These terms are inextricably bound together (at least, they are for the purposes of this post). Instead of going too deeply into literary theory, let’s keep it light and just assume that all words imply a meaning. When you read this sentence, for example, you understand the gist of what I’m writing. Words convey a message across a medium (the computer screen in this case) from one person to another.
What’s trickier, however, is that words can be ambiguous. All of us can go to the dictionary and find the definition of any word—this definition is called the denotation or the literal meaning. Words do not exist in the emotionless vacuum of the dictionary, though. Words evoke emotion, which can be vastly different for each of us. Because of cultural or subjective life experiences, it’s very unlikely that any two people have exactly the same thoughts and feelings about words or phrases. These subjective attitudes are called the connotation.
The short definition is as follows: the denotation is the dictionary meaning of a word, and the connotation is the cultural context or emotion of a word.
Let’s look at some examples:
- Thin and skinny have the same denotation (literal meaning), but thin typically has a more positive connotation than skinny.
- In different parts of the United States, the word dinner has different denotations (meaning “lunch” or “supper”) and different connotations (some consider dinner to be more elegant than supper).
- Americans also have a wide variety of ways to say “soft drink,” including Coke, pop, soda, soda pop, etc. (denotation). Depending on where you are in the country, the differences in connotation can change how someone feels about the use of one of those names.
The bottom line is that a writer must take into consideration both the denotation and the connotation of words. For example, while two words may have the same literal meaning, it doesn’t mean that both of them will evoke the emotional response you’re going for (this is why I don’t recommend just using a thesaurus to find alternate words). Pay attention to both.
Have some interesting denotation vs. connotation examples? Share them.