Connotations matter

Like most other writing teachers, I’ve taught a lesson on the difference between a word’s denotation and its connotation. Quite honestly, the lesson bored me as much as it did students. Lessons, like chickens, have a habit of coming home to roost and I’ve found myself in the last six months wrestling with a denotation-connotation problem.

hands of two elderly persons
Touch is important part of nursing home visits.

I’m writing a series of books about how to visit in a nursing home. The series’ title is “Thanks for Dropping By,” which is what residents always said to me when I left after visiting them.

I asked two clergymen for feedback on the book written for pastors. I was surprised that clergy felt dropping by was too informal a term to describe what they did. They said they went to visit residents, a process they refer to as visitation. Rather than use language that offends pastors for whom I’m writing, I decided to do some research to see if the terms visit and visitation more accurately reflected what clergy do in nursing homes than dropping by does.  I began by asking female friends and relatives what associations the terms hold for them, since a majority of nursing home residents are female.

My women friends, particularly those 50 and older, typically remember being required as a child to go visit someone that one or both of their parents would have preferred never to see at all. That someone was usually either their father’s or mother’s parent. The girls would have to sit quietly while their parents and their grandparent took verbal potshots as one another. Girls’ misery was compounded if they had brothers. The boys were usually admonished to “stay clean” and sent out to play while the girls tried to ignore the bickering inside. As a result of those childhood experiences, my women friends recoil at the term visiting.

Since my clerical friends both prefer the King James version of the Bible to others, I did a little digging into the KJV’s use of the terms visit and visitation. Despite its age—or perhaps because of it—the KJV’s language is more influential than that of any other Bible translation. In it, I found visit and visited used to describe both situations that were pleasant and situations that were unpleasant, even punitive. The emotional experience of being visited depended entirely on the behavior of the person involved.

Visitation was a quite different matter.

Throughout the KJV Old Testament, visitation is almost always associated with punishment. I counted 13 out of 15 uses of the word visitation in reference to punishment. If Old Testament characters were smart, they were careful to avoid having a visitation.

Masochistic English teachers who have read this far may be wondering what all this has to do with teaching writing. Simply this: Writers, whether adults or students, need to be aware of their audience. They should choose words that most precisely convey the ideas they want readers to grasp and avoid language that is ambiguous or misleading.

In this case, I want my readers—pastors—not to describe what they do in nursing homes as visitation. Let them determine to drop by, both for their sake and the sake of residents.

A website for my nursing home book project is in the works. If anyone is afraid of missing out, drop me a note via the contact form on this site, and I’ll put you on my email list as soon as I get one.

©2021 Linda G. Aragoni