39 Word Choice and Connotation

Let’s look at how writers choose words not only to convey ideas but to shape readers’ emotional experience and subconscious reactions.

Connotation refers to the emotions, social and cultural implications, and related concepts that most people associate with a word. Some connotations are obvious: anyone would prefer to be called “assertive” rather than “pushy” for demanding something they consider to be their right. Other connotations are more subtle. Consider the difference between the feelings associated with the words “change” and “transform.” “Transform” has connotations of visionary change for the better. If we hear that “the new college president has transformed the admissions process” we are more likely to feel hopeful, perhaps impressed, without knowing anything at all about the nature of the changes. If we hear simply that “the new college president has changed the admissions process,” we will probably feel more skeptical about these changes and what their positive and negative impacts may be.

Consider what different feelings about journalists come across in the following two sentences:

The media were swarming around the pileup on the expressway to capture every conceivable injury for the evening news.

The journalists were on the scene at the expressway crash to document the incident for the evening news.

The first sentence gives us a sense of media reporting that is inappropriately aggressive through the words “swarm” and “capture.” In the second sentence, on the other hand, “were on the scene” and “document” imply that the journalists are neutral, diligent, and professional.

If something in an argument is likely to set the reader against the argument, the writer can try to soften that reaction by choosing the most positive words available to fit the meaning. If the writer wants to intensify feelings of outrage, tragedy, or absurdity around a phenomenon that readers might otherwise dismiss as ordinary, the writer will need to think of an unfamiliar and dramatic way to describe that phenomenon.


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