Last weekend, I was reminded that people “see” words differently.
Hubby and I were cycling a beautiful section of road near Mountain Green. At one point, a woman and a man rode by and waved.
Hubby said, “Did you see that couple blow past us?”
“Yeah, how long have they been together?” I replied. Hubby looked at me like I’d grown a second head. (Since he regularly rides with the local cycling club and the pair waved, I assumed he knew the riders.)
“What makes you think they’re ‘together’?”
“Because you said ‘couple’,” I answered. And I’m a hopeless romantic.
“I said ‘couple’ because there were two of them.”
Dictionary.com offers three definitions for the word couple: (1) as two of the same sort considered together; pair. (2) two persons considered as joined together, as a married or engaged pair, lovers, or dance partners. (3) any two persons considered together.
Obviously, Hubby had the first definition in mind because he’s a linear-thinking engineer. Two people… both on bicycles… both riding fast… a couple.
I’m a right-brained creative type with a penchant for romance novels and romantic comedy films. Definition #2 is what I was thinking. Two people… a woman and a man… same interest (cycling)… together… a couple.
Our different backgrounds, experience, and thought processes had us “see” the word differently.
Choose your words carefully. Ensure your reader “sees” what you want them to see.
Take, for example, the word home. The denotative meaning (dictionary definition) is a place where one lives; a residence. Its connotative meaning (the emotional associations of a word or the emotional meaning) is a place of security, comfort, and family. If your reader grew up in a safe, loving household, she’ll associate the word home with affection and lovely memories. However, if her background is the opposite, home might conjure up a very different set of thoughts.
Think cat. The denotative meaning of cat is a carnivorous mammal, domesticated as a rat catcher or pet. If you like cats, the connotative meaning may be graceful motion, affectionate, playfulness, noble reserve, and self-sufficiency. If you don’t like cats, the connotative meaning may be stealthiness, spitefulness, coldness, and haughty disdain.
Words can have negative, positive, and neutral connotations. Both woman and chick have the denotation adult female in North American society, but chick has somewhat negative connotations, while woman is neutral.
Think about the words reserved and withdrawn, curious and nosey, cowardly and timid, self-confident and smug, frugal and cheap, strong-willed and stubborn, and faddish and stylish. What do you “see” when you think of these words? What do you think your reader would “see?”
Watch yourself with ye olde thesaurus.
Synonyms may have the same or nearly the same meanings as one another, but almost always have different connotations or emotional meanings.
What are some different words and phrases that refer to a young person… youngster, child, kid, little one, small fry, brat, urchin, juvenile, minor? Some of these words–little one, small fry–carry positive connotations, while others–brat, urchin--invoke negative connotations and some–youngster, child, kid, juvenile, minor–offer neutral connotations.
Alexia considered her situation. Could she become a mother to these three little ones?
Alexia considered her situation. Could she become a mother to these three youngsters?
Alexia considered her situation. Could she become a mother to these three brats?
The word choice tells us a lot about Alexia, doesn’t it? In the first example, Alexia appears concerned, but happy about becoming a mother. In the second, she appears anxious that she may not have what it takes to become a mother. In the final example, Alexia appears upset about becoming a mother.
Is it really that big a deal?
Ruth said, “I don’t love you anymore, Roger.”
A basic statement of fact, but the reader has no real idea how Ruth feels about this turn of events.
Ruth whispered, “I don’t love you anymore, Roger.”
Ruth is sorry for how she feels but thinks Roger has a right to know.
Ruth cried, “I don’t love you anymore, Roger.”
Ruth grieves for their lost love.
Ruth shouted, “I don’t love you anymore, Roger.”
Ruth really doesn’t give a frig how her declaration will affect Roger.
(Curious as to how many ways you can say said? Check out 300 Ways to Say “Said.”)
Word choice is a big deal. As a fiction writer, you have the power to conjure the exact emotion and visual imagery you want your reader to have simply by using the right word.
Powerful stuff, huh?