LEOLEO: Literacy Education Online


In addition to literal, dictionary meanings, words often have implied, emotional meanings known as connotations. These connotations play a big role in the search for the "right word" because they sometimes clash with a writer's intended meaning or view.

For example, in the following sentence, the word pushy conflicts with the meaning in the rest of the sentence:

The pushy citizen patiently waited for his turn at the microphone before confidently expressing his concerns about the city council's recent decision to staff the fire station with volunteers.

A pushy individual probably wouldn't have waited patiently for his turn to speak, but rather would have barged in whenever he felt emotionally led to do so. Perhaps, a more appropriate descriptive word for an individual who "patiently waited" before "confidently expressing his concerns" might be assertive.

Words with similar dictionary meanings often have different connotations, so it is very important for a writer to choose words carefully. Consider the following table. Each row contains a list of words with similar dictionary meanings but different shades of feeling.

Favorable Neutral Unfavorable
1. relaxed inactive lazy
2. prudent timid cowardly
3. modest shy mousy
4. time-tested old out-of-date
5. dignified reserved stiff-necked
6. persevering persistent stubborn
7. up-to-date new newfangled
8. thrifty conservative miserly
9. self-confident proud conceited
10. inquisitive curious nosy

More on connotations...

Each of the following sentences includes a pair of words with similar dictionary definitions but different connotations. One of the words is more appropriate based on the context of the sentence. That word appears in the right-hand column.

Sentence Examples Appropriate Word Choice
As snakes continue to grow, they (junk, shed) the protective keratinous layer on the surface of their bodies because it does not expand. shed
Oblivious to those around him, the father tenderly (smiled, smirked) at his newborn baby through the window of the hospital nursery. smiled
During rush hour traffic in a metropolis, cars creep along at agonizingly slow (velocities, speeds). speeds
Even the coolest star in the night skies is unbelievably (sultry, hot) according to astronomers. hot
The local newspaper's front-page story indicated that $50,000 was (stolen, pilfered) from the town's largest bank during the night. stolen
The pack of wild horses (loped, sprinted) alongside the train at top speed for more than 200 yards. sprinted
Although many Americans purchase meat at their local grocery stores, some farmers still (butcher, execute) livestock to feed their families. butcher
The French are (noted, notorious) for their fine food. notorious

© 1997, 2000 The Write Place

LEO: Literacy Education Online

The print version of this webpage was created for St. Cloud State University, St. Cloud, MN; it was revised first by Carrie Jean Schroeder and then by Donella Westphal, who also coded it for the web. It may be copied for educational purposes only. If you copy this document, please include our copyright notice and the names of the writers; if you revise it, please add your name(s) to the list of writers.

Last update: 23 August 2000

URL: http://leo.stcloudstate.edu/grammar/connotations.html