Jerusha Cowless, Agony Aunt: "Understated and 'gentle' just is my voice"
Hanging on in there

Denotation and Connotation: enjoy!

A recent and very fascinating thread on WriteWords has been unpicking the opening of Eleanor Catton's story "Two Tides", which was published in a recent issue of Granta (the Summer 2009 New Fiction Special, if you want to track the story down). I won't précis the discussion here, because the whole thread's worth reading and ranges over a good deal of ground, (the story's well worth reading too) but even a single sentence (or rather, half sentence) illuminates all sorts of interesting things in miniature. Catton's story opens thus:

The harbour at Mana was a converted mudflat

The point at issue was convert; one reader had stumbled on that verb used in that context, and questioned whether making the reader stumble so soon in a piece was a wise move. Clearly at the physical level it doesn't take a lot to make a mudflat into a harbour, any more than it takes a lot to make a field into a carpark, so convert makes perfectly good basic sense. But that's only at the level of basic meaning: what the word denotes.

Converted didn't make me stumble in what it denoted, but I also really like it, and when you're talking about effective language, you're usually talking about connotation: what else that particular word brings to the sentence. As the nearest thing art can get to a control experiment, I set out to understand what's going on by means of a favourite trick: think about what the writer might have done instead.

The harbour at Mana had been built on a mudflat

The harbour at Mana had been constructed on a mudflat

The harbour at Mana had been put on a mudflat

The harbour at Mana had been made on a mudflat

Built, constructed, put and made all have more positive connotations than converted, although each has a subtly different feel which anyone with half an ear can deconstruct for themselves. (When I'm asked, "Can writing be taught?" I say that anyone can be helped to become a better writer than they are, provided they can hear/feel words at this level). With all of these verbs, more has been done and now there is a whole new element to this world, something has been made out of nothing. Whereas converted is the least you can do, the bare minimum it takes to make one thing out of another. It implies a lot about both the spirit in which the harbour was formed, and what it looks like now: it is as little different from a mudflat as possible while performing its new function.

The harbour at Mana had been a mudflat

is the bare minumum in terms of words. But now been is no longer an auxiliary but the main verb, and the plainest possible main verb: to be. The mudflat is no longer a mudflat, but is transformed into something else. And the grammar of those possibilites is different in other ways. Catton could have written either of these:

The harbour at Mana had been converted from a mudflat

The harbour at Mana was converted from a mudflat

The former is more accurate to the sense of "was a converted mudflat": the conversion is definitely done and dusted by the time the narrator sees it. The grammar is basically the same (past perfect, vs simple past). The latter also works as free indirect style: it reflects the narrator's thinking "it is converted from a mudflat", at the moment of seeing the harbour, in the past tense of the overall narration. To that extent it evokes a particular moment: the moment when the narrator looked at and felt the mudflat/harbour. But Catton does none of these.

The harbour at Mana was a converted mudflat

The past participle converted is here acting as an adjective, and so the main verb is again a form of to be. This is actually the only version which isn't grammatically passive, but it is emotionally passive: converted is a description, not an action done or undergone. If conversion is the least you can do to make one thing into another, using a verb as an adjective is the least active way you can show that something has been made.

Of course the other thing that a particular word brings to a sentence, apart from denotation and connotation, is sound or what the poets call prosody. You can, roughly, divide that into vowels-and-consonants (rhyme, in other words) and rhythm. To stop this post going on as long again, I'll just suggest that you read all the versions aloud, and open your ears to the sounds. And if you're in the mood for sharpening a few tools, you could also try seeing how many more versions of that sentence you can make, perhaps by being more radical with the syntax. And we haven't even got into whether converted carries religious overtones to go with the connotations of Mana, what out of a mudflat would do, or the difference between mudflat and mud... Enjoy!