When we learn a new word, we learn its meaning – the denotation. We also learn spelling and pronunciation, but we should also look at the context where we use the word. You see, there are words with the same denotation, like “examination” and “quiz,” but we would never say “I’m going to the doctor’s office for a quiz!” That’s because “quiz” has connotations of school and short duration, but “examination” has connotations of science, medicine, and detail.
The difference between a good user of English and a great user of English is often their mastery of connotations, which they use to help select the best word for each context.
How to choose? Good question.
- The first item is our emotion. What is our attitude towards our topic? Angry, respectful, happy, sad, or something else?
- The second is the formality. Are we speaking formally? Are we writing casually?
- The last is the topic. Is there a clear context, like business, university, romance, or creativity?
If you’re choosing connotations for a school assignment, like a test, also be sure to check the grammar – singular/plural, word forms, and count/noncount may all be reasons to eliminate multiple choices that your teacher has given you!