In addition to writing clearly and keeping a paper’s tone sophisticated and unpretentious, writers also have the challenge of knowing a word’s denotation—its literal meaning—as well as its connotation: the association a reader makes with the word, emotional or otherwise.
This tends to be a problem for non-native English speakers. In a dictionary or thesaurus, a word may have multiple definitions or synonyms, and it seems pretty straightforward to just pick one and be done with it. However, native speakers of a language usually have a specific denotation or connotation in mind, and misuse can make a document stand out for the wrong reasons.
The usage can be archaic, such as an international museum that employed the word exposition as part of their English press release to describe their newly installed display cases. It’s technically correct (see definition #4), but in this specific context exhibition or exhibit would have been more appropriate and understandable (definition #1 in both cases).
It can also cause downright embarrassment. For example, there was a tourism website that discussed the many fine erections in the city. Erection IS a synonym for building (and is even the first definition on Google); however, it is not necessarily the first thing that a native English speaker tends to think of when he or she reads the word!
Connotations can also be used to affect the entire tone of a sentence:
1. Ebenezer Scrooge saved money.
2. Ebenezer Scrooge was thrifty.
3. Ebenezer Scrooge was miserly.
Each of the sentences implies that Mr. Scrooge did not like to part with money. However, #1 has neutral connotations, #2 is positive, and sentence #3 is negative. Choosing words carefully, both for their denotative and connotative connections, allows the writer to craft the specific message that he or she wishes.
I am certainly not the first person to call attention to the importance of keeping a word’s connotation in mind. Have a look here, here or here for additional information, or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you are uncertain about your English translations.