How does word choice affect tone and meaning?


Hi. Mr. Sato. Let’s talk about the
effect of word choices. Sometimes, a student will ask me what
an unfamiliar word means, like “censure” and I’ll give an easier synonym, like “scold.” And sometimes that student will ask,
very reasonably, “why didn’t the writer just use
the easier word?” The answer is because different words have slightly different shades of meaning. They have different connotations and
communicate a different attitude. What’s a connotation? To answer that, I have to explain
the difference between denotation and connotation. The denotation of a word is what it means,
like in the dictionary. Both dictionary and denotation
start with a D, so that might help you remember it. The denotation of “affluent” is having a lot
of money. Its synonym, “rich,” means pretty much the
same thing in the dictionary, so that means they have the
same denotation. The connotation of a word is the cloud of
feelings and associations that come with the word.
For example, for some people, “affluent” has a mostly positive
sound to it. If you had a lot of money and someone said you
were affluent, you might be a little embarrassed at your
good fortune, but you probably wouldn’t be insulted. We
associate expensive houses and nice cars and summers in exotic
places with that word. Those associations floating around
the word are its connotations. On the whole, I believe “affluent” has mostly positive, or at worst, neutral, connotations. But the word “rich” or better yet, the phrase,
“filthy rich,” has a negative connotation. The phrase “filthy rich” brings up images
of people wasting their money on ridiculous extravagances like diamond-studded 24-karat gold collars for
their pet lemurs. It suggests, or hints, at arrogance and insensitivity to people
who are less fortunate than they are. So the phrase “filthy rich” has more
negative connotations. Like I said, connotation is the meanings,
feelings, and associations that surround the word. So, “affluent” and “rich” have the same
denotation, but different connotations. Do you understand? Being alert to the effect different
word choices have is an important skill, and, as a result, you may be asked in your English class to
do something like this: (Mr. Sato reading the words above.) It sounds intimidating, I know. But relax.
The reason it sounds scary is because it’s actually two separate tasks lumped
together into one big one. The two tasks are: 1. You need to be able to figure out the connotations of the author’s word choices. 2. You need to be able to recognize how a
pattern of connotations impacts the meaning and tone. We can’t easily do these things separately.
The two processes are integrated into one another. While looking at the connotations, you feel how they create the tone or attitude. And the connotations and tone both
communicate the author’s meaning, or theme. Like riding a bike, you have to balance,
pedal, and steer simultaneously. You can’t do them separately. Now let me show you how it’s done.
Read this poem with me. It’s only 7 lines. “All armies are the same…” is both
the title and the first line. (Mr. Sato reading the poem slowly.) A century later, the last line of this poem
is still shocking. In 1918, this American writer witnessed the horrors of war in
World War I when he was an ambulance driver in Italy. So, let’s look at the poem, line by line,
very closely. We’ll be focusing not on denotations, but on connotations. Line 1: “All armies are the same” Well, we know this is a figure of speech
because we know that different armies have different uniforms, different kinds of soldiers, some
armies are bigger than others. They aren’t literally the same. So what does Hemingway mean by
this phrase? Think about it. When someone says
“all such-and-such are the same,” it’s usually pretty negative, right? Something bad happens, and somebody
looks at you, shrugs, and says, “it’s a-a-a-always the same.” There’s
resignation in the tone there, maybe even disgust. It’s like,
“It sucks, but there’s nothing we can do about it.” The next line: “Publicity is fame” is comparing two things. Why did
Hemingway choose these two words? Publicity equals fame. Well, both words mean “public attention,”
but they aren’t really the same, are they? They have similar denotations, but
their connotations are different. When we think of publicity,
we might think of posters promoting a cause or organization.
When a corporation wants people to know that it donated money to a
charity, that’s publicity. Organizations have whole departments
dedicated to publicity, because that kind of
public attention eventually means more money for that organization. Nothing wrong with that. But it isn’t fame. Fame, especially as it was understood 100
years ago, is being known by people for doing something admirable, like a hero. An actor might have fame for being
really good at his job. It’s not that different from publicity,
that’s true. But while publicity suggests that money might be the motive for the
attention, fame has connotations of attention received for
being brave, or talented, and the person might never have
even tried to get the attention– it was just given, unasked for, by people
who admired him or her because he or she deserved it. Not so with publicity. People seek out
publicity on purpose, usually to get themselves money or
some kind of advantage. So by comparing these two words,
the author suggests that maybe the people we think of as having
achieved fame are just the products of publicity,
and that the people who pushed them into the spotlight might have had
motives that weren’t so noble. For example, in 1960s China, Lei Feng here
was a so-called hero who was more political propaganda than
a real person. A Star Trek character named Li Nalas fit
this description, too. Hemingway’s tone is critical and condemning. “Artillery makes the same old noise” Kind of like the first line, isn’t it? See
this picture? This is artillery. And, yeah, they’re noisy, all right. But look closely at the wording. “The same old noise.” Negative connotation. You can compare a loud sound to something more positive or neutral, like a crack of thunder, or a crashing waterfall.
But the poet compares them to noise, something irritating. “Valor is an attribute of boys” Valor is kind of an old fashioned word, but
there is a current videogame with the word valor in the title. It’s a first-person-shooter type war game, which is appropriate because valor means great courage in the face of danger, especially in battle. We associate the word with war heroes. We give medals with the word on it. So
