Impact of Word Choice on Meaning and Tone Video

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  • 0:01 Reading Between the Lines
  • 0:40 Connotation & Denotation
  • 2:08 Loaded Words:…
  • 4:27 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jason Lineberger

Jason has 20 years of education experience including 14 years of teaching college literature.

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!

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