow. This is gorgeous, Suzie! (In the weird way that morbid things are beautifully written)

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      Wow. This is beautiful and very sad. This would make such a good short story, Suzie.

  • Jodi McMaster

    The discussion I keep getting into is that there are idiosyncratic or regional connotations. Do you explain or do you just let it go. The same for colloquialisms and jargon. I’m of the “it’s the writer’s choice; just make it a conscious choice” school of thought. Thoughts?

    • epbure

      That’s a good question. I’d agree with the conscious-choice line of reasoning, and if you’re really into the setting of the story, the meanings should make themselves fairly clear to the reader. After all, high schools and universities are still using Huck Finn as a teaching tool, and Mark Twain was not at all shy about the regional focus in his writing.

  • Juliana Austen

    Winter? Winter is just a memory! It is December – the beginning of summer here at the bottom of the world!
    The Christmas traditions of holly and ivy, snow and robins are embedded in my DNA but they make no sense! I will decorate my houses with red and green while outside the roses voluptuously bloom pink and yellow. I love the sharp fragrance of our Christmas tree but if I open a window the scent of jasmine will drip honey through the air.
    On Christmas day I will serve a rich dried fruit pudding but alongside will be summer’s abundance of fresh strawberries, raspberries, apricots and peaches.
    I wonder at the descriptions of snow, snow falling softly, blanketing the ground in silence for I have never seen snow fall from the sky.
    One day I will enjoy a “real” Christmas but meantime the beach is calling. The sun beats down and the sea is whispers in and out over the hot sand.

    • Christy B

      I always wondered what Christmas was like for the people who are in their summer when that time of year comes around. Now I know! Good description. I sense that there is a feeling of being left out since Christmas is always associated with snow and white and cold weather.

      • Juliana Austen

        Yes – all the images and stories we see are of the Northern traditions, putting aside for a moment the religious significance of Christmas. A good friend who spent Christmas in the north of England said how suddenly it all made sense for her! Spending hours in a warm kitchen baking, large heavy meals, dozing in front of a fire afterwards! Our own traditions have emerged – light meals, often outside, long walks, swims in the sea – it not too bad!!!

    • plumjoppa

      As a Northerner, I would love to experience this Summer Christmas! My mouth is watering for the fresh berries

  • Christy B

    First timer here, be nice!!

    Neutral:
    Gray skies, cold air, and the smell of wet snow hangs heavily. Not nearly as exciting as a thunderstorm coming, but exciting enough when the kids are called out of school for fear of bad roads and slippery conditions. The wind begins to blow, the temperature drops, and sleet hits against the windows outside with a hiss. Oh how cozy it is inside with a mug of cocoa next to the fireplace, wrapped in a favorite blanket while sleet gives way to snow and soon the winds die away. Big flakes are falling as night advances with a quiet serenity… the calm after the storm. Leaving the fire’s warmth, but only for a little bit, she wraps up in a down jacket to go outside. Grabbing a woolen scarf and mittens before braving the elements, the young mother finds that the winds have died and the snow is falling gently, swirling in residual currents around the streetlamp. The next morning begins with brilliance. Blue skies, sparkling lawns, pine trees all blanketed in snow. Everything shines, pure and clean. A new day, a new paradise.

    Loaded:
    Droopy skies, chilly air, and the smell of precipitation lingers heavily. Not nearly as thrilling as a thunderstorm bearing down, but thrilling enough when the kids are called out of classes for fear of treacherous roads and inclement conditions. The wind begins to howl, the temperature plummets, and sleet assaults the windows outside in a frenzy. Oh how cozy it is inside with a mug of cocoa before the fireplace, snuggled in a worn but treasured blanket while sleet relents to snow and soon the blustery weather calms to a quiet breeze. Giant flakes are meandering down as night advances with a quiet serenity… the calm after the tempest. Puling herself away from the fire’s warmth, but only for a moment, she bundles up in a down parka to venture outside. Grabbing a woolen scarf and mittens before confronting the drifting snow, the young mother discovers that the blizzard has stilled, leaving the snow behind it to descend softly, swirling in a lovely dance around the streetlamp. The new dawn begins with brilliance. Azure skies, glistening lawns, blue spruce all blanketed in white. The world sparkles, pristine and clean. A new day begins, a fresh new winter wonderland.

    • plumjoppa

      Welcome Christy! Your first version was good, but I love how the second version is so much more sensual. So easy to picture and feel everything, especially the snow “swirling in a lovely dance around the streetlamp.”

  • Aariq Nedd

    Summer is the warmest of the four temperature season, falling between spring and autumn. At the summer solstice, the days are longest and the nights are shortest, with day-length decreasing as the season progresses after the solstice. The date of the beginning of summer varies according to climate, tradition and culture, but when it is summer in the Northern Hemisphere it is winter in the Southern Hemisphere, and vice versa.

  • its me

    fh

  • opoku

    first timer here
    orange skies,hot air,and the smell of good old famliy cookouts and memories to be made picuters to be taken vacations will be long and famely will all ways has fun.