This post will explain how and when to use connotation to best connect with the audience and drive your message in any form of writing. Understanding the right word to use is critical to communicating effectively in any form.
Connotation vs. Denotation
Denotation is the literal dictionary definition of a word. “Ugly”, “demented”, and “hideous” all have very similar official meanings in English.
Connotation, on the other hand, is the historical and cultural nuisances of a word. “Leader” has very different connotation than “boss”, even though they have a similar denotation. Essentially, words mean different things to different people groups.
For example, you might say you “like” that blonde chick in your math class, but you’d want to use a more meaningful word if she’s actually your girlfriend. People say that love is a very strong word in a relationship. You best not say it without meaning it. The word is loaded with heavy connotation.
Webster defines love as “having a profoundly tender, passionate affection for.” But what does that mean in reality? Perhaps there are universals, but it largely depends on who you ask. Some might find romantic dinners loving. Others show love in doing chores together, watching movies while devouring ice cream, or sharing life stories while strolling the beach.
You could publish a lengthy dissertation answering the metaphysical question “what is love?” (click here to read one!), but, for practical purposes, you probably just want to live out the kind of love that works with your significant other.
The same principle is true of writing for an audience. Whether for marketing or publishing, the target audience will interpret words through the lens of their culture and worldview.
While begrudgingly, we must admit some truth to the old adage, “the customers is always right!” Rather than struggling to educate a reader with higher level words, it usually makes more sense to just adapt their existing vocabulary.
Solid marketing begins with knowing your audience and using their language!
Positive and Negative Connotation
When addressing trendy teens, you could say, “Johnny Depp had mad swagger as he proudly accepted his Golden Globe Award!”
But if you’re submitting a paper to a college professor, you might want to rephrase that to something like, “Johnny Depp, acclaimed Hollywood actor, had a highly pretentious spirit at the award ceremony.”
Besides sounding more intelligent, the second example also presents Depp in a more negative light, even though semantically it has the same meaning as the first.
Connotation can either be positive or negative in affecting the mood of the content. I’ll use some color coding to highlight this point:
- “Mad swagger” = positive connotation
- “Pretentious spirit” = negative connotation
As a wee lad, my teachers always reminded me, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” That’s a good philosophy for life that works well for content writing! Generally, you want to avoid wording with a negative connotation.
Focus on creating positive imagery. You can describe the problem in a somewhat negative way, but you should focus mostly on outlining a positive solution, i.e. the product serves to alleviate an issue by making it less time consuming, more intuitive, less strenuous, etc…
For you to effectively write content in this way, you need a good understanding of context – or how a word sounds in relation to the rest of the sentence. The word has to fit what you mean to say. Notice how one word can really change how the reader pictures the scene:
- Larry devoured his steak.
- Tiffany lazily dragged herself out of bed.
- Victoria had a sassy attitude all night.
- Bryan demanded a raise from his boss.
Now watch how we can spin these phrases with positive connotations:
- Larry dined on juicy steak.
- Tiffany paced herself in the morning getting out of bed.
- Victoria is known for being confident and assertive.
- Bryan politely requested a raise from his employer.
Now I love writing fiction where there’s no limit to your imagination! You can set the scene as dark and gloomy or cheerily and idyllic. But in marketing, we try to make it a rule to avoid certain words that turn readers off in an ad.
You really want to pick words that tap into the psychology of readers! These words also tend to take the place of several, thus making the whole content more concise.
Powerful buzzwords can change the face of an ad. For instance, notice the differences if you replace these positive words with the negative alternatives:
- Affordable (not cheap) = The bedroom counter had a very affordable price!
- Timely (not rushed) = The repairman serviced my AC unit in a timely fashion!
- Immersed (not mesmerized by) = Thomas was immersed in the video game Space Marine 7: Super Aliens.
- Sophisticated (not slick / clever) = Acupuncture is a sophisticated method for treating back pain.
- Flexible (not easy going) = The manager had a flexible schedule.
- Established (not old) = An established hotel tends to offer the best rates!
- Unique (not unconventional) = The barber gave me a unique haircut.
- Eye catching (not flashy) = The actress had an eye catching dress.
- Exceptional (not extreme) = The zoo offered exceptional coursework for their interns.
3 Kinds of Bad Connotation to Avoid
Words change over time as history moves forward and culture shifts. Thus, it’s important to realize some people groups may find offense in words we don’t think much about ourselves.
Obviously, don’t use blatant curse words in your content, but some words also have double meanings that apply to politics or religion. Be mindful of these kinds of words and always rule on the side of caution.
(1) – Offensive
You would think it’s pretty simple to avoid offensive words in content, but writers might want to toe the line to give off that rebellious vibe. Using curse words, even lesser ones like ass and damn, will alienate a chunk of the audience, like kids with protective parents or strict religious folks. For that reason, keep everything PG rated.
(2) – Politically Charged
Cut out any words that have a tie to politics. Like, I could say, “Ashley gives liberally to charity!” Now since I am an intelligent young man, I know that “liberally” in that context simply means generous, but your readers probably would be too stuck on the political association of the word. Even if they understand the nuance, it already triggers a psychological memory in the minds of the reader. What about a “conservative estimate”? You might be better off calling the estimate “safe”, “average”, or even a “ballpark figure”.
Society can associate “fundamental” with “fundamentalism”, a somewhat pejorative term for mainstream Christianity. Likewise, the word “radical” has been hijacked by its political association with so-called “radical Islam”. So, you probably wouldn’t say, “The radical bakers serve doughnuts stuffed with explosive flavor!” Hey! Stop laughing!
(3) – Insensitive
Society sees some words as simply less preferred than others. Usually, these kinds of word relate to people groups and how they (or society speaking for them) prefer you call them. For some, certain labels imply a connotation of lesser status than another group. Political correctness can become a bit dicey as its hotly debated in culture and some SJW want to “reclaim” words. Nevertheless, in writing always play it safe. For example:
- Native American (not Indian)
- Between jobs (not unemployed)
- LGBT (not queer)
- Mentally challenged (not retarded or handicapped)
- Stay-at-home-mom (not housewife)
- Little People (not midget)
I am not sure if the culture debate will ever settle on “black”, “African-American”, or “people of color”, but in every case, you should refer to people as people first. Many individuals can get uncomfortable when you single them out with an adjective like race or their condition. Unless the person prefers or it’s absolutely necessary to use descriptors, avoid them altogether.
When to Use Connotation?
If you add too many descriptors to your nouns and actions, you will make your sentences very long and choppy. Instead of overloading every sentence with heavy connotation, stick to focusing your thesis statement or call to action lines.
Think of the classic copywriter formula PAS, which stands for “problem-agitate-solve”. You want to place powerful negative connotation words to paint the problem as debilitating and overwhelming against the reader. Then enrich your descriptions of your idea or product with flowery positive connotation.
You don’t want to place the wrong connotation on a minor point of the article. You’ll confuse your reader and distract them from the main idea.
English has millions of words, but you need to choose the right ones for your niche. Have thesaurus.com pinned to your Chrome. If you’re constantly searching for synonyms and example sentences, you’ll find the right words for your message. Think about the audience and adapt their lingo, while still being professional and accurate!
If you’re looking to maximize the power of your copy, hire me for my freelance writing services.
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