Words Come Loaded: Get a License to Use Them Well

By Sue Stoney, The Message Crafter

If you’ve ever heard the words “denotation” and “connotation” before, it was probably in high school English class. So let’s review: “Denotation” is the dictionary meaning of a word. “Connotation” refers to the wide array of positive and / or negative associations a word takes on over time. It is the connotative meanings of words that can get us into trouble.

When I use “thin” to describe a young lady, that is one thing. What happens, though, if I plug in any of the following words in place of “thin”?

  • Bony
  • Slim
  • Anorexic
  • Slender
  • Lanky
  • Gaunt

As I substitute one connotatively charged word for another, the listener’s perceptions of the young woman change – because each of those synonyms for “thin” comes loaded with its own meaning baggage accrued over time.

rolloverThink about when a writer’s intentions with respect to word choice are misunderstood by a reader. This usually occurs when the writer is focused on the denotation (dictionary meaning) of a word and so is missing the subtext being conveyed by the word. The writer might be focused on the word’s specific use in his or her industry or might not be aware of all of the word’s connotations.

How someone hears what you’ve written speaks to that person’s emotional baggage surrounding your word choices as the individual has experienced those words in his or her own life. We all come with our own linguistic baggage, culturally and individually.

When you’re writing a communication piece meant to persuade (someone to buy your product, use your service, come to your workshop…), read it aloud to yourself (and if possible, to someone else) and check for the denotation and connotation of the words you’re using.

The target market for your business hears (reads) words differently than other groups of people do. Learn your market’s language. What will the words you use connote to them that they may not connote to you?

Remember the number one rule of the road to effective writing: Always determine audience and purpose first for any business communication piece you are working on. Who’s it for? What’s it for? Why am I writing this NOW?

For example, is this email message I’m sending out meant for clients or prospective clients? Will the jargon I use turn prospects away because it makes them feel that they aren’t part of my exclusive club? Or does that same jargon have a different connotation (maybe even denotation) in another industry they may be familiar with?

Here’s a question to ponder: Is there any word that has denotation (literal dictionary meaning) but no connotations?

In my view and the view of many linguists, the answer to that is “No.” Probably.

I heard a talk by a bishop about the translation of the New Testament into the language of the tribes isolated up in the mountains of Northeast India. For these people, this will be the first time they will see their language that tells the stories of the bible written down on the page.

Language at its purest is spoken first in human history and then written down. In its spoken form, it has both literal and connotative meaning all rolled into one. So the notion of “denotation” as a formal construct doesn’t really come into play until the words are written down. It’s as if, by writing the words down, we are trying to nail them (and their meanings) down.


But language is a living, breathing thing. It grows and changes with the people who use it. Connotation feeds denotation and so the wheel turns…