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Connotation and Denotation

Every reader is aware of the amusing fact that words are not limited to one single meaning. Most words don’t simply express a thought, but also express feelings beyond the word’s literal meaning. Such words are generally categorized as either denotative or connotative. You may wonder what denotation and connotation are. Let me explain it with an example.
Jarrod walked along the beach and decided to stop and take rest.
  • In the sentence above, what does the word ‘rest’ mean? Anyone at the first glance itself would say that ‘rest’ is a period of relaxing, sleeping or doing nothing after a period of activity. But is this word confined to a single meaning? Can you guess the other meanings the word reflects?
Look at this example.
Emily now lies at rest in the churchyard.
  • Here, the word ‘rest’ means to lie dead and buried.
While reading poetry or any other literary form, the noun ‘rest’ is referred to ‘dead and therefore free from trouble or anxiety.’ Poets use the word ‘rest’ to connote ‘death.’ Here’s an example from “How sleep the Brave” by William Collins.

HOW sleep the brave, who sink to rest

By all their country's wishes blest!
  • Through these lines, the poet honors the brave warriors those who have sacrificed their life for the nation. The poet does not want to pen down that the soldiers are dead like ordinary human beings. Hence he describes their death as the “rest” since the soldiers have spent their entire life in war to protect the nation. He also symbolized that the nature is glorifying the resting soldier.
  • As you can see, the word ‘rest’ in example 1 conveys the dictionary or denotative meaning. In examples 2 & 3, it conveys the implied or connotative meaning. 
Connotation and Denotation


Denotation of a Word

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To denote is to signify directly or refer to specifically. The denotation of a word refers to its literal meaning-the definition you find in the dictionary. In other words, denotative meaning of a word is its direct, explicit meaning.

Here is an example for you.

Let us consider the word “lamb.” When you flip through the pages of dictionary to get the meaning of this word, you will discover that one of its definitions is “a young sheep.” It is the literal meaning or objective meaning of the word.

Connotation of a Word

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To connote is to suggest a feeling or an idea in addition to literal meaning. Connotative meaning refers to the associations, images, and feelings that a word calls to mind in addition to its dictionary meaning. The connotation of a word emphasizes certain characteristics or specific information, or it reveals implied or hidden attitudes.

Look at this example.

As we discussed earlier, the word ‘lamb’ denotes a young sheep.

However, when it is compared with the characteristics of a person, the word ‘lamb’ connotes innocence, gentleness, or meekness.

Let’s look at more examples.

1. Dumb

a. Olivia was born deaf and dumb.

                        lacking the power of speech (Denotative)

b. When the police questioned Carter, he acted dumb.

                                             condition of being stupid (Connotative)

  • Denotative meaning gives the literal sense of the word ‘dumb’ while connotation gives the figurative meaning of the same word.

2. Greasy 

a. The detective found greasy fingerprints across the lens.

                      coated with oil or grease (Denotative)

b. Our neighbor Parker is a greasy person. 

           unappealing or undesirable (Connotative)

  • Denotative meaning of ‘greasy’ is slippery; whereas the connotative meaning is referred to a person who is disgusting.

Connotation vs Denotation

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Two or more words may have similar denotation, but their connotations may be quite different, depending on their use in context. For example, the words curious, inquisitive, nosy, and snoopy all have the same denotation: desired to investigate. However, we would probably want to be referred to as curious or inquisitive. It’s because the words curious and inquisitive have a positive connotation: interested in learning about many different things. But the words nosy and snoopy convey a negative connotation: curious about the private affairs of others. To use any word effectively and convey exactly what you want to, you should be aware of the connotative power of words.

Look at these examples.

1. Gregory greeted us with a smile.
2. Gregory welcomed us with open arms.
3. Gregory accosted a man in the street.

  • The denotations of greet, welcome, accost are similar, but do all the three verbs suggest the same connotation? Let’s see what each sentence connotes. 
  • The verb ‘greet’ does not have any connotation. 
  • However, welcome has a positive connotation because it shows enthusiasm.
  • In sentence 3, the verb accosted has a negative connotation, meaning “greeting in a rude or threatening way.”

a. A group had gathered at the theater this morning.

b. A mob had gathered at the theater this morning.

The words ‘group’ and ‘mob’ both denote a crowd of people. While no particular emotion is suggested by the noun ‘group’ in sentence 1, the noun ‘mob’ in sentence 2 suggests a negative sense to indicate a disorderly or unruly crowd.

a. Collins lives alone and often feels lonely.

b. Mark is a reclusive billionaire.

