Diction is the choice of words by a Speaker that contributes to an overall stylistic expression in a communication. Diction can be formal or informal, technical or non-technical, colloquial, obtuse or even inflammatory. Choosing the right word is not only essential for clearly communicating the Speaker’s Message but also for appealing to pathos, or the emotions of your stakeholder Audience.

The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.

Mark Twain¹

Denotation and Connotation

Denotation is the literal definition of a word, but the meaning of a word does not stop there. Connotation is the set of implied meanings, undertones and implications of a certain word. Cheap and inexpensive mean roughly the same thing on paper, but you may prefer an inexpensive blender to a cheap one. A cheap blender feels as if it might break soon after purchase or might not blend your soups effectively. An inexpensive blender will save you the same amount of money but will make you feel as if you made a better investment in the future of your liquefied foods.

Connotation is not an exact science, nor is there a scale of words that help a Speaker evoke a particular response in the Audience. However, by carefully examining her words, a Speaker can work toward a consistent and effective tone in her communications.

The following list of words may have similar denotation, but wildly different connotations. Think about which you would prefer to read, and then think about which you would prefer someone else to read that you wrote. The words are presented in no particular order, and neither column is designed to be more inflammatory or more loaded than the other. Think about your own personal biases when reading these words and then think about how these words may produce a certain emotional response. Some of the words do not have the same denotation, but Speakers may use them interchangeably either through ignorance or to intentionally mislead the public. Diction is very important and worth considering in every communication.

FrackingHydraulic fracturing
Oil spillDischarge
BitumenTar sands
Huff and puffCyclic steam injection
Halliburton LoopholeHydraulic fracturing exemption
Induced seismicityMan-made earthquakes

1. Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens), 1890, qtd. in Bainton, G. (Ed.). (1890). The art of authorship: Literary reminiscences, methods of work, and advice to young beginners, personally contributed by leading authors of the day. New York: D. Appleton.

Images: “Library” by Stewart Butterfield licensed under CC BY 2.0 ; “Blender” by Francois Poirier via Shutterstock