- On February 27, 2020
I’ve recently started a new writing project, and am surprised at how often I find myself stumbling upon ‘unusable’ words. What do I mean by that? I’m referring to words that have the correct technical definition of what I need them to say, but still won’t work because they carry ‘residue’ that will distract my readers.
This concept is called “connotation,” and it’s defined as “an idea or feeling a word invokes in addition to its literal or primary meaning.”
Sometimes connotation can be helpful. A writer can convey all sorts of depth and significance with a single word that otherwise would have to be spelled it out in narrative. For example, if I wrote “Susan embraced her son,” you’d have a mental picture of the mother and child, but it would be incomplete. Is the mother’s embrace joyful, excited, restrained, protective? How about the boy — is he relaxed, squirming, scared? And this sentence reveals nothing about their history or relationship; that information would require further narration. However if I change it to “Susan snuggled her son,” you’d immediately get a sense of warmth, happiness, comfort, closeness. You would infer this is part of their routine. Changing that one word — even though it’s a close synonym — would convey volumes.
More often, however, connotation is a problem for writers. Words that have strong connotation limit options for an author and can derail an intended theme. Imagine replacing the word “friend” with synonyms like “comrade,” “confederate,” “cohort.” These all paint pictures that are far different than “buddy,” “pal,” “chum.” The same goes for “childish” instead of “youthful,” or “cheap” substituted for “frugal” or “discriminatory” in place of “selective.” The list goes on and on.
Add to this the issue of ‘tainted’ words which have been co-opted by social causes or modern notions. Such terms spark images that are now entirely their own. Examples include “snowflake,” “dreamer,” “influencer,” “surf,” “cloud.” Still others have become synonymous with ad slogans and commercial interests: “mayhem,” “avenger,” “choosy,” “frozen.”
Sure, I could use any of these in my work, but I’d risk losing my readers as the connotative innuendo could easily overpower whatever I was trying to say. So my advice is: proofread everything with connotation in mind, have your thesaurus handy in case you need to replace any troublesome words, and make certain it’s YOUR message that comes shining through!