When I taught 7th grade Language Arts, one of the biggest complaints I heard from my students was “Why are there so many WORDS for everything, when a lot of ’em mean the same thing?” My response: “These words don’t always mean EXACTLY the same thing.” And then I went and taught a lesson on connotation–the shades of meaning hidden in words.
Why Connotation is Important
Connotation gives writing a subtle descriptive power, without which most stories would fall flat. The choice of exactly the right word is like an artist choosing just the right shade of red or blue for a painting–the wrong shade can make the whole painting look “off” to the viewer’s eye, just as the wrong word choice can give listeners or readers a wrong impression. It might be a little detail, but it’s important!
In my writing, I often hunt for synonyms of words whose concepts I use quite frequently–for instance, the word “said” is a big thorn for me, because I don’t want my writing to sound “like an echo chamber” (which one of my graduate school professors told me my writing resembled–GRR). These days, it seems I’m always struggling to find a word I can use in place of “said,” but often there isn’t any really effective substitute. Nothing just SAYS “said” like “said.” (If that makes any sense…LOL!)
This, plus reading lots of other people’s writings about having the same difficulty, led me to think about writing with synonyms in general. When we choose synonyms for words we are using more often, we can often get tricked into thinking the synonyms mean EXACTLY the same thing as the word we are replacing–like my 7th graders thought. That, however, is definitely not the case.
An Example: The Word “Said”
Take the various synonyms and sorta-synonyms for “said”, as a convenient example (many thanks to Thesaurus):
add, affirm, allege, announce, answer, assert, break silence, claim, come out with, communicate, conjecture, convey, cry, declare, deliver, disclose, divulge, estimate, express, flap, gab, give voice, guess, imagine, imply, jaw, judge, lip, maintain, make known, mention, mutter, opine, orate, perform, pronounce, put forth, put into words, rap, read, recite, rehearse, relate, remark, render, repeat, reply, report, respond, reveal, rumor, speak, spiel, state, suggest, tell, utter, verbalize, voice, yak
WOW! Did you know there were THAT many apparent synonyms for just SAYING something? I sure didn’t, until I researched it. And yet, all these words don’t mean EXACTLY the same thing as “said.” They all do mean that something was spoken aloud, but beyond that, there are many shades and tones of meaning:
Implies that the person has already said something before this, or is adding to another person’s statement
Implies a positive rather than negative response to a question
Implies a forceful or accusatory tone of voice
Implies a loud tone of voice, but not necessarily an angry shout
Implies a statement that simply answers another person’s question
Break Silence/Voice/Come Out With:
Implies a statement made after a long silence by other people
Communicate/Convey/Express/Put Into Words/Speak:
Implies a statement made over distance (like phone or email) or spoken in a neutral tone of voice
Implies an opinion spoken without evidence
Implies frustration or outrage, or even desperation
Implies a formal speech or structured words
Implies a quiet or possibly conspiratorial tone of voice
Implies a statement full of educated guesses or opinions
Implies light or small talk, not of much importance
Implies a spoken opinion which was either held back for a long time, or has been silently held by many other people in attendance
Implies an opinion expressing “what-if” situations, fantasy
Means the statement has a hidden meaning or obscure connotation
Implies comments that are rude or false (i.e., “paying lip service” or “getting lippy with someone”)
Implies a casual tone of voice, maybe an offhand comment
Implies resentment or a sotto voce (under the breath) comment
Implies a firm tone of voice, not casual in any regard
Implies comments or questions that are being practiced
Implies speech that is given to an authority figure
Implies speech that is part of a sales pitch or otherwise overly practiced story
Implies speech that is intended to be persuasive
And This is Just One Example of Connotation!
Looking at this list might be a little daunting, but it truly shows how diverse English can be, in terms of giving dialogue a little color and life. You can change the tone and mood of a sentence just by changing “remarked” to “suggested,” or by changing “mention” to “convey.” It gives your work subtle dimension, like using a pencil to shade a character’s face so that it appears 3-D on a page.
Including Connotation in Your Own Work
When you’re hunting for the right word, it really does help to keep a thesaurus nearby (either in paper form or by searching Thesaurus.com). It might seem like a writer’s cliche, but it does help with crafting better prose and poetry, just like gazing at a palette full of colors helps an artist choose just the right one for a part of their painting. Look up the word you think you want to use, and you might find one in the list that fits your needs even better!