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Word Choice in Writing Study Guide (page 2)

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Updated on Aug 25, 2011

Denotation and Connotation

Even words that seem to mean the same thing have subtly different meanings and sometimes not-sosubtle effects. For example, look at the words slim and thin. If you say your aunt is thin, that means one thing. If you say she is slim, that means something a little bit different. That's because slim has a different connotation from thin. Connotation is a word's suggested or implied meaning; it's what the word makes you think or feel. Slim and thin have almost the same denotation—their dictionary definition—but slim suggests more grace and class than thin. Slim is a very positive word. It suggests that your aunt is healthy and fit. Thin, however, suggests that your aunt is a little bit too skinny for her own good health. Thin and slim, then, have different connotations. So the word you choose to describe your aunt can tell others a lot. Mark Twain once said, "The difference between the right word and the almost right word is like the difference between lightning and the lightning bug."

Reading between the Lines

Paying attention to word choice is particularly important when the main idea of a passage isn't clear. A writer's word choice doesn't just affect meaning; it creates it. For example, look at the following description from a teacher's evaluation for a student applying to a special foreign language summer camp. There's no topic sentence, but if you use your powers of observation, you should be able to tell how the writer feels about her subject.

As a student, Jane usually completes her work on time and checks it carefully. She speaks French well and is learning to speak with less of an American accent. She has often been a big help to other students who are just beginning to learn the language.

What message does this passage send about Jane? Is she the best French student the writer has ever had? Is she one of the worst? Is she average? To answer this question, you have to make an inference, and you must support your inference with specific observations. What makes you come to the conclusion that you do?

The diction of the paragraph reveals that this is a positive evaluation, but not a glowing recommendation. Here are some of the specific observations you might have made to support this conclusion:

  • The writer uses the word usually in the first sentence. This means that Jane is good about meeting deadlines for work, but not great; she doesn't always hand in her work on time.
  • The first sentence also says that Jane checks her work carefully. Although Jane may sometimes hand in work late, at least she always makes sure it's quality work. She's not sloppy.
  • The second sentence says Jane speaks French well. This is a positive word, but not a very strong one. Again, she's good, but not great. A stronger word like fluently or masterfully would make a big difference.
  • The second sentence also tells us she's "learning to speak with less of an American accent." This suggests that she has a strong accent and needs to improve in this area. It also suggests, though, that she is already making progress.
  • The third sentence tells us that she often helps "students who are just beginning to learn the language." From this we can conclude that Jane has indeed mastered the basics. Otherwise, how could she be a big help to students who are just starting to learn?

By looking at the passage carefully, then, you can see how the writer feels about her subject.

Summary

Sherlock Holmes' secret was his power of observation. You, too, can learn to notice what you see by looking carefully at what you read. Notice the specific words the writer has used. Remember that writers choose their words carefully. They know that each word has a specific effect, and they want just the right word to convey their ideas.

SKILL BUILDING UNTIL NEXT TIME

  1. Think about how you choose your words. Do you use different words for different people? Imagine you are describing an event to a family member and then to a classmate. Would you describe it the same way? Or would your word choice be different? Do you think carefully about what you say and which words you will use? How aware are you of your word choice? Write down both descriptions and compare them.
  2. Take another look at something you read recently. This could be an ad or a full-length article. What words does it use to appeal to its audience? Why are they effective?

Practice exercises for this study guide can be found at:

Word Choice in Writing Practice Exercises

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