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Choose Your Words: Exact Words and Connotations

Use words that convey exactly the meaning you intend. Two words might have similar definitions (denotation), but they can also have additional implications and emotional overtones, frequently with a positive or negative slant (connotation). When you write, choose words carefully and be conscious of the need for precision. Your readers will get very different impressions depending on whether you describe a person as fat or heavy, lazy or relaxed. If you select a word with inappropriate connotations, your readers experience a jarring note. Hurricanes devastate neighborhoods, but construction workers demolish a building. Writing "Construction workers devastate a building" would be inappropriate. Check your dictionary; it will often reveal the subtle distinctions among words with similar definitions.

Note how you can describe the same event but change its connotations by your choice of words:
  Version 1    The crowd consisted of young couples holding their children's hands, hard-working students in well-worn clothes, and activist politicians, all voicing support of their cause.
  Version 2    The mob consisted of hard-faced workers dragging children by the hand, truant students in leather jackets and ragged jeans, and militant politicians, all howling about their cause.

The following words do not tell readers much; instead, they signal to you that revision would help: area, aspect, certain, circumstance, factor, kind, manner, nature, seen, situation, thing.

  Draft    Our perception of women's roles differ as we enter new areas. The girl in Kincaid's story did many things that are commonly seen as women's work.
  Revised    Our perceptions of women's roles differ as we learn more from what we see, hear, read, and experience. The girl in Kincaid's story did many household chores that are commonly seen as women's work. She washed the clothes, cooked, swept the floor, and set the table.

Words can form ladders of abstraction, moving from the general and abstract down to the specific and concrete: tool, cutting implement, knife, cleaver. If you do not move away from the general and abstract, you give your readers too much imaginative leeway. "Her grandmother was shocked by the clothing she bought" leaves a great deal to a reader's imagination. What kind of clothing, exactly? A low-necked dress, high-heeled platform shoes, and black fishnet stockings? or a conservative navy wool suit? Convey exact images and information to your readers whenever it is possible and appropriate to do so.

See also
Word Choice Checklist
Dictionary and Thesaurus
Tone and Language
Figurative Language
Avoiding Biased Language
Avoiding Tired and Pretentious Language