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This chapter is from the book

This chapter is from the book

Understanding Denotation and Connotation

Language is symbolic in that we use it to represent ideas, objects, and feelings. Because language is only representative, you can interpret any given statement in more than one way. Sometimes the difference is simply literal versus figurative interpretation. Denotation and connotation are two more tools you can employ to discern the meaning of an unfamiliar term. For a writer to express herself precisely, she must understand both the denotations and connotations of words, and use that understanding to convey to the reader her exact intent.


A word's denotation is the strict dictionary definition of that word and refers to the actual thing or idea it represents. In other words, a denotation is the actual meaning of the word without reference to the emotional associations it can arouse in a reader.

If a writer wants her readers to fully grasp her meaning, she must use words according to their established denotations to avoid meaning something she didn't intend and end up confusing the reader. An example of a misused word is represented in this sentence, "Her dissent was gradual and hesitating." This is homonym confusion—and subsequently denotation confusion—at its best. Although a dissent (disagreement) may be gradual and hesitating, the most likely denotation is that of descent (travel downward), which makes a lot more sense.

However, even with the apparent objectivity of a dictionary definition, you will still encounter certain language challenges on the denotative level, because a word can have multiple denotations. For example, the dictionary lists more than 20 distinct meanings for the word low. As a result, you can say, "A low wall bordered the field," and you can also say, "John was feeling low today." The same word, used in two different contexts, has two distinctly different meanings. This ambiguity of word meanings can give you a bit of an obstacle in understanding new words. Considering that, ensure that when you read you understand both denotation and context to get the precise meaning of the word as it is used.

In technical or scientific books you are less likely to find a great number of words with multiple denotations than you are, for instance, in a fictional work. In these kinds of books, you have a one-to-one correspondence between word and meaning. For example, if you see the term transistor or operating system, you will perceive each of those terms in only one context each, that being electronic circuitry (for transistor) or a set of governing operating rules for your computer (for operating system).


Be aware that words can have more than one denotation and connotation. Be sure to read the question in the correct context and then choose an answer based on the most correct contextual meaning.


Although writers can make mistakes in denotation, a writer is more apt to miss the right word by misjudging its connotation. Connotation refers to the emotional or psychological associations a word carries with it. The connotation of a word goes beyond its strict meaning to express the feelings, thoughts, and images the word suggests or evokes.

You can see an example of the difference between connotation and denotation by examining the phrase United States of America. The denotation is as follows: "A federal republic of North America, including 50 states, and the District of Columbia, the Canal Zone, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands of the United States, American Samoa, Guam Wake, and several other scattered islands of the Pacific." Pretty dry and neutral, huh? Now, compare the connotation of the same phrase, which includes government, patriotism, national pride, and a feeling of republic and oneness with other Americans. As you can see, the connotation is quite different from the denotation.

Because of the subjective nature of language, it has the power to create unpredictable psychological responses. Some connotations are personal, deriving from one's particular experiences, whereas others carry emotional overtones by virtue of the way the writer presents the word.

For example, the word home evokes a different response from someone who came from a happy childhood and home than that evoked in someone who had an unhappy home life. Several types of connotation can influence the way you think about a word, which are as follows:

  • Positive (favorable) connotation—Words that make people feel good

  • Negative (unfavorable) connotation—Words that provoke a negative emotional response

  • Neutral connotation—Words that cause no emotional reaction at all

Depending on the intent of the writer, he will choose either favorable or unfavorable connotations to communicate his point. Most journalistic writing uses favorable connotations for the sake of political correctness and to avoid alienating readers. Scientific or technical documents typically use a neutral connotation. Politically motivated writing normally uses highly charged connotations, both favorable and unfavorable, to achieve the desired impact.

Words also have formal and informal connotations. When you speak with or write to older people, people who are in a position of authority, or others you do not know well, you are most likely to use words with formal connotations. An example would be using the term grandmother instead of a denotative, yet less formal, equal like gramma. Formal connotations tend to be either neutral or favorable. When you speak with or write to your friends, you are most likely to use words with informal connotations.

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