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Emotive Significance

Abstract: Emotive significance, sometimes called “the slanting of language,” is described with examples and exercises.

  1. Language can be analyzed into the two aspects of literal meaning and emotional meaning.

    1. Emotive words are words that carry emotional overtones. These words are said to have emotive significance, emotive meaning or emotional impact. The language is sometimes described as being loaded.

      1. Literal significance: Two different words or phrases can have literal (or denotative) meanings which are similar, yet differ significantly in their emotive significance. The denotation of a word is its literal meaning; in philosophical contexts, the denotation of a word or phrase is whatever is being referred to by the use of that word or phrase.[1]

      2. Often, we speak of "slanting" in terms of emotive significance; i.e., a word or phrase can be positively slanted, neutral, or negatively slanted.

    2. Emotively neutral language is preferable when we are trying to get to the facts or follow an argument since our emotions often cloud our reasoning. It is considered fair, accurate, and objective.

      1. When our purpose is to communicate clearly (i.e., the informative use of language), then, if we wish to avoid being misunderstood,usually language having the least emotive impact is the most useful.

      2. When resolving disputes or disagreements between persons, it is usually best to try to reformulate the disagreement in neutral language. In essence, as we will see later, we are distinguishing between the belief (i.e., factual reference) and the attitude (the “emotional” reference) expressed by a given speaker or writer.

  2. Examples of Emotive Significance or Slanting. Restate each of following essentially emotively neutral descriptions “0” by
    (1) a positively slanted description “+” and
    (2) by a negatively slanted description “-“.





    1. We are often called upon to make use of slanted or “loaded terms” for persuasion. In the service industries, politics, and other cases involving special pleading, putting your best foot forward often demands accentuating the positive.

    2. Many significant issues stem from the distinction between emotive and literal significance; some of these are covered in the section on the varieties of agreements and disagreements.

  3. As an exercise in separating the two kinds of significance, the following letter to “Dear Abby”will be translated from negatively slanted language into positively slanted language. Note that the original content of the letter is transformed from something which initially seems to be informative into something predominately expressive.

    Try your own hand at the translation, word or phrase by phrase. Suggestions for this endeavor are given by clicking on the links below:

Introduction and Setting: A neighbor's 9-year-old-grandson is spending most of the day at “NO OPEN HOUSE'S” home. Mrs. NO OPEN HOUSE does not know what to do. A reader responds with the following letter.

In reference to NO OPEN HOUSE: Since the woman does not run a day-care center, she is not responsible for this little brat's welfare.   And she doesn't have to be polite to him,either. Most likely this kid is pushed off on Grandpa because he's insufferable.  And you feel sorry for him yet! The little monster should be made to stay with his grandfather all day. Nothing unfortunate will happen to him except maybe he will learn that life is not a bowl of cherries.  If this poor woman lets him hang around her house all day, she might have to put him through college. If all else fails, why don't you take him Abby? [2]

The complete, edited
text is rewritten here:


1. In logical and philosophical contexts, the denotation or extension of a term is that which is being referred to by that term, whereas the connotation or intension of a term is the meaning of the term as the characteristics or properties of that which the term refers. In other contexts, often connotation is used as emotive significance, but that use of the term is not used in logic classes and in these web pages.

2. “Dear Abby,”Index-Journal 61 no. 88 (September 30, 1980), 5.

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