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October 24, 2000

Connotation and denotation are different ways of defining a word. 

Denotation is the word's literal or objective meaning, the way a word is primarily defined in a dictionary. For example, the primary meaning of "blue" indicates that it is a color of the spectrum between green and violet.

Connotation refers to the secondary or associative meanings attached to words. Some words carry a strong tone or implication based on emotion. A secondary meaning of "blue" is to feel gloomy or depressed. To say that someone feels blue is to suggest that person feels sad.

It is important to be aware of the nuances of certain words so that an appropriate mood or tone is conveyed through selected words and phrases.

Denotative language is used for many types of formal writing, including the following, in order to share factual information in an objective manner which is unlikely to result in misinterpretation:

Scholarly publications

Scientific writing

Legal documents

Government proceedings

Connotative writing, on the other hand, is found in a variety of styles that are based largely on general readership or persuasive style:

Film and music reviews


Political rhetoric

Personal letters and e-mail

Be sure that your readers will understand your word meanings in context when choosing between denotation and connotation.



Homonym Quiz

Here are the answers to last week's quiz:

to receive: accept 

consequence: effect 

disinterested: bored 

place: site 

praise: compliment 

to advise: counsel 

school supervisor: principal 

demolish: raze 

also: too 

to put on clothes: wear 

If you missed none or only one, give yourself an A!



NIL (noun): Nothing; naught.

Our garage sale revenues were nil this morning.



QUESTION: I am fifty-plus years old and I have been taught to use "who" (not "that") when referencing a person.


City hall may have presenters currently assigned to one location "THAT" may at their discretion choose to present at another location.


GRAMMARCHECK: You were taught correctly! However, sometimes when referring to people by their occupations (such as teachers, packers, builders, etc.), writers may use "that" instead of "who" to emphasize an occupation, not the person in it. 

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QUESTION: What is the protocol for treating the pluralization of an acronym--with or without an apostrophe--in particular, the proper treatment of dates, i.e., 1990s versus 1990's?

GRAMMARCHECK: Adding either -s or -'s is correct in most cases. However, add -'s specifically to words that might be misunderstood by adding only -s:


The word "Mississippi" has three i's and four s's.

(NOT three is and four ss)

In dates, adding just "s" without the apostrophe is adequate:

All of Toni's children were born in the 1990s.

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QUESTION: Is the word "publics" used correctly in the sentence written below?

"We believe in being honest and personal in our dealings with all our publics from clients and employees to consultants."

GRAMMARCHECK: While we have seen the word "publics" used in this way, such usage is uncommon and potentially confusing. Since good writers always strive to make their work easily readable to others, we offer the following revision to the sentence above:

"We believe in being honest and personal in all our dealings, from clients and employees to consultants."

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QUESTION: Which is correct?

boss' day


bosses day

GRAMMARCHECK: The answer depends on your intent. If you are trying to say that the day belongs to one boss, your first example is correct:

Friday is my boss' day off.

But if you want to suggest that several bosses share the same day (without exercising ownership over "day"), your second example is right:

Sally's company declared Monday to be "Bosses Day." (i.e., "Day of the Bosses")
If you want to emphasize that the day belongs to the bosses, use the plural form:

Sally's company declared Monday to be the bosses' day off.

Consider the following, where usage varies all over the place:

Mothers Day (the day that celebrates mothers in general)

Mother's Day (the day when one's mother should be remembered)

Mothers' Day (the day belonging to all mothers)

Someone probably has nailed down the definitive use somewhere, but many greeting cards and store window posters remain at variance!

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QUESTION: Can you use the word "quintessence" in a sentence? 

GRAMMARCHECK: Here's an example:

In Christianity, Satan is considered to be the quintessence of evil.

"Quintessence" means the purest or most complete form of something.

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