“When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”
-- Humpty Dumpty

Table of Contents

1.Connotation vs Denotation

2.In logic and Semantics
uOsgood’s “Semantic Differential”

3.Usage of Connotation in Writing

uSome External Links of Exercises


6.External Links

1.Connotation vs Denotation

The relationship between words and meanings is extremely complicated, and belongs to the field of semantics. For now, though, what you need to know is that words do not have single, simple meanings. Traditionally, grammarians have referred to the meanings of words in two parts:

1.1 Definitions

DavidMegginson,”Connotations and Denotations” (1)
a literal meaning of the worddictionary definition
an association (emotional or otherwise) which the word evokesImplied or suggested underlying meaning, based on cultural contexts
Definitionsaccording to Merriam-Webster
1 : an act or process of denoting2 : MEANING; especially : a direct specific meaning as distinct from an implied or associated idea3 a : a denoting term : NAME b : SIGN, INDICATION <visible denotations of divine wrath>4 : the totality of things to which a term is applicable especially in logic
1 a : the suggesting of a meaning by a word apart from the thing it explicitly names or describes b : something suggested by a word or thing : IMPLICATION <the connotations of comfort that surrounded that old chair>2 : the signification of something <that abuse of logic which consists in moving counters about as if they were known entities with a fixed connotation -- W. R. Inge>3 : an essential property or group of properties of a thing named by a term in logic
Shead, Jackie. “The meaning of meaning: Jackie Shead considers the public and personal domains of meaning.” The English Review. 16.4, p.13.
the referential relationship between the sign itself and the reality it points to
the associations and values attached to the word, which can be personal and/or public
Chandler, Daniel. “Semiotics for Beginners.”(2)
“the definitional, ‘literal’, ‘obvious’ or ‘commonsense’ meaning of a sign”
the socio-cultural and ‘personal’ associations of the sign [related to interpreter
Control Over Connotation is Essential(3)
"Denotation, also known as cognitive meaning, refers to the direct relationship between a term and the object, idea, or action it designates. . . .
"Connotation, also known as affective meaning, refers to the emotive or associational aspect of a term." (McArthur, T. The Oxford Companion to the English Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992)
A vivid illusion of the Distinction between Denotation & Connotation
026_W_& P_S_C.jpg (23046 bytes)
026_W_& P_S_C.jpg (23046 bytes)

1.2 Examples
Example 1 (4)
Example one.
Example one.

The denotation of this example is a red rose with a green stem. The connotation is that it is a symbol of passion and love - this is what the rose represents.

Example two.
Example two.

The denotation is a brown cross. The connotation is a symbol of religion, according to the media connotation. However, to be more specific this is a symbol of Christianity.

Example seven .
Example seven .

The denotation is a representation of a cartoon heart. The connotation is a symbol of love and affection, not in the way of a rose, but a symbol of true love and people making love together.

Exaple 2
Connotation in a Tim McGraw song
“Back When”
Back when a hoe was a hoe 1Coke was a coke 2And crack's what you were doingWhen you were cracking jokesBack when a screw was a screw 3 The wind was all that blewAnd when you said I'm down with thatWell it meant you had the fluI miss back whenI miss back whenI miss back when
…I'm readin' Street Slang For DummiesCause they put pop in my countryI want more for my moneyThe way it was back then
1When someone calls you a ‘ho’ you don’t expect to see a gardening tool the next time you look in the mirror…
2 I, just like Tim, once thought coke was something that you drank, either in the red can or the silver can that indicated the diet variety…
3I buy screws at the hardware store but I guess they can be purchased other places these days…

Example 3(5)
Take the word “skinny,” for example. Its denotation is “thin.” However, its connotation is somewhat unpleasant: It can have a negative implication in regard to the person or thing it describes.
Ex. Sherry is so skinny.
In the above example the reader, knowing the denotation of “skinny,” can figure out that Sherry is thin. However, the reader may pick up a negative vibe from this word also. “Skinny” seems negative when used in this instance. It leads the reader to think that the writer is insulting Sherry—Sherry looks malnourished, Sherry looks emaciated, Sherry is too thin.
Ex. Sherry is svelte.
This illustration replaces a word that has a negative connotation with a word that has a more positive connotation. The reader could infer that the writer is complimenting Sherry—Sherry is slender, Sherry is in good shape, Sherry is nice looking.
Ex. I bought a cheap car last week.
Here the writer is suggesting, deliberately or not, to his or her audience that he or she bought an inferior vehicle.
Ex. I bought an inexpensive car last week.
The word “cheap” has been replaced with “inexpensive,” which has a less negative connotation attached to it. In this revised sentence, the writer is perhaps trying to say that he or she bought a practical, reasonably priced vehicle.
Here are some other words that tend to carry negative connotations, followed by synonyms that have more positive connotations:
Hobo………..Homeless person

Example 4(6)
Dictionaries usually give a word's denotations, but are often less useful in revealing connotations; a good writer, though, will be conscious of the hidden meanings carried by every word. Think, for instance, about the phrases make love, have intercourse, make whoopie, copulate, mate, and screw— they all refer to the same act, but they're not at all interchangeable; when you need to refer to the act, you have to figure out which set of associations will have the desired effect on your audience.By the way, I'm very fond of Farmer & Henley's Historical Dictionary of Slang, which offers some more creative options, sadly neglected today: to dance the blanket hornpipe, under-petticoating, to perform the act of androgynation, to do jumble-giblets, to have a wollop-in, to dive in the dark, to Adam and Eve it, to strop