Are you as neutral as you think? By choosing connotative words, we often unthinkingly communicate things that we don’t mean to say.
Intentionally or not, we convey value judgments. Our word choices often carry with them an emotional connotation. When we call a personal “angry” versus “upset” or “rattled,” readers digest the connotation of those words along with the facts of the story.
“Anger,” for example, carries with it a connotation of righteous indignation, as well as a touch of emotional volatility. “Concerned,” like angry, connotes a just root of the feeling, but implies intellectual and emotional control. “Upset” sounds like a knee-jerk reaction to a situation, with no implication of righteousness. “Had her panties in a wad,” one of my favorites, is dismissive. The problem was all in the panty-wearer’s head, or worse, a result of badly thought-out undergarment selection.
Why we Should Use Connotative Words.
When it comes to storytelling, connotative words aren’t bad. Our feeling, subconscious or conscious, are part of the package. The subtext is often what engages our listeners. Our speech patterns as well as the “tone” of our voice, tells them much about who we are.
Plus, if you write as if you’re walking on egg-shells, you won’t “be yourself.” Besides, some people just want to tell their stories, not ensure that everyone likes them. I get that. There should be times where you can let your hair down. And, there should be people (family comes to mind) with whom you can say what you think and feel with no fear or judgement or recriminations.
Why we Should Exercise Care when using Connotative Words
When it comes to preserving stories and giving future generations a taste of family members that they might only know in life, perhaps a little more intention is called for as we pick and choose connotative words.
Part of the point of communicating is making ourselves understood. In a job interview, you don’t just spruce up your resume. You comb your hair, wear nice –at least clean—clothes, and sit up straight. It’s not that you like sitting up straight. Rather, you know that slouching will be misunderstood as disinterest.
This is a touchy point for me because I’ve seen people re-shape stories by their choice of vocabulary. Sometimes it was in a way that promoted understanding and tact. But, I’ve also seen people use finesse in word choices to warp others understanding of a story.
For instance, in a recent debate among her colleagues, a woman I know did this with an elegance and aplomb I could almost respect. She was the “reporter,” the assumed neutral party. She was also a wordsmith. But her wordsmithing crossed over into manipulating understanding of what had happened. Her use of connotative words effectively muted the voices of those she opposed. People weren’t “concerned.” They were “afraid.” No one “advocated” for an action. Instead, their “mother-bear side was showing.” A teen’s strongly held opinion was “what you might expect of someone of his age, gender, and ethnicity” or, equally dismissive, simply “reflected her parents’ viewpoint.”
Strategies for maintaining neutrality:
You can still use the words you want—even those with negative connotations—without allowing their subtext to overshadow your story.
Add more setting to your story.
Note the differences:
Grandma struck her wooden spoon and snapped at Fred, “…..”
Some of us didn’t even know Grandma had a ‘last nerve,’ but Fred had found it, gotten on it, rode it hard, and put it up wet. When he …., we got to see the unflappable flap. Grandma struck her wooden spoon on the side of the stove and snapped, “……
The latter gives intentional characterization along with the story. In the first instance, we could have assumed that Fred was a victim. In the second, Fred was getting a taste of his own medicine. Grandma looks more human. As you portray this humanity, your readers are better able to connect with her and with Fred.
Use Your Wordsmithing Powers for Good
Connotative words can be positive, persuasive and uplifting. Re-read Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream speech.” His artful use of connotative words such as “momentous,” “hallowed ground,” and “creed” were a part of his ability to inspire.
Let your Readers get to Know their Narrator.
Fiction writers (and others that write in the third person) are cognizant of the concept of a “trusted narrator.” In a nutshell, readers engage more fully in the story if they trust or understand the viewpoint of the narrator. In my opinion, the more of yourself you put on each page, the more fully your readers will understand you. Which matters, because if they understand you, they won’t get tripped or wrapped up in a single ambiguous word choice.
TED speaker Sally Kohn, speaks about emotional correctness—and points out that if people perceive you as being kind and sincere, they are more likely to listen to what you have to say. (Watch the clip.)
Do a little research
Things that were common terms twenty years ago are now considered offensive. Whether or not you want to adapt or bow (See, that’s a connotative word) to political correctness, knowing how your word choices will land on readers of different generations and ethnicities will help you write. (YourDictionary.com has a helpful short primer.)
Explain your word choices
Take your readers or listeners back in time with you. For instance, you might explain although “crippled” is considered offensive today, that’s how you thought of yourself and that no one meant any harm in referring to you that way. For them, it was simply a descriptive term.
When have you grappled with using connotative words? How did you resolve your dilemma? What words do you consider “hot button” terms? How do you write around them?