Words are powerful, but they’re also subtle. To understand what I mean, consider the two descriptions below:
This man is not especially tall, but his posture expresses strength and energy and his complexion radiates health. His penetrating eyes focus intently on individuals as he works his way down the line with an unhurried efficiency, clasping hands, touching arms, flashing a friendly smile. When he raises his hand, the crowd roars.
The man is dwarfed by his goons as he works the reception line, mechanically pumping hands. His squinty eyes sweep the crowd like daggers, as though sizing up the most gullible. His reddish, hatchet-like nose seems to be sniffing out opportunities and his oversize ears soak in the roar of the deluded masses.
Okay, the second paragraph may not seem very subtle, but would it surprise you to learn that both paragraphs are meant to describe the same political figure? (It doesn’t matter who; all political figures have similar traits, as well as friends and enemies.) Both are accurate in that they show a politician shaking hands at a rally. But you could not escape the impression that the first description is positive and the second is very negative. In other words, the paragraphs are slanted in opposite directions.
How is the effect achieved? Two ways:
- “Loaded” words – In the first paragraph, the man’s eyes are “penetrating”; in the second, they are “squinty.” In the first, his eyes “focus intently,” while in the second, they “size up.” In the first, his audience is a “crowd” (a neutral word); in the second, they are “deluded masses” (more like fighting words).
- Selective detail – The second writer uses the word “goons” to indicate the Secret Service detail and “dwarfed” to show that the President isn’t very tall. The President’s eyes sweep the crowd restlessly as though seeking some kind of angle or advantage. The writer reduces his “radiant” complexion to a “reddish” nose and chooses to mention the big ears rather than the friendly smile.
Try this. The first five adjectives in the list below are generally considered positive. The last five are more negative. Find a synonym for each of the first five words that carries a more negative “charge,” and do the opposite for the last five. Break out your thesaurus if you need a brain-jog.
While you have your thesaurus open, skim down the various entries for more adjectives, as well as nouns and verbs, that have both positive and negative connotations. You’ll find lots!
Now try another experiment. Write two paragraphs describing your own room, or another place that’s very familiar to you. For the first paragraph, choose words and details that communicate a feeling of comfort and peace (the well-read books or well-played computer games; the sunlight pouring through the east window, cozy nest of dirty clothes, etc). In the second, try to create an impression of discomfort and/or foreboding (the chaos of dirty clothes by the bed, the threat lurking behind the half-opened closet door, the unfinished algebra assignment on your desk). The second paragraph might be easier to do if you’re in one of those moods; if not, stretch your imagination.
If you really want to have fun, try describing someone in your family with a negative/positive slant. I’ll leave it up to you whether you let him or her read what you’ve written.