What They are and How to Use Them
by Melissa Hathaway
A dictionary is an important resource for writers but it takes more than a definition to understand a word. This study is called semiotics. Semiotics suggests definitions have become associated with the word because of cultural and personal experience.
The terms denotation and connotation separate the accepted definition from other meanings. Denoted meanings can change over time, or vary between cultures. Understanding how different definitions interact to affect the reader enables writers to choose words more effectively.
The denoted meaning is a literal definition, but you might think of it as an image associated with the word. The word “house”, for example, might make you think of a child’s drawing, or it could denote something different, depending on whether you live on a farm, in a Manhattan apartment, or in a ger on the Mongolian plain.
The connoted meanings of words are additional meanings that we associate with them. Some connotations arise from shared cultural experience and can become widespread, while others are a result of personal experience. Synonymous words can vary dramatically. For instance, the word “house” is relatively neutral, but close synonyms such as home, mansion, and shack can produce strong connotations. The word mansion might arouse feelings of luxury or envy while shack might produce disgust or pity. You have power over your reader’s mind.
Choosing the Right Word
A combination of denotation and connotation can present new meaning. Sometimes, the reason for choosing one word over another will be a slight difference in the denoted meaning, but in other cases, you may want to elicit a particular response from the reader. Don’t try to use unusual synonyms. It’s more effective to use a word with connotative power instead of one that sounds impressive.
Creative Use of Connotations
The importance of connotation is apparent from the difficulty of creating a computer program that can recognize good writing. A computer that could understand the rules of grammar and spelling would not be able to recognize effective writing, even if it were capable of understanding each word’s denoted meaning. Descriptions depend on the response that occurs in the reader’s mind. If you want to explore the connotations associated with a particular word, type it into a search engine and read the associations the word might trigger in a reader. Copywriters use this knowledge to create effective web pages and write adverts that will emotionally impact their target audience. Listen to ads to determine manipulative keywords that hold connotative value. If you want to sell the house you were imagining earlier, describe it as a mansion instead of a shack, and that leads us to emotive language.
Emotive language produces an emotional response, and often depends on connotations that imply a positive or negative judgment. For example, words that are associated with happiness or virtue produce a different emotional response than those associated with distress or evil.
Even the simplest phrases can convey emotional content when used in the right context. For example, Hemingway’s six-word story: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
In conclusion: the dictionary can tell you exactly what a word denotes, but it cannot tell you what feelings and associations the word might invoke when you use it. Learn to produce strong emotional responses and you will become an effective writer.
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