Lonely and reclusive both denote a lack of companions or companionship. However, reclusive is usually used in a negative sense to indicate a person who lives alone and likes to avoid other people.

Sentence Using Connotation

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Every word has both a denotative and connotative meaning, but the connotative meaning of a word varies depending on the context in which the word is used. Some words may seem to be interchangeable because they have the same definitions, but in fact they are differentiated by subtle shades of meaning or connotations. For example, consider the word rain; compare the different degrees of rainfall in the words downpour, sprinkle, and shower.

Let me put them in sentences to make it clear to you.

1. Thousands of lives are at risk from the flooding caused by heavy downpour. (heavy rainfall that often starts suddenly)
2. It is only sprinkling. We can still go out. (a light rainfall)
3. Our picnic was in question as a heavy shower is predicted for this afternoon. (a short period of rain)

All the three words above are synonyms of rain, but each elicits a different association in the reader’s mind. So, choose the word that has the exact connotative meaning that you intend to express.

When choosing a word, think about not only the meaning, or denotations of the words you choose, but also their connotations-the set of ideas and emotions associated with the word. Depending on the context it is used, a word might have a positive, neutral, or negative connotation which can affect how people respond to them when the words appear in writing. Here is an example to show such variability.

Read these three sentences and identify the type of meaning they imply.

1. Becky was tall and thin, with brown hair.
2. When Bert met the slender young woman, he was totally stunned.
3. Becky looked gaunt and exhausted.

Did you notice that all the three expressions refer to the description of a person’s body? But is there any difference in context and meaning of each? All three sentences invoke different associations in the reader's mind. Let me make this point clear to you.

  • The term ‘thin’ in the first sentence describes the physique of Becky. It does not show any judgment on her structure, Hence it is neutral.
  • In the second sentence, the word “slender” is used in a positive sense to suggest a pleasing slimness. 
  • The term ‘gaunt’ in the third sentence is used in the negative sense to indicate thinness caused by extreme hunger or illness.

Positive and Negative Connotations

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Sentence 1: Ricky is a stubborn person.

Here, ‘stubborn’ gives the literal meaning that Ricky is a person who is more persistent and strong in his decisions. 
 While using connotative expression, we shall describe a stubborn person in two ways.

Sentence 2: Ricky is a fiercely ambitious young manager.

Here, the word ‘ambitious’ indicates an admirable wish to succeed. This connotative expression reflects the positive shade of meaning. Now look at the next possible method of writing this sentence.

Sentence 3: Ricky is a pushy insurance agent, who forces you to buy policies, irrespective of whether it is actually meant for you.

Could you guess the meaning of the expression ‘pushy’? Though this term have the same literal meaning the previous sentence reflects, pushy connotes “rudeness,” which is a negative connotation.  Pushy implies offending people in order to get what you want.
  • Stubborn – Neutral connotation
  • Ambitious – Positive connotation
  • Pushy – Negative connotation

Neutral Connotation

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Words that do not arouse an emotional reaction or feeling are called neutral words.


Jones was more famous as a writer than as a singer.
In this sentence, ‘famous’ does not show any positive or negative expression. It simply tells the person is widely known about by many people.

Now, look at these sentences.

1. Pinchas Zuckerman is one of the most illustrious violinists of 20th and 21st centuries.

2. David Berkowitz is one of New York’s most notorious serial killers.

The words ‘illustrious’ and ‘notorious’ have the same denotative meaning, “well-known.” Illustrious has a positive connotation, meaning “very famous and much admired.” Notorious has a negative connotation meaning “well known for being bad.”

Here is a list of few words with positive, negative, and neutral connotation.

 Positive Connotation   Neutral Connotation   Negative Connotation 
 thrifty  economical  miserly
 economical  inexpensive  cheap
 exceptional  unusual  strange
 youthful  young  childish
 illustrious  famous  notorious
 slender  thin  skinny
 prudent  timid  cowardly
 laid-back  inactive  lethargic
 persevering  persistent  stubborn
 overwrought  nervous  high-strung
 up-to-date  new  newfangled
 visionary  inventor  dreamer
 save  store  hoard
 hilarious  laughable  ludicrous
 assertive  aggressive  pushy
 employment  work  drudgery
 strategy  plan  scheme
 fragrance  smell  stench
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