In honor of Valentine’s Day, when many of you will write love notes to your loved ones, I thought I’d remind you of what the best writers know and care about. It’s called “diction.” Simply put, “diction” means “word choice.” And great writers choose their words based on a word’s denotation (dictionary definition) and its connotations (emotional nuance). Here’s a quick lesson about diction regarding a person who most likely deserves a Valentine today: your mother.
Think about the word “mother.” Plain and simple, “mother” means your “female parent.” Now think about the emotional overtones you associate with the word “mother,” emotions such as “loving,” “warm,” “gentle,” “caring,” “nurturing,” and “self-sacrificing.” (If your own mother was self-centered, cold, or mean, I’m sorry. You deserved better). Over time, the word “mother” has accumulated positive connotations because most mothers love and care for their children, which is why you send flowers, chocolates, and a card to your mom to express gushing gratitude for the trouble you caused her before becoming a responsible adult.
In contrast, the connotations of “mother-in-law” (defined as the “female parent of one’s spouse”) are negative. These negative overtones of “mother-in-law” can’t be escaped, either, whether your mother-in-law is a stereotypically terrible one or an uncharacteristically fabulous one. When people hear “mother-in-law,” they also hear “critical,” “manipulative,” “needy,” or worse—no matter whether the stereotype is true for their mother-in-law or not. In fact, the word “mother-in-law” has accumulated so many negative connotations, that if you tell people you’re writing to your mother-in-law and even sending her a Valentine’s Day gift, they might assume you’re doing it out of duty or obligation.
So now that you’re paying attention to diction, you’ll be better prepared to write the most important love letter of your life. On Valentine’s Day, your choice of words is critical. You want to impress. You want to write, “I love you!” But maybe “love” isn’t enough. Maybe it sounds too cliché! My advice: don’t right click on the word “love” to find a synonym that may (or may not!) make you sound more eloquent. Right click, instead, to help you find a word with the exact connotation for expressing your degree of love or the exact nature of the feelings you’re experiencing toward the love of your life. Could it be that what you want to write is closer to, “I adore you,” or maybe, “I worship you,” or possibly even, “I revere you”?
Only you will know. Choose wisely and well.