Dr. Kristi Siegel

Mount Mary College

2900 North Menomonee River Parkway

Milwaukee, WI  53222



Diction Workshop - Choosing Words Effectively


Connotation and Denotation

The connotation of some words—or the attitudes we associate with them—can easily be seen when we examine pairs of words that are essentially similar in meaning, but different in the favorable or unfavorable attitudes they evoke in most people. Listed below are ten pairs of words that evoke negative or positive feelings. For each pair, place a plus sign after the word that conveys a more favorable attitude and a minus sign after the word that carries a less favorable attitude.

  • refreshing – chilly

  • plain – natural

  • clever – sly

  • cackle – giggle

  • snob – cultured

  • cop – officer

  • skinny – slender

  • statesman – politician

  • smile – smirk

  • domineering – assertive

Now, come up with some word pairs of your own:

Denotation and Connotation (cont.)

Practice shifting your viewpoint so that you can describe the same object both favorably and unfavorably. You can do this by first using words with a positive connotation and then switching to words with a negative connotation. For the descriptions below, write a short description that is favorable and a short description that is unfavorable (pick 1 of the following 7 descriptions). For example, you might describe a banana as either sweetly ripe or mushy, depending on the desired connotation.

  1. Describe a wet street after the rain.

  2. Describe a college or professional football game.

  3. Characterize a difficult college course.

  4. Describe a hamburger made in a fast-food restaurant.

  5. Describe a group of three or four teen-age girls walking down the street together.

  6. Describe a new regulation for student parking on campus.

  7. Describe a recent movie or television program.

(Share descriptions aloud)

Using specific language

In each of the sentences below, underline the subject and object words that refer to a general class. In each case substitute a more specific term and, if possible, also add a descriptive word or phrase.

  1. A man went into a building.

  2. The animal ate its food.

  3. The parent held the child.

  4. The store sells candy.

  5. The car hit an object.


Ineffective or inappropriately used jargon merely inflates ideas that can be expressed more clearly. We see this kind of unnecessary jargon in the five examples below. Read these and translate them back into clear language (these are all familiar expressions).

  • Nothing is of absolute certitude but cessation of life and revenue enhancement.

  • In the presence of gravity, that whose Y coordinate increases in a positive sense will, after the vanishing of its time derivative, have its Y coordinate decrease.

  • Flora of the class Musci within the division Bryophyta are incapable of adhering to extrusive igneous spheroids.

  • In order to eschew the diurnal visitation of a physician, it is imperative to ingest the fruit of the tree Pyrus malus.

  • A stipulated event has the probability of occurrence similar to that of the maintenance of a spheroid of frozen H20 in the nether regions of the condemned.

Now, see if you can take three common expressions and "camouflage" them with jargon (get out the Thesaurus).


Probably nothing will deaden your writing faster than clichés. A cliché cannot communicate because people have heard the expression or idea so many times they are no longer able to react to it. When you write, try to avoid trite, overused expressions and ideas. In this exercise, first finish these similes using clichés:

  1. Big as _________________

  2. Hot as _________________

  3. Work like ______________

  4. White as _______________

  5. Hungry as ______________

  6. Busy as ________________

  7. Red as _________________

  8. Sick as _________________

  9. Light as ________________

  10. Pretty as ________________

**Now, go back and try to create vivid similes that are not clichés. Try out your creations on your group members; if your phrase sounds familiar, it may be a cliché.