Take Care with Connotation

By Mark Nichol

The English language is notable for the abundance of synonyms for many words, which enriches prose by offering opportunities for elegant variation, the use of synonyms to avoid repetitive use of one word. Another benefit is that the writer can select a particular synonym to express connotation, the implication of a sense or value for a word.

For example, eager and anxious are often used interchangeably to indicate someone’s anticipation of an impending event. However, eager implies that the person looks forward to the occurrence, while the connotation of anxious is that they dread it. (Unfortunately, this distinction is weakening in modern English usage.)

The careful writer takes note not only of a word’s meaning but also its connotation, because failure to do so can obscure the writer’s intent.

Various synonyms for thin used to describe a person, for example, have a wide variety of connotations. A slender person is one with a pleasing economy of form, and svelte adds a sense of fashionable presentation. A skinny person, meanwhile, is excessively thin, and gaunt emphasizes an unhealthful state. Wiry, meanwhile, connotes a tough, lean build acquired through hard work, while lithe suggests a graceful quality.

By the same token, it’s one thing to say someone is confident, but cocksure is a negative appraisal. A stubborn person, meanwhile, could be described by a proponent as resolute and by a foe as obstinate.

Novice is (or is intended to be) a neutral term, but many synonyms for the word, such as greenhorn, newbie, rookie, and tenderfoot, are uncomplimentary or at least often used to poke fun. (Apprentice, neophyte, recruit, and tyro are gentler terms.) Synonyms can differ in formality, as in the difference between car and automobile, but the difference is often one of value instead (or in addition).

Keep in mind, too, that a single word can have more than one connotation. For example, a person descried as earthy might be simple and practical, or might be unsophisticated or coarse. (Earthy is also a synonym for crude.)

Use of precise terms in fiction and nonfiction alike is encouraged, but be sure the sense you intend is the one conveyed: Consult dictionaries and usage guides, and when you employ a thesaurus or a synonym finder to find a more interesting or more precise alternative to pedestrian prose, make sure you select the appropriate word based on your meaning.

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5 Responses to “Take Care with Connotation”

  • Ray

    Include me among those previously unaware of the distinction between “eager” and “anxious.” I thought “anxious” could have either a positive or negative connotation, depending on the context. I’ll try to remember that distinction from now on.

  • Mark Nichol

    Ray:

    Let me revise my statement about that: The original connotation of anxious is a negative one, because the word is related to anxiety. However, it now also has a positive connotation.

    Context clarifies connotation: The ambiguous statement “He anxiously awaited the beginning of the concert” must be accompanied by additional information for the reader to comprehend the connotation. If anxious were not what one Web wit calls an antagonym (a word that has antonymic connotations — another example is oversight), English would be a little less complicated.

  • Alexis

    All of this is a strong argument against the excessive use of slang as a replacement for these words, as slang has little connotation past the culture that invents the slang. If the word becomes overused outside of that cultural bias, it becomes a ‘non word’ in the emotional context of the piece.

    For example, the growing use of the verb “impact” to replace both the words affect and effect in the English language. Whereas previously its use was signaled for events that were greatly effected, the overuse of the word has caused it to become bland and meaningless. Whereas before “affect” and “effect” had nuance, the replacement has none at all.

  • Precise Edit

    If someone sends me an e-mail stating “I’m anxious to meet you,” I have to wonder why this person is nervous. I’m a likeable guy.

    When we only use “anxous” to indicate negative feelings and “eager” to mean the positive feelings, we won’t create this confusion. My advice, if you mean “eager,” use “eager.”

  • shirley in berkeley

    Remember: Always crosscheck a word choice by looking up its definition. A thesaurus can be a minefield of opportunities to alter your intended meaning.

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