November 20, 2008

#01-186: Reading Boomtown Chronicles 56

wide view of an urban area with bushes in the foreground, over which is written "READING BOOMTOWN CHRONICLES"
Shenzhen, the Boomtown

Note: Between Lesson #01-128 and #01-208, I wrote 72 lessons explaining expressions in articles published in the Shenzhen Daily. Read more about "Reading Boomtown Chronicles."

Get Ready: Can you think of any word that is so straightforward that it is almost all denotation, with little or no connotation? How about the opposite: a word with little or no concrete meaning, but a lot of "feeling"?

Boomtown Chronicles Part XX - published Monday, November 10, 2008 (cont.)

Let's talk about connotation.

Connotation is the "feeling" that words carry, as opposed to denotation, which is the pure dictionary meaning. Quite a few of the words in Part XX carried feelings that went beyond the mere definition. A good writer will choose words carefully to have the right "poetic" effect.

In one part of the article, Li Jing is describing the period just after 1951, when the Guangdong government began to restrict access to the border. Here are some of the words in this passage: curb (as a verb), stringent, arduous.

Of course, the denotation of these words isn't exactly "upbeat" either. But when we read that the government "began to curb border crossings," we realize that "curb" has a particularly cruel sound, as opposed to, say, "reduce" or "control."

When we hear that "Border security was extremely stringent," we get the shivers. "Stringent" could have been "thorough" or "careful." Add "extremely" and we're really impressed!

Those who did cross the border "had to go through arduous formalities." "Arduous" is another thriller. Not "difficult" or, again, "thorough," but arduous, strenuous, laborious. We can almost see the poor passengers breaking out in sweat!


Sometimes grammatical constructions aid in connotation. One is the "double negative."

I know: our teachers always told us that we shouldn't use two negatives together, because, as in math, "two negatives make a positive."

But grammatically, two negatives make a weak positive. So when we are told that in some Chinese cities, "two- and three-hour trips within the same city aren't unusual," we're not being told that they happen all the time, but that they do happen. If you say "Management is not insensitive to the workers' needs," you're not saying they're great humanitarians, just that they're not ogres either.

One reason for building vocabulary and a stock of idiomatic expressions, as well as more sophisticated grammar, is to learn how not merely to communicate ideas, but also to convey the appropriate feeling to go with them. And a great way to learn these things is to read articles and books in English.


Read more:

Practice: Choose the correct term to fill in the blank in the sentence below:

  1. arduous
  2. connotation
  3. curb
  4. denotation
  5. not insensitive
  6. not unusual
  7. stringent

  1. The teacher was ________ to the student's cold, but made him take the test despite his complaint.
  2. The government has passed ________ regulations on vehicle pollution.
  3. To reach the mountaintop temple required an ________ climb.
  4. Sensitive people sometimes respond more to the ________ of a word than to its dictionary meaning.
  5. It's ________ to find a small stone or two in a kilo of rice.
  6. Some people think smoking helps them ________ their appetites, and are afraid they'll get fat if they quit.
  7. The ________ of the word "mammal" includes "an animal that nurses its young."

Answers are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for November 20, 2008

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Practice: 1. c; 2. d; 3. f; 4. g; 5. a; 6. e; 7. b