In this lesson, you'll learn how authors can influence the meaning and the emotional effect of a sentence just by choosing the right words or by making references and comparisons. You'll learn the appropriate literary terms along with examples for each.
Reading Between the Lines
Imagine this scene: you're looking through a magazine, and you see an ad for perfume. When your friend sees the model in the ad she says, 'That girl is really thin.' By that, your friend means that the model is underweight. What if your friend had said, 'That girl is really skinny.' In this sentence, the word 'skinny' also means underweight, but the two sentences aren't quite the same. The first one sounds more positive, and the second one sounds a little critical or negative. In literature, specific word choices can affect the meaning and tone of the story.
Connotation and Denotation
Let's learn some terms that will better help us talk about word choice. A word's denotation is the definition of the word. In our first example, both 'skinny' and 'thin' have the same denotation. What's different about them is the connotation, or the feeling invoked by a word. 'Thin' brings out positive feelings, but 'skinny' brings out feelings that are just a little bit negative. Imagine you're writing a story about a character who uses a wheelchair. If you describe that character as 'disabled,' your reader gets one feeling, but if you use a loaded word like 'crippled,' the reader has a much harsher reaction.
The tone of a story is the attitude of the speaker. One more example: imagine the speaker in a novel is describing another character. He says, 'Bill may have been 72 years old, but he acted youthful.' He's describing an older man who acts much younger than his years. This sentence creates a positive tone towards Bill. Here's another version: 'Bill may have been 72 years old, but he acted childlike.' Hmmm. . . not so positive. Bill doesn't sound like a fun, energetic guy; he sounds immature and annoying. Just one word with a different connotation can dramatically change the tone of a sentence!
Loaded Words: Analogies and Allusions
Sometimes words carry a ton of extra meaning along with them. This is especially true in the case of allusions. An allusion is a reference to something well-known, like a story, event or person.
Here's an example: 'My dad hardly ever spends money. He so frugal!' In this first example, the connotation is positive; the father is careful with his money. Now let's change the connotation: 'My dad hardly ever spends money. He's a penny-pincher!' Now the tone is more negative. We know the dad goes beyond being careful; he counts every cent. Last version, with an allusion: 'My dad hardly ever spends money. He's a real scrooge.' This one's the most negative of them all. That word, 'scrooge,' contains a reference to a well-known character from A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. In that story, Ebenezer Scrooge was the stingiest person imaginable. His greed harmed other people and nearly led to his own ruin. The allusion to A Christmas Carol brings with it all the information about Scrooge and packs it into one word, full of negative connotations. Using that allusion certainly changed the meaning and tone of the sentence!
Analogies function in a similar way. An analogy is an expression used to explain something by comparing it to something familiar. Poets and fiction writers make comparisons all the time. If they're writing about a particular idea or feeling that the reader may not have experienced, they will use analogies to help the reader understand by comparing this new idea or feeling to something familiar.
Here's an example: an author wants to get across a complex idea about the nature of human existence. His character has come to the conclusion that we live in a random world where bad things can happen to good people and where coincidence can play a major role in how our lives turn out. That's a pretty deep idea! His character, Forrest Gump, uses an analogy to connect this deep thought with something familiar. He says, 'Life is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you're gonna get.'
Writers choose their words carefully to get across a particular meaning and tone. The denotation of a word is its definition, but the connotation is the extra feeling that a word carries. Using words with different connotations can really change the meaning of a sentence and the tone, which means the attitude of the speaker. Writers can also draw upon analogies and allusions to pack more meaning into fewer words.
Allusions are references to well-known stories, people or events, and when a writer makes an allusion he brings in all the background that comes with that story. So, if a writer wants to call a character a mean, stingy, lonely, self-destructive jerk, all he has to do is use the word 'scrooge' to make an allusion to that famous character. Analogies are a tool to make a deep thought understandable by relating it, in a comparison, to something the reader already knows. Connotation, allusion and analogy are all tools writers have to pack more ideas and emotions into their sentences.
After watching this lesson, you should be able to:
- Define connotation, denotation, allusion, and analogy
- Recognize what is meant by the tone of a piece of writing
- Explain how authors influence the emotional effect of a sentence with the right words or references