valor’s a good thing, right? But in this line, Hemingway puts it down.
He says it’s an “attribute of boys.” Attribute, used this way,
means a characteristic. The tone is still negative, dismissive.
What’s he dismissing? He’s saying that valor, which is (on the
surface at least) a good thing, is a characteristic of boys, not men, men who’ve actually been in battle. In the
context of war, being a child of any kind is not good. Connotations of the word,
“boys” include weakness and immaturity. So he’s connecting the concept of valor
with being immature and naive. That connects with the next line. “Old soldiers have tired eyes” So, the men who’ve actually been in war for
a while and aren’t at home playing make-believe war on video games do not
look happy and excited after a day of fighting. Their eyes are “tired,” he says. A person looks tired when they’ve been doing hard work or haven’t been sleeping, but when you say a person’s eyes are tired,
it carries a connotation of emotional tiredness, sadness,
maybe even depression. Ask a veteran what the “thousand yard stare” is. So “tired” is a negative, unglamorous word. You may already have noticed a pattern taking form. His word choices about war carry connotations of disgust and anger, ridicule of lofty ideals as being fake. Then the poet says, “All soldiers hear the
same old lies.” So, here, in the last two lines, the language
turns even harder and more angry. The word “lies” is strongly negative. In this
context, a lie to a soldier suggests betrayal. And he’s already told us what the lies are:
the notions of fame and valor. Who’s telling these lies?
The poem doesn’t say. But you can speculate. Who would they be likely to hear these things from? Their commanding officers? Politicians,
who told them the war would be over in just a few months? Their families and friends back home who aren’t here in the mud and the death, and don’t understand what it’s like?
Maybe it’s all of the above. But the important thing is that these
old soldiers feel like they’ve been lied to about what
war is all about. So, what is war– in reality? He answers that
question in the next line, which is like a slap in the face. “Dead bodies have always drawn flies.” These word choices could not be harsher
or uglier. The images are of unburied corpses, the opposite of the romantic images of valor and fame
he’s just crushed. These words are meant to shock. The day-to-day truth about war,
Hemingway says, is dead bodies with flies buzzing around them. It’s not an idea, like freedom, or a flag,
or a notion of honor and fame. When you’re there in the middle of it,
all that stuff isn’t real. Those dead bodies are what is real. That person you were talking to
about an hour ago? He was real. And now he’s dead and
sickening to look at, crawling with flies. And maybe
tomorrow that’ll be you. And now Hemingway has forced this image into your mind and you can’t unsee that. He wants you to associate what you feel about that image with war. As an ambulance driver on the Italian front
in 1918, Hemingway must have seen a lot of this. All right. So now, we’ve closely studied the
connotations of the words in the poem. And we’ve shown how Hemingway’s
word choices created a harshly negative tone when talking
about war and the romantic image of war that was spread around then.
The word “romantic” has several meanings, but this kind of
“romantic” means unrealistically adventurous and exciting. So now you understand the poem.
This could be your thesis: (Mr.Sato reading the words above.) Next, you have to write your analysis,
so you have to build your case. You have to support your
analysis with evidence from the poem. So look back at what
you said about the connotations. All armies are the same (line 1). Artillery
makes the same old noise (line 3). In these lines there’s a strong feeling of
disapproval, even condemnation, of the things associated with war.
His tone is angry, even bitter. And valor, and fame, those things
some people think war is about? It’s far away from the daily crud the more
experienced soldiers know that they have to face every day.
Only kids, boys (like 4), think that war is about fame (line 2)
and valor (line 4). Maybe the new recruits come in with their
heads filled with patriotism and ideas of adventure and glory. But when they’re older, they have
“tired eyes” (line 5), a phrase that suggests exhaustion and depression. They’ve figured out that they’ve been
lied to (line 6). The reality of war is not valor and fame,
but death and decay (line 7). There is a pattern of brutal, angry words.
It isn’t just one or two words, or even a couple of lines. it’s a pattern that runs through the whole
poem. His words are simple and blunt. There are no big words
and lofty abstract concepts, except when he mentions them
in order to dismiss them as childish ideas. The impact of
his words accumulate and put you down there on the ground with
the noise, the weariness, and the stink. It rips away all the cool
romanticism associated with the words valor and fame. And the meaning of this poem? The theme? He’s definitely condemning this war
and the lies that were told to get men to fight it. But he’s also condemning
the whole concept of war in a more universal way because he generalized his comments about “all armies (line 1)” and “all soldiers (line 6).” Artillery in general and old soldiers
in general, not just this artillery or these old soldiers (lines 3 and 5).
And not just in World War I, but “always” (line 7). He feels that war is a
horrible betrayal of young people’s courage and patriotism, and that
the people with the authority to send people to war should
give them a more realistic picture of what war is going to be like.
That’s a meaning, or a theme. The words people use have an impact.
They reveal things. For example, let’s say you’re the boss of a
small business, and you’re interviewing people for a job.
If you know how to pick up clues you find in their words, you might see
that this person has a lousy attitude about work, and you, the boss, can
find someone who’ll do a better job and be happier working for you. Or if you want to make a good
impression on somebody, you could improve your chances by paying attention to the connotations of your words and how they impact your tone. So, being able to understand
what someone’s attitude is, even if he or she isn’t openly saying it — or being able to communicate in a way that gets you the result you want — could not be more valuable. By learning
to do this with literature, you’re learning something
you’ll use in your adult life. Have fun with your assignment.

