More About Connotation

A couple of weeks ago, we talked about Words and Phrases that Affect Your Reader  – Not Always in a Good Way, and promised more of what to avoid in another post. Here it is.

First off, we defined a connotative word as a word that in and of itself “carries baggage.” Our old friend Webster’s defines connotation as “an idea or quality that a word makes you think about in addition to its meaning.” Two examples might be “complaint,” and  “propaganda.” Or how about “diet,” which may be defined as, “food or drink regularly provided or consumed” – in other words, we’re just talking about what you eat – which is probably not what most of us think when the word “diet” is introduced into the conversation!

Second, we said that connotative words and phrases are often judgmental words or phrases.  Sometimes they are overly formal, or “vocabulary exercise” types of words that, at the very least, can make others feel uncomfortable, if not outright put down.

And third, sometimes those words and phrases that may affect your reader negatively are just words or phrases that are keeping bad company – just an unfortunate random combination of, or juxtaposition of your words.

But connotation affects everyone. We’ve been talking about “big people” – adults in the workplace – to this point, but think about kids. Tell any two-year-old it’s time for a nap, and see what happens! Unless that child is willing to admit he or she is bone tired, and can see a little rest as a good thing, “nap” may mean being separated from the people or the activities he or she is enjoying.

Or how about “Don’t you know how to tie your shoes?” vs. “Do you know how to tie your shoes?”

How many connotative words can you identify in the following three sentences? Underline them. And then, how can you provide the same information without using any connotative words? Note: These sentences were extracted from real letters to real people.

  1. You assert that we failed to handle your complaint properly, but what you fail to recognize is that you read the guarantee wrong and are not entitled to a refund in the first place.


  1. You failed to pass the test.


  1. You obviously failed to comprehend what I said, even though it was written in plain English.


(Note: The word “you” may be thought of as a “finger pointer.” When you use “you” or the person’s name in a positive message it strengthens the positive feeling. Quite the reverse is true when you use “you,” or the person’s name in a negative message.)


So connotative words are words that trigger feelings when they assume meanings beyond the dictionary definition. This often happens because of when they are used and the context in which they are used. They may be used to create feelings, but should not be used without appropriate thought. When they are used, it should be for a definite purpose, determined in advance.