Interpreting Connotations of Words
Understanding the exact meaning of words is very important in critical reading, because the ability to carefully interpret the language used enables one to learn much about the writer. It should always be noted that authors are aware of the connotation associated with certain words, especially if they know their audience well, and they use them quite deliberately to make their writing persuasive or convincing. In their trials to appeal to emotions in order to make their ideas acceptable and believable, or to influence their readers’ thinking, writers always use highly connotative language. Thus, it is not always what one writes but how he writes it that influences people. Assume, for example, that one wants to encourage someone else to change an opinion. The former’s choice of words will be important to his success. Compare the following approaches, noting the positive and negative connotations of the words used.
- I know how stubborn you are, but in this case, you’ve got to get that idea out of your thick skull.
- I know how firm of purpose you are, but in this case, you have to modify your opinion.
The possibility to succeed with sentence (1) is very small. Many people would react angrily to being told they are stubborn and have a thick skull. Sentence (2), in contrast, contains words with favorable associations. It is considered good to be firm of purpose, and the word ‘modify’ does not have to indicate a drastic change. This second approach could meet with success.
What makes the two sentences very difference is due to diction. Sentence (1) employs words with negative connotation, whereas sentence (2) uses words with positive connotation. What is connotation? To answer this question let’s compare the concept of connotation and denotation.
All words have denotations, but they do not necessarily possess connotations. Denotation refers to the literal meaning of a word, the “dictionary definition.”¨ For example, if you look up the word snake in a dictionary, you will discover that one of its denotative meanings is “any of numerous scaly, legless, sometimes venomous reptiles, having a long, tapering, cylindrical body and found in most tropical and temperate regions.” Connotation refers to the associations that are connected to a certain word or the emotional suggestions related to that word. The connotative meanings of a word exist together with the denotative meanings. The connotations for the word snake could include evil or danger. To take another example, the word ‘home’, denotes the residence of a man and his family, but it often connotes the suggestion of comfort and family intimacy and happiness. To sum up, we can say that what a word denotes is its objective meaning; what it connotes are the ideas and associations it suggests.
When you read, you would do well to think about the connotations of the words used. If you do, you will be less likely to be influenced without being aware of it.
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