Understanding emotive language and connotations

Understanding emotive language and connotations

It can be easy to spot emotive language and connotations in persuasive texts, but for effective analysis, the deeper meaning and intent behind their use needs to be explored. This week, Insight writer and English teacher Kylie Nealon outlines how to explore and analyse emotive language and connotations for Section C of the English exam.

Emotive language and connotations are language features that are often used to persuade an audience to feel a certain way. While these features are generally easy to identify, the deeper meaning and intent behind their use is not always immediately clear. In order to succeed in analysing the use of argument and persuasive language, you must be able to identify and explore the effects of these techniques.

Before you master analysis of the techniques, you must first ensure that you have a sound grasp of the basics of both emotive language and connotations.


What does emotive language actually mean?

Emotive language refers to language designed to target an emotion – positive, negative, sometimes deliberately neutral – and to make the audience respond on an emotional level to the idea or issue being presented. For example, further below we see Martin Luther King talk about the innocence of ‘little black boys and girls’ in relation to the issue of racism.


What does it look like?

Let’s take a look at an extract of a speech given by actor Charlie Day in 2014:

‘You cannot let a fear of failure or a fear of comparison or a fear of judgement stop you from doing the things that will make you great. You cannot succeed without the risk of failure. You cannot have a voice without the risk of criticism. You cannot love without the risk of loss. You must take these risks.’

All of Day’s language choices in this speech are designed to evoke an emotional, heartfelt response in his audience. He attempts to evoke this response by using a number of words with strong positive and negative associations. The terms that convey negative emotions include ‘failure’, ‘criticism’, ‘risks’ and the repeated ‘fear’; these all work to create feelings of unease or anxiety in the reader. However, Day’s repeated use of ‘cannot’ encourages the reader to reject these negative feelings, and to give much more importance to the terms with strong positive emotions: ‘great’ and ‘love’.

As with all persuasive techniques, emotive language does not work alone but combines with other techniques. In Day’s speech these other techniques include:

  • challenging/confronting his audience with the use of the second-person pronoun ‘you’
  • confronting his audience with the idea that achievement comes at a cost, but one that is necessary
  • concluding his point with an imperative, through the command term ‘must’.

Another notable example of emotive language use is Martin Luther King’s 1963 ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. Throughout this speech King uses repetition (e.g. the phrase ‘I have a dream …’), but his genius comes from the emotive approach he takes. One example of this is his reference to his ‘dream’ that children (connoting innocence) will be liberated from ‘vicious racists’ (connoting destruction and hatred): ‘little black boys and girls … able to join hands with little white boys and girls as sisters and brothers’. King’s use of highly emotive language was intended to appeal to his listeners’ sense of compassion and empathy. As a preacher, he called on his language skills and sounded as though he was giving a sermon; his cadence and flow were deliberately paced throughout, heightening the impact of his emotionally loaded language.


What is connotation?

Connotation refers to what is suggested or implied by language – in other words, the extra meanings beyond a literal interpretation. Different words carry different associations, which makes word selection very important when trying to evoke a specific reaction in an audience. Colour association is one of the simplest ways to understand this concept. We associate red with passion and danger, white with purity and black with death. Sometimes connotation can be deliberately played with by the writer/speaker in order to call attention to, or subvert, a specific association.


What does it look like?

In her stirring speech to the troops at Tilbury in 1588, Elizabeth I deliberately called attention to her physical limitations while emphasising her inspirational strengths:

‘I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king …’

In this extract, Elizabeth uses the words’ heart’ and ‘stomach’ not for their literal meanings, but for their connotations of spirit and courage. That is, she is stating that although she is a woman in a man’s world and lacks the physical strength of a man, she has the strength of feeling and courage – the inner strength – generally associated with a king.


Analysing emotive language and connotations

Now that you have a sound grasp of what emotive language and connotation are, it is time to get analysing! Your first step should be to consider what emotional response the writer/speaker desires from their audience. Is it anger, pride, pity, sadness or joy? Secondly, how does this emotional response relate to the writer’s overall argument and purpose?

Another key aspect to consider when analysing language techniques is placement. If a writer or speaker starts off with angry phrases, might this enrage or turn off the intended audience? Or does it create a ‘them and us’ scenario with which the reader might identify?

It is crucial to consider emotive language in the context of the argument(s) being presented in the piece. Ask yourself these questions as you’re analysing a text:

  • How does the use of emotional language change according to the argument being presented?
  • Does the language ‘amp up’ or soften depending on what is being discussed?
  • What kinds of connotations would different audiences respond to?

Remember, religious beliefs, gender, age and socioeconomic factors also influence the effects that emotive language and connotations can have on an audience. A text that is interpreted positively by one person could be taken in a very different way by someone of a different background.

Focus on the intent and the execution of emotive language and connotations in the piece(s) you discuss, and explain their effects on the audience. Having said that, there are a number of ways you can approach the analysis of argument and language, and assessors like to see independent, well-supported ideas. Let that guide you as you continue your preparations for the end-of-year exam.


Need help with analysing argument and persuasive language? Insight’s Argument & Persuasive Language by Melanie Napthine is a workbook and textbook in one, and covers the analysis of argument and of persuasive language in a variety of media texts, including newspaper texts, web-based texts, oral texts and visual texts.

Argument & Persuasive Language is produced by Insight Publications, an independent Australian publishing company.


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