Confused about the difference between connotation and denotation? Not sure how it’s possible for one word to have many connotations? Connotation and denotation both refer to word meanings, but they’re very different concepts. Read this guide to learn the denotation definition, connotation definition, how you can remember which is which, and what connotation and denotation examples look like.
Denotation is the literal meaning of a word. It’s the definition you would find in the dictionary. For example, if you were to look up the word “proud” in the dictionary, a typical entry would read, “having or showing self-respect or self-esteem” That’s the denotation of the word.
What does connotation mean? Connotation refers to the emotions or ideas that you think of when you read or hear a word. Let’s look at the word “proud” again. While it has a clear-cut denotation, the word can have different connotations for different people. If you hear the word proud, you might associate it with negative meanings, such as egotistical, show-off, etc. It could also have positive connotations, such as self-confidence, talent, etc. Writers will often use words with strong connotations in order to evoke certain moods in their readers.
Sometimes words can develop such strong negative connotations that they are considered offensive and are no longer widely used. For example, people with physical impairments used to be known as cripples in the past, but this word became so associated with the idea of someone being damaged/incapable/less than other people that the word is no longer considered polite to use and has been almost entirely replaced by “handicapped” and other synonyms.
What Is the Difference Between Connotation and Denotation?
How do connotation and denotation differ? Denotation is the literal definition of the word, one that basically everyone agrees on. It’s the blurb you read in the dictionary. There isn’t a lot of debate or nuance to it.
Connotation, on the other hand, is much more subjective, as it refers to the emotions a word evokes. While the dictionary definition of a word like “cheap” is set, you could have a positive connotation of the word and associate it with frugality and good value, while someone else could have a negative connotation of the word and associate it with stinginess and poor quality.
One easy way to remember which word means what is that “denotation” and “dictionary” both begin with the letter “d,” and denotation is the dictionary definition of a word.
Examples of Connotation and Denotation
Want to see more examples of connotation vs denotation? Below are four groups of words. Each group has a similar denotation, but many of the words have very different connotations. As you read through them, think about if your connotations of the words match what we’ve written. Because connotation is subjective, you might have a different feeling associated with a word.
Word Group 1: Slender, Scrawny, Bony, Gaunt
Denotation: All of these words are synonyms of thin and are used to describe someone or something without much body fat.
Connotation: Slender is often used as a way to describe someone who is both thin and attractive, while scrawny is often associated with weakness. Bony usually conjures up images of someone who is unattractive and hard-looking, while gaunt is often associated with hunger and malnutrition.
Word Group 2: Serene, Laid-Back, Lackadaisical, Dreamy
Denotation: These are all words to describe someone who is relaxed and not troubled by worries.
Connotation: While serene and laid-back generally have positive connotations of someone who is calm and in control, lackadaisical and dreamy have more negative connotations of someone who is relaxed but unable to get important things done.
Word Group 3: Home, House, Shelter
Denotation: These words all refer to a place where people live.
Connotation: House has a pretty neutral connotation, and most people just associate it with the structure of the building. Shelter has more of a negative connotation of something that only covers basic needs and doesn’t provide additional warmth, while home has a much more positive connotation and is often associated with family and positive memories made in the house.
Word Group 4: Grin, Beam, Sneer, Simper
Denotation: These are all synonyms for smile.
Connotation: Both grin and beam have positive connotations and are generally associated with someone who is genuinely happy. Sneer has a negative connotation and is usually associated with someone being cruel or scornful, while simper also has a negative connotation, but is usually associated with someone weak or unintelligent.
Summary: Connotation Definition and Denotation Definition
Denotation is the dictionary definition of a word, while connotation is the feelings associated with a word. While the denotation of a word is pretty cut and dry, one word can have many connotations for different people, and those connotations could be neutral, positive, or negative. One easy way to keep these two concepts straight is that “denotation” and “dictionary” both begin with the letter “d,” and denotation is the dictionary definition of a word.
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Christine graduated from Michigan State University with degrees in Environmental Biology and Geography and received her Master's from Duke University. In high school she scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT and was named a National Merit Finalist. She has taught English and biology in several countries.