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8.2: Word Choice and Connotation

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    Media Alternative

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    In previous chapters, we considered argument in terms of logic. We have asked ourselves if claims, reasons, and assumptions are correct in what they assert. Now we will look at how writers choose words not only to convey ideas but to shape readers’ emotional experience and subconscious reactions.

    The word "Dream" surrounded by glowing lights.
    The dreamy, glowing colored sparkles around the word "dream" express the sense of wonder and vague possibility associated with the word.
    Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash under the Unsplash License.

    Connotation refers to the emotions, social and cultural implications, and related concepts that most people associate with a word. Some connotations are obvious: anyone would prefer be called “assertive” rather than “pushy” for demanding something they consider to be their right. Other connotations are more subtle. Consider the difference between the feelings associated with the words “change” and “transform.” “Transform” has connotations of visionary change for the better. If we hear that “the new college president has transformed the admissions process” we are more likely to feel hopeful, perhaps impressed, without knowing anything at all about the nature of the changes. If we hear simply that “the new college president has changed the admissions process,” we will probably feel more skeptical about these changes and what their positive and negative impacts may be.

    Consider what different feelings about journalists come across in the following two sentences:

    • The media were swarming around the pileup on the expressway to capture every conceivable injury for the evening news.
    • The journalists were on the scene at the expressway crash to document the incident for the evening news.

    The first sentence gives us a sense of media reporting that is inappropriately aggressive through the words “swarm” and “capture.” In the second sentence, on the other hand, “were on the scene” and “document” imply that the journalists are neutral, diligent, and professional.

    If something in an argument is likely to set the reader against the argument, the writer can try to soften that reaction by choosing the most positive words available to fit the meaning. If the writer wants to intensify feelings of outrage, tragedy, or absurdity around a phenomenon that readers might otherwise dismiss as ordinary, the writer will need to think of an unfamiliar and dramatic way to describe that phenomenon.

    The border argument we analyzed in Chapters 2 and 3 offers many examples of emotional word choice. In the opening paragraph, the author starts out by referring to “illegal immigration,” acknowledging the familiar, commonly used phrase in the question “Is illegal immigration actually wrong?” However, she quickly shifts to words with gentler connotations when she reframes the question as, “Is it unethical to cross a border without permission?” This is the emotional shift she is encouraging readers to make--away from harsh judgment and toward a clear-eyed understanding. As she expands her exploration of the position of the undocumented in the next paragraph, she describes them in sympathetic terms with the following phrases: “people who are driven by need and good intentions,” “raising children in an impoverished third-world community plagued by violence,” “under desperate circumstances.” The connotations and emotional appeal are very much the same as those in the poem inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus, 1883. Lady Liberty talks about immigrants in words full of pathos and hope:

    Give me your tired, your poor,
    Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
    The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
    Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
    I lift my lamp beside the golden door!


    Closeup of the Statue of Liberty's face and headgear.
    Image by Wallula from Pixabay under the Pixabay License.


    Practice Exercise \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    Write down the connotations of each of the following words used to refer to immigrants:

    • undocumented immigrants
    • refugees
    • asylum-seekers
    • Dreamers
    • illegal immigrants
    • illegal aliens
    • Decide when or if you would use each term in discussions of current U.S. policy.  

    Practice Exercise \(\PageIndex{2}\)

    1. Rank the words below from most negative to neutral to most positive.  What are the connotations of each one? In what kind of situation would it be appropriate to use each one? 

      Then, discuss the different feelings and images called up by the following two sentences:

      Think of a situation in which there were public demonstrations or unrest. Describe what happened, choosing your words to shape readers’ feelings and associations.
      • riot
      • demonstration
      • protest
      • rally
      • uprising
      • unrest
      • march
      • revolt
      • movement
      • Rioters flooded downtown streets on Monday afternoon.
      • Protestors marched through the city.

    Practice Exercise \(\PageIndex{3}\)

    Working in a pair or small group, list the following groups of words from least to most positive, using your knowledge of connotation to guide you. Note where you agree or disagree on a word’s connotation. What cultural, socio-economic, or personal factors possibly caused your group’s disagreements or lack thereof?
    • thin, fit, lanky, skinny, gaunt, slender 
    • aggressive, assertive, domineering, dynamic, pushy
    • shrewd, nerdy, bright, brilliant, cunning, smart, intelligent


    The definition of “connotation” and some examples are adapted from articles on the topic in Reading and Writing for Learning from the Community College of Allegheny County, licensed CC BY-NC-SA. All other content is original content by Anna Mills.

    This page titled 8.2: Word Choice and Connotation is shared under a CC BY-NC license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Anna Mills (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative) .