David Recine

Sentence Shift for ESL Students, Part 2: Shifts in Connotation

Understanding English sentence shift is helpful on the TOEFL, and absolutely essential on the GRE.  In an earlier post, I introduced you to the basics of this important concept.

To review, shift refers to a change in the meaning or connotation between the beginning and end of a sentence. Shift sentences are used when the writer wants to contrast two different ideas or demonstrate a change in situations.

For shift to be possible in a sentence, the sentence generally needs to have two or more clauses. A very simple sentence with just one clause doesn’t have much room for a complete reversal in tone. Shifts are also usually marked by certain signal words, words and phrases that indicate a sentence is about to shift from one idea to an opposing idea. Over on the Magoosh GRE blog, Chris Lele lists shift signal words that are common in academic English.

There are two basic ways that a sentence can shift. It can shift in connotation. In this case, the shift changes the emotion or idea behind the meaning of the language, even though the dictionary meanings of the words are similar throughout the sentence. Sentence shift can also involve a change in actual word meanings. We’ll focus on shifts in meaning next time; for now this post will go over shift in connotation.

So, let’s take a closer look at how connotation works. It’s not uncommon for a pair of English words to have almost identical definitions, but have a much different tone. In this way, similar words can inspire very different emotions. For example, “slender” and “scrawny” have almost the same meaning—they refer to someone who is thin. But “slender” has a connotation of beauty, while “scrawny” has a negative connotation. A scrawny person would be thin in an ugly way.

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Below is an example of a sentence with where the connotation shifts (using “slender” and “scrawny”):

  • ​Although she liked to think of herself as stunningly slender, most of her friends would describe her as alarmingly scrawny.

Here, the wording in the first clause has a connotation of beauty. “Stunningly” is an adverb that suggests beauty, and “slender” is, as mentioned above, a beauty-related adjective. The wording in the second clause has the complete opposite connotation, suggesting ugliness. “Alarmingly” suggests something unpleasant or upsetting, ugliness in this case. And “scrawny,” as you know, suggests “ugly.” Note that​stunningly/alarmingly​ have similar literal definitions, as do ​slender/scrawny.​ The change is in tone, but not meaning.

So here you see a change in connotation between the first and the second clauses. The sentence has a movement from positive connotation to negative connotation over the course of the sentence. This change, this movement—this ​shift—makes the sentence a “shift” sentence.

Changes in connotation can be hard to spot at times. Often, when two words are very similar, you may have trouble telling if their connotations are different.  Fortunately, there’s another way to detect shift in sentences: signal words. In fact, you can see one of Chris Lele’s listed signal words at the very beginning of the sentence above: the word “although.” So knowing common signal words can help you recognize when the meaning of a sentence is shifting… And can even help you guess at the connotations of unfamiliar words!

It can be just as important to recognize when the connotation of a sentence does not shift. Below, I’ve taken the original example shift sentence, and modified it to make a no-shift sentence. The no-shift sentence has similar structure but significantly different meaning. Also note that the shift signaling word “although” doesn’t appear in the no-shift sentence.

  • SHIFT: ​​Although she liked to think of herself as stunningly slender, most of her friends would describe her as alarmingly scrawny. ​
  • NO SHIFT: ​She liked to think of herself as stunningly slender and her friends agreed, finding her quite pleasantly slim.

In the no-shift sentence, note that “stunningly slender” and “pleasantly slim” have both the same meaning and the same connotation of beauty. The clauses indicate no shift in tone or meaning. The woman and her friends both have the same opinion about the same thing.

Some sentences shift in both tone and meaning. Others shift just in connotation, and still other sentences shift in meaning only. In the next post, we’ll take a good look at shifts of meaning in English sentences.