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Sample "Morning Message": Connotation and denotation

Honors English Language Arts, Ty Stewart

2/09/2022

 

Here's an example of a Morning Message I wrote for my 2021-22 class. This is typically how I deliver instruction and guidance to students, and it should give you a decent idea of my teaching style. Students will typically read a Morning Message like this each weekday (some are longer than this and some are shorter). Usually, I'll require them to complete a short exercise or other response in reply.

Good morning!

I want to clarify something from yesterday’s message. In my instructions for your exercise on analyzing Berry and Chesterton’s word choices, I said this:

Briefly comment on how the meaning of the sentence or paragraph would be changed if Berry/Chesterton had used plain, simple or vague language instead.

While I asked you to look for words that struck you as remarkable, language don’t actually have to be fancy or esoteric to be considered diction. A writer can use simple or plain diction when writing. In fact, this is what George Orwell advocates for in “Politics and the English Language.”

Still, I doubt Orwell would have much of a problem with Berry or Orwell’s writing. Even though they often use elevated language like “transience,” each writer deploys their chosen words with care. You can tell Berry uses a word like “transience” because it has a particular, specific meaning and implications. Good writers can use long words effectively while still avoiding jargon or empty verbiage for its own sake.

Basically, I don’t want you to come away from yesterday’s message thinking that a writer’s word choice has to be elaborate. (It definitely doesn’t, and writing that is unnecessarily ornate and flowery can be pretty terrible; this is what is often referred to as “purple prose.”) Your writing will ALWAYS have diction. It’s just a question of whether your diction is effective, appropriate, and meaningful. Even those examples of bad writing Orwell critiqued in his essay had diction — vague, obtuse, and ugly diction.

The central takeaway I want you to remember is this: A writer’s diction should serve their purpose. If your goal is to communicate clearly, you’ll want to use unadorned, straightforward language that helps you lay out your points clearly. If your goal is to create a particular mood, you should chose suitable words. For instance, if you’re writing a horror story, you certainly don’t want language that evokes feelings of comfort and tranquility. You want language that is ominous and foreboding: Wind doesn’t blow, it shrieks and howls; windows don’t shake, they rattle; the villainous-looking man doesn’t laugh, he cackles.

Picking the right word is often a matter of understanding its connotation. Let’s go back to Nancy Dean’s description of diction in Voice Lessons that I shared yesterday. I want to draw your attention to the following paragraph:

When studying diction, students must understand both connotation (the meaning suggested by a word) and denotation (literal meaning). When a writer calls a character slender, the word evokes a different feeling from calling the character gaunt. A word’s power to produce a strong reaction in the reader lies mainly in its connotative meaning.

Understanding both what a word denotes and what a word connotes are important. But, as Dean notes, it’s the latter that has the most relevance when talking about the effect a particular word has.

Here’s another look at connotation from Khan Academy, a well-known producer of educational videos:

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When writers and students don’t understand connotation, they often fall into what I call the “thesaurus trap.” For example, let’s say a writer wants to find a synonym for the word “sad.” Perhaps they used the word in a sentence, but decided that it’s too vague and nonspecific. So they turn to thesaurus.com, which offers numerous alternatives.

Let’s say the original sentence goes like this:

Sarah was sad because her cat got hit by a car last week.

One possible synonym for “sad” is “bitter”:

Sarah was bitter because her cat got hit by a car last week.

To me, this suggests a sadness tinged with anger. Sarah isn’t just sad, she’s also resentful and upset — probably at the driver who ran over her pet. Notice, however, the difference when we choose another alternative, like “heartbroken”:

Sarah was heartbroken because her cat got hit by a car last week.

This word has an entirely different connotation and, thus, distinctly different effect. To say Sarah is “heartbroken” doesn’t include the same sense of anger as “bitter.” Instead, it suggests (or connotes) deep pain and possibly even despair.

The problems arise when writers ignore or simply don’t understand the broader connotations of a particular word and treat synonyms as interchangeable. (They are not.) For example, some of the alternatives for “sad” suggested by thesaurus.com make little sense in our example sentence. Consider “wistful”:

Sarah was wistful because her cat got hit by a car last week.

Does this strike the right note to you? Not unless Sarah wasn’t very attached to her cat. To me, “wistful” suggests a misty, perhaps ill-defined yearning. A retired professional basketball player feels wistful about his days in the NBA. An elderly woman feels wistful about the lost days of her happy childhood. There is a suggestion of melancholy, perhaps even sadness. But it doesn’t fit what the writer of that hypothetical sentence was originally trying to express: that Sarah felt bad because of what happened to her cat.

For today, I want you to do two things:

Great work on yesterday’s diction exercise, by the way!

Mr. Stewart

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