ACT English: Word Connotations

Though the English language abounds with synonyms, very few exact synonyms exist. Words with similar meanings often carry different connotations, i.e. the culturally subjective meanings or emotional associations suggested by certain words. A word’s connotation is different from its denotation, or standard dictionary meaning. Though the ACT English will not test you on difficult vocabulary with obscure meanings or denotations, it may test your ability to recognize the connotations of familiar words, especially those with similar denotations.
You may not have realized it, but word connotation is one of the few linguistic topics we often discuss in casual discourse. Friends or couples may fight over one’s unwitting misuse of a certain word (e.g. when intending to compliment a friend’s thin physique, the word “scrawny” may slip out). Schoolmates may playfully argue over the subtle but important differences between slang terms: that which is not particularly “cool” may be “rad,” and something that “sucks” may also, paradoxically, “blow” (pardon the anachronisms). Studying word connotations, then, can be as fun as it is edifying; it will improve your ability to converse effectively and diplomatically as much as your ability to write formally.
To really grasp the importance of word connotations, let’s look at some familiar examples. Remember the “scrawny” scenario I just gave you? The adjective “thin” has many synonyms with vastly different connotations: skinny, slim, slender, bony, scrawny, lean, emaciated, skeletal, svelte, gaunt, etc. Looking at the list, you may notice that some of the words have positive connotations while others have negative or pejorative connotations. “Slim,” “lean,” and “slender,” for example, often connote a healthy physique; you might compliment a successful dieter with the words “slim,” “lean,” or “slender.” Words like “bony” and “scrawny,” however, aren’t so positive. A “bony” person looks so thin that he or she is unattractive or unhealthy looking. A “scrawny” person is a thin person who appears feeble. Words like “emaciated” and “gaunt” both connote an extreme thinness, but there are even clear differences between their connotations: “emaciated” connotes a severe wasting away of the body characteristic of medical illness, and “gaunt,” a far less formal word, emphasizes the physiognomic characteristics of a weary and hungry person.
On the ACT English section, some questions may ask you to critically examine the author’s word choice, paying strict attention to word connotation. In these circumstances, it is imperative that you accurately identify the author’s tone, or his attitude toward his subject. If the author clearly has bitter feelings about his subject, you may want to choose words with negative connotations. For example, if the author bitterly describes a business’s frustratingly thrifty financial behavior, you may opt for the words “cheap” and “stingy.” Conversely, if the author tries to promote that same business, you should opt for words like “frugal” and “prudent.” Most often, authors of sample texts are formal and neutral in tone, and the word choice should reflect that. If you detect a formal tone, avoid words that carry extreme connotations. Sometimes, an accurate phrase may suffice; if your author strives for neutrality in the above example, the phrase “careful with money” will be a better choice than “cheap” or “stingy.”
Just remember, when you are unsure of a word’s connotation, think of a situation when you would use it. It may be difficult to articulate a word’s connotation, but we can often imagine a circumstance that calls for a certain word. Let your imagination do most of the work here. Connotations are not to be memorized like obscure vocabulary words. You probably know most of them already; the more detailed your imagined context for a word, the more accurate you’ll be.