Practice in Choosing the Best Words: Denotations and Connotations

Exercise in Using Denotative and Connotative Language

What noun would you use to characterize this boy?. (Judith Wagner/Corbis/Getty Images)
The difference between the almost-right word and the right word is really a large matter. It's the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.
( Mark Twain)

Careful writers choose words both for what they mean (that is, their dictionary meanings or denotations) and for what they suggest (their emotional associations or connotations). For instance, the adjectives slim, scrawny, and svelte all have related denotative meanings (thin, let's say) but different connotative meanings.

And if we're trying to pay someone a compliment, we better get the connotation right.

Here's another example. The following words and phrases all refer to a young person, but their connotations may be quite different depending, in part, on the context in which they appear: youngster, child, kid, little one, small fry, squirt, brat, urchin, juvenile, minor. Some of these words tend to carry favorable connotations (little one), others unfavorable connotations (brat), and still others fairly neutral connotations (child). But referring to an adult as a child can be insulting, while calling a young person a brat lets our readers know at once how we feel about the rotten kid.

Working with the five passages below will help make you more aware of the importance of choosing words carefully for what they imply or suggest as well as for what they mean according to the dictionary.


Each of the five short passages below (in italics) is fairly objective and colorless.

Your job is to write two new versions of each passage: first, using words with positive connotations to show the subject in an attractive light; second, using words with negative connotations to describe the same subject in a less favorable way. The guidelines following each passage should help you focus your revisions.

A. Bill cooked dinner for Katie. He prepared some meat and vegetables and a special dessert.
(1) Describe the meal that Bill prepared, making it sound appetizing by using words with favorable connotations.
(2) Describe the meal again, this time using words with negative connotations to make it sound quite unappealing.

B. The person did not weigh very much. The person had brown hair and a small nose. The person wore informal clothing.
(1) Identify and describe this particularly attractive person.
(2) Identify and describe this particularly unattractive person.

C. Douglas was careful with his money. He kept his money in a safe place. He bought only the necessities of life. He never borrowed or lent money.
(1) Choose words that show how impressed you are by Douglas's sense of thrift.
(2) Choose words that make fun of Douglas or pass scorn on him for being such a tightwad.

D. There were many people at the dance. There was loud music. People were drinking. People were dancing. People were holding each other.
(1) Through your descriptions, show how this dance was an enjoyable experience.
(2) Through your descriptions, show how this dance was an extremely unpleasant experience. 

E. After sundown, the park was empty, dark, and quiet.

(1) Describe the park as a peaceful place.
(2) Describe the park as a frightening place.

For additional practice in descriptive writing, see Composing Descriptive Paragraphs and Essays: Writing Guidelines, Topic Ideas, Exercises, and Readings. ​

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