Words and Phrases that Affect Your Reader – Not Always in a Good Way

“Tone” – the relationship the writer sets up, or reinforces with the reader – is such a critical part of your business writing that we talk about it often. Today let’s start a list with the first three of the tools of tone.

The first thing to consider is that, if we accept the above definition of tone as being the relationship the writer sets up with the reader, just think of the power that gives the writer. And thus, must be carefully considered during the writing process.

  1. In general, words and phrases are some of the tools used to build, or to reinforce that relationship. For the most part, those words and phrases go beyond the dictionary definition to create a feeling, or an emotion.

To begin with, let’s look at some of these connotative words. These are words that in and of themselves carry “baggage.” For example, complaint. To a police officer, a complaint may simply be the paperwork, or the issue itself – perhaps the need to trim tree limbs overhanging the sidewalk. To go beyond how the police officer understands and uses the word, to a frightened person who does not have the same understanding of the word as the officer has, it may mean little short of someone banging on your door in the middle of the night to carry you off to jail! While this is a rather extreme example, perhaps it makes the point.

Another negatively connotative word is propaganda, which somehow morphed from being something positive, done “for the faith” into its present negative connotation. Pope Gregory XV, who established the congregation for propagating the faith back in 1623, would, most likely, have been distressed when, by 1718, the meaning and use of the word had changed so drastically. Don’t you just love reading your dictionary? There is so much information in dictionaries! So many stories to learn! While the plot may be a bit thin, and character development a bit weak, dictionaries are a great read!

  1. High-blown, or very formal words and phrases also create tone, and usually a negative one. Unless you are working on a vocabulary exercise, or a paper, thesis, or dissertation where these types of words and phrases are expected, if not downright required, it’s best to use easily-understood words and phrases to help your reader understand what you are saying. Your reader’s vocabulary struggles often lead to massive frustration – not the environment in which you want your writing read. So check on the expectation or requirements of your reader, and of the piece you are writing, as you consider the tone of words to use.
  1. Negative connotation can also happen randomly, when there is an unfortunate combination of, or juxtaposition of, your words.

So there you have the first installment of three easy ways to create a negative, or unfortunate connotation. Probably not a good idea in most situations. More of what to avoid in another post.


Gail Tycer offers business writing workshops and presentations; executive coaching, consulting, writing, and editing services. Call Gail at 503/292-9681, or email gail@gailtycer.com to learn more.

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