35 thoughts on “How does word choice affect tone and meaning?

  1. Thanks so much! This is ideal for my Grade 8/9 poetry units. Great example of tone…

  2. can you do more like this. I really want to knew how to artistically criticize a piece of literature. Thanks

  3. This is the hardest thing for me as an English learner. English is not my first language. Does anyone have any advice for me? I'd like to know it. Thanks 🙏😊

  4. The comparison doesn't really work. "Rich" is slang, and the connotation really comes from the word rich also being to describe things that are excessive. That's not a connotation, but a real meaning.

  5. An extremely helpful, educational and engrossing lesson. Many thanks!

  6. I had to bring this up to a player in my DnD group so he got how word usage was extremely important than what he thought was originally "Tone". He said "What do you want now?" when a player in chat said she had a present for him. Due to his response, he was slapped. He kept saying the reason was he didn't say it in voice with an added tone…We kept trying to tell him it was his word usage. Sadly he's still having a bit of trouble but at least he learned a bit.

  7. thank you so much! u have no idea how much I appreciate this and how much I needed this. God bless u

  8. How does the use of multiple languages, like English and Spanish, affect the tone of a text?

  9. Thank you very much for this. You explained connotation and denotation very clearly. It was very helpful. So, thank you very much!

  10. thank you so much. i'm an incoming high school junior and i feel like i've never experienced it in words like this, thank you!!

  11. Loved the video, sir! I wish we had teachers like in our graduation classes. I would have never skipped a class.

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