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If you’ve ever called a friend or partner “cheap” instead of “frugal” and found yourself paying the bill, you may have made a critical error noting the difference between connotation vs. denotation.
What’s the difference between connotation vs. denotation? And more importantly, how can you use each one to your advantage as a writer?
A writer has so many words at their fingertips to convey an idea, a character, or a world to their audience. But if you’ve ever taken even a quick glance at a dictionary (or thesaurus!) you know that words have more than one definition, and those nuances of language can make a big difference in what you communicate.
So the writer’s problem then becomes how to choose the right word to get your ideas across. One way to work toward more precision in language is to understand the difference between a word’s literal definition and the hidden emotional meanings that attach themselves to the word. Let’s break down connotation vs. denotation.
Denotation comes from the word “denote” which means to “to mark out plainly” or “to represent or signify.” When the word denotation is applied to the definition of any specific word, it means the literal meaning of a word, the specific, primary meaning of a word.
In short, the denotation of a word is its dictionary definition.
Let’s look at some examples of denotation. The words beautiful, handsome, attractive, and pretty essentially all mean the same thing: good-looking or aesthetically pleasing to the senses (especially visual).
That is the dictionary definition or denotative meaning. Straightforward, right?
Connotation is the idea or feeling a word carries, in addition to its literal meaning. Connotation is heavily dependent on a shared understanding of a hidden or implied meaning, so connotation can change from region to culture to language.
Let’s look at some examples of connotation to help you become more adept at using language in writing.
Types of connotation
There are three types of connotation, and luckily their names denote their actual meaning. (Handy, right?)
Let’s return to the example in our introduction. The word “frugal” means economical with money, but it has a strongly positive connotation. When you can someone frugal, the hidden meaning is that they are wise and savvy with money. It’s a good thing, a positive attribute.
In contrast, if someone is called “cheap,” the denotative meaning might be economical, too. But the connotation is negative—the feeling associated with “cheap” is that someone is miserly or tries to save money in negative ways.
The last type of connotation is neutral—when a word has no positive or negative implied meanings. The word “economical” is pretty neutral unless the context changes. And context is always important when determining the connotative meaning of words.
Some words that have a harmless denotation, but once placed in a different context, the underlying meaning changes.
For example, the word slimy by itself can accurately describe a slug, a cluster of algae, or the feeling on your face after your mastiff has ensured that you were properly welcomed home. It’s mostly neutral.
However, when slimy is used to describe a person, the meaning becomes negative. The reader recognizes that a slimy person is not someone you want to ask to housesit while you head to the Bahamas for a week. “Slimy” in this context takes on a negative connotation.
Whenever you choose words, make sure that the connotation of your choices matches your written scenario. Just like you’re careful before calling a friend frugal or cheap, consider the desired effect of your words before choosing them. That’s the real power of knowing the differences between connotation and denotation.
Set the timer for fifteen minutes. Write about winter (or spring!) for ten minutes, using only words with neutral connotations. Then take five minutes and rewrite your previous prose, but substitute words with loaded connotations. Post your practice in the Pro practice workshop here, and leave feedback for others who have posted. Not a member yet? Join us here.