Loaded Connotations

My DD is newly in love.  Her friend’s brother has captured her heart.  The other day, I asked what she did while at BF’s house.  She blushed all the way to her belly button.

“Nothing.  Not that.  Nothing.  We don’t do anything, Mom.  I promise.”

Me: “So you just sit and stare at each other?  You don’t talk or watch television or play games or anything?  Just stare?”

She, with her blush subsiding: “Oh, that.  We hang out and talk or watch tv or play on the computer.”

Sometimes we forget that words can be loaded.  We don’t realize all the subtle connotations that are attached to simple phrases.  Yet as writers, we need to be hyper vigilant about the words we choose and how they can impact our readers.  Especially when we write cross-culturally or across generations.

When we write, we cannot accurately portray the way want the meaning to sound.  Body language, facial clues and vocal inflection are not present on the printed page.  This makes it essential for us to understand all the connotations of a given word before committing it to paper.  Otherwise we end up with stammering, blushing readers who fail to grasp what we intended to say.

What words rub you the wrong way?  How do you handle passages that offend you?  Do you reread them to look for alternate meanings or do you simply put the book down and move on to something a little less confrontational?  Is this something you look for when editing your manuscripts?  If so, how do you balance what you wanted to say with what might actually be on the page?

14 responses to “Loaded Connotations

  1. You are so right about the wriiten word. I tutor an ESL student and that really makes you focus on all of the nuisances of the english language.

    • Bless your heart, Mike. Tutoring is such an amazing endeavor and very fulfilling. Your student is lucky to have someone help him/her out with such a complicated language.

      And yes, English is definitely nuance-rich. It makes me wonder how many times people get needlessly offended. I’m quite sure there would be a lot less disagreement if our words only had one true meaning and no room for interpretation!

      Thanks for commenting~ cat

  2. Cat, what a good point. I think that most of the time we write like we speak, and that can definitely come across very differently on the written page.

    When I read something that doesn’t sound right, or it’s jarring and pulls me from the story, I just skip it and keep reading. But if it happens a lot I put the book down. Either the voice isn’t working for me, or the writing isn’t.

    Either way I’ll never be able to focus on the story because my internal editor will be correcting the words as I read – and that’s not fun.

    Great post and something to keep in mind as we labor over our own words. 🙂

    • I agree with getting “jarred” out of a story. After a while, the connection is no longer there and I might as well be reading a quick newspaper article.


  3. This is something I’ve had to deal with in personal messages and in work messages for decades. I found a scientific study that states only 7% of our intended meaning is carried by our words! Makes you appreciate body language so much more, doesn’t it? It helps, of course, if you know the character enough to know their frame of mind.

    I’d say if I came across an unclear passage in a book, I might stop reading. It depends on how important that passage was and how bad the confusion was. usually I can clear things up pretty fast, but with less editing done on mss before publication these days, I expect this problem to grow.

    • Victoria,

      I hope not. The last thing we need to be putting in front of our kids is a bunch of miscommunicated works.

      Emails can definitely cause tension. It’s just too easy to misread what is meant. Of course, in my line of work, I even hated doing phone interviews because I couldn’t “see” what the person meant. It’s a lot easier to lie over the phone than when you have to look ther person in the eye!

  4. This is why I hate phones and prefer to walk round to see the person I want to talk to (if it is at all possible). Its harder, but not impossible, for these confusions to occur face to face.

    • Cassandra,

      I agree one hundred percent. My DD got her phone taken away for two weeks. She was allowed to use the “old fashioned” land line if she sat in the living room. By the time her grounding was done, she said thanks. I forgot how fun it was to actually talk to people.

      Maybe there should be a national no-texting week so we can all remember that humans exist on the other end of our messages.

      Great point.

  5. I agree with the others – most of our communication is not with the words we use. As writers we have to be conscious of that and include those hints and clues to help out the reader. Not the easiest thing in the world.

    • LOL, Jemi. When I try, I end up with grinning, bobble heads! It is very difficult to portray meaning through the written word without sounding dorky. But that’s part of the fun of writing–pulling it off!


  6. Good post, Cat. Body language needs to be part of our writing if we want a character’s personality and meaning to shine through his words. This is a great reminder.

  7. Great post. I try to include subtle things that characters do, such as pick at their nail polish, cuticles, or bite their lip, etc.
    Oh and I think it’s so awesome your DD is in love. How wonderful. Aren’t those just the best times. Ah, to be young and in love. 😉
    Lisa ~ YA Literature Lover

    • Lisa,

      I’m scared to death over her new found emotions. She seems so young! Or wait…maybe I’m just that old.

      At least your charaacters aren’t bobble heads. That’s about all mine every do!

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