Five O'Clock Somewhere

Welcome to Five O'Clock Somewhere, where it doesn't matter what time zone you're in; it's five o'clock somewhere. We'll look at rural life, especially as it happens in Rio Arriba County, New Mexico, cats, sailing (particularly Etchells racing yachts), and bits of grammar and Victorian poetry.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Grammar Moment: Denotation vs. Connotation

A thesaurus just isn’t enough

In any language, getting exactly the right word can be difficult. That’s because in addition to the basic dictionary definition of the word, known as denotation, there’s also connotation, which is the emotional undertone or baggage that the word carries.

Because English, especially American English, has been built from many different languages, English has even more words than most languages, and more overlapping meanings. Thus, even more than in other languages, English has more words to choose from, with more subtle connotations.

A problem sometimes arises when well-meaning English teachers tell their students to avoid repeating the same word (a stylistic concern that is important) by looking up synonyms (words that, at least in theory, have the same meaning) in a thesaurus. The problem is that students who are not familiar with English, or who are relatively new to writing, may pick a word from the thesaurus that has the same denotation but a totally different connotation. Suddenly a venerated leader has instead become a despot. While it is good to avoid repetition, it is worse for someone to call himself a cruel and heartless dictator when describing his work with his son’s Cub Scout pack.

A further example of the importance of connotation: Look at how many words and phrases there are that all have the denotation homeless person, but that have widely differing connotations: hobo, bum, derelict, vagrant, wino, bag lady, king of the road, drifter, wanderer, no-fixed-address, street urchin, free spirit, down-and-out, displaced, refugee … the list goes on. The choice of word creates an emotional response that influences how the reader thinks about the person the writer describes. A thesaurus isn’t going to help the writer to find the right connotation; thus, a writer should avoid the unfamiliar words and stick to the ones whose connotation she knows.


Anonymous Lakyn duarte said...

thank you.
this is just what i needed for my paper.

Mon Aug 17, 05:37:00 PM MDT  
Anonymous lakyn duarte said...

my professor gave me an A

Mon Aug 17, 05:52:00 PM MDT  

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