Word study plays an important part in the craft of writing. What, after all, are we writing with but words? When we say that someone has a rich vocabulary, we mean that they have at hand the tools to make distinctions that would otherwise pass us by. Where we might use a more general term, they have found the more specific and precise: an incisive writer rather than simply a good writer, or a captivating performance rather than merely an interesting one.
With wealth, however, comes responsibility, and possessing a wide vocabulary should mean using it judiciously: keeping one’s verbal accounts in order and employing the right word at the right time. This can be tricky, because words carry both a denotative and connotative meaning. To denote means to indicate, so the denotative meaning of a word is its primary, specific, unadorned meaning, the idea it points to irrespective of a context: a house is a building one lives in. The connotative meaning of a word, on the other hand, is the suggestion or implication a word carries with it, that array of unspoken ideas which color and surround it. Should a storm one day destroy my neighbor’s house, I might cry out to you that his house is gone!, but I would mean then by house not only the building he lived in, but the very place where he dwelled and raised and loved his family—his home.
With this awareness that words carry both a denotative and connotative intention, we are put under an obligation to keep to those meanings unless we have new insight to convey. And simple confusion is not new insight. Take, for example, the two adjectives reticent and reluctant, two words that are frequently blurred. If someone is reticent about his opinions, we mean that person is reserved in character and generally inclined toward remaining silent. If we say that he is reluctant to give his opinion, we mean he is hesitant or even unwilling to state his mind on the matter we are discussing. The two words have distinct denotative differences, and although they share some ground (when we are hesitant we are often quiet), to confuse the two is to dull the blade and saw, not slice.
Writing with clarity and strength is a matter of making distinctions, and such distinctions involve both the denotative indications and the connotative overtones of the words we use. Blurring distinctions and confusing words is more often a matter of not being aware of their denotative meaning, something we can rectify quickly by turning to the dictionary. Not to recognize, of course, that the world and our perceptions of it are constantly changing is to risk isolating ourselves into a fixed and rigid and unforgiving dogma about language and its proper use. But change for the sake of change, and not for the sake of a more perspicacious statement, is to make our common work of understanding unnecessarily more difficult.