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Word Choice Help (page 2)

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Updated on Sep 21, 2011

Denotation and Connotation

Now, suppose sentence A also had another adjective to describe the new policy:

  1. The town's firm new parking policy, which goes into effect on Monday, should significantly reduce traffic congestion on Main Street.
  2. The town's draconian new parking policy, which goes into effect on Monday, should significantly reduce traffic congestion on Main Street.

Do the two sentences now mean the same thing? Yes and no. Both firm and draconian suggest that the policy is strict, but each word has a specific implication or suggested meaning about how strict that policy is. A firm policy is not as strict as a draconian policy. Furthermore, draconian suggests that the policy is not only strict but unfairly or unreasonably so.

So, the words writers choose, even though they may mean the same thing when you look them up in the dictionary, actually have another level of meaning. This is called their connotation. Connotation is the implied meaning, the meaning that evolves when the dictionary definition (denotation) develops an emotional or social register or a suggestion of degree. The specific words writers choose—their diction or word choice—can therefore reveal a great deal about how authors feel about their subjects.

Diction: the particular words chosen and used by the author

Denotation: exact or dictionary meaning

Connotation: implied or suggested meaning

TIP: Homographs are words that are spelled alike but have greatly different meanings. When you look up a homograph in the dictionary you will find separate entries for each meaning of the word. For example: The talk show is filmed live in New York City," versus "I really want to live my life fully before I die."

How Diction Influences Meaning

Put your powers of observation to work on the following sentences. Read them carefully and then write down what you notice about each writer's specific choice of words. See if you can use the writers' diction to determine what they are inferring about the seriousness of the situation they are describing:

  1. The political parties are meeting with the hope of clearing up their differences.
  2. The political parties have entered into negotiations in an attempt to resolve their conflict.

Both sentences convey the same information: Two parties are meeting because they have a disagreement of some sort to address. But the differences in the diction of each sentence tell us that these two situations aren't exactly the same—or at least that the two writers have different perceptions about the situations. What differences did you notice between these two sentences? List them below (an example has been provided to get you started):

In which sentence do you think the situation is more serious, and why do you think so? (The why is especially important.)

The difference in word choice should tell you that sentence B describes the more serious situation. Here are some of the observations you might have made about the writers' diction that would have told you so:

  • The political parties in sentence B are not just "meeting," they've "entered into negotiations." This phrase is often used to describe disagreements between warring parties. And "negotiations" are much more formal than "meetings," suggesting that there is a serious difference to be resolved in sentence B.
  • Whereas in sentence A they are ironing things out, the parties in sentence B only "attempt to" resolve the problems. This important difference suggests that the problem between the parties in sentence A is not that serious—the problem is likely to be resolved. In sentence B, on the other hand, "in an attempt" suggests that the problem is quite serious and that it will be difficult to resolve; the outlook is doubtful rather than hopeful.
  • In sentence A, the parties are seeking to "clear up their differences," whereas in sentence B, the parties want to "resolve their conflict." The phrase "clear up" suggests that there is merely some sort of confusion between the two. However, "resolve" suggests that there is a matter that must be solved or settled, and "conflict" indicates a more serious problem than "differences."

TIP: Vocabulary You Can Use—Another style of language that influences meaning is vernacular. Vernacular is the style of language or native speech used in a particular geographical region. A person's vernacular can sometimes (but not always) indicate where he or she was raised or has lived most recently.

Vernacular is similar to diction in that a particular way of speaking might change the meaning of what is being said. For example, a person living in New York City and a person living in Texas could attempt to convey the same message, each using his or her regional language to write or verbalize their thoughts. If their vernaculars differ, the reader (or listener) would be provided with two messages that essentially mean the same thing, but that have been expressed in very different ways due to the speakers' geographical distance from one another.

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