I Read “Not-Knowing” – Connotations

By: Aryanne Ferguson

One of my favorite parts of Donald Barthelme’s “Not Knowing” essay is his meditation on the feeling of words. On page 21, Barthelme writes:

The combinatorial agility of words, the exponential generation of meaning once they’re allowed to go to bed together, allows the writer to surprise himself, makes art possible, reveals how much of Being we haven’t yet encountered.

This quote stood out to me because I spent a couple years tutoring high school students in the SAT. For the reading section, one of the exercises we did was look at a list of words and note whether they had a positive or a negative connotation. For example, shadow, burden, and pernicious each give me negative feelings. Cloud could go either way, depending on the other words in the sentence: the dark clouds skittered across the moon, versus the plane whipped the top of the clouds like cream.

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As Barthelme says, when you put the words together, the magic happens.

So Reader, how aware are you of the word choice you use in your writing? Or even in your speech? My little cousin can’t stand to hear the word panties. “Gross! Ew!” she says every time. She physically recoils and puts up a pretty good disgusted expression for the next ten seconds or so. Depending on the reaction I want from her, I decide whether or not to say panties. This control over how your words affect others definitely applies to writing. If you know the reaction you want from your readers, then you can manipulate your words to make that reaction more likely. If you want people to like your main character and dislike his brother, then the language you use when your main character has the floor will differ from the words you use to describe the brother. I’m not saying this manipulation should be obvious in your writing (then it wouldn’t be manipulation), but I guarantee you it’s there. Can you spot the work word choice does in your writing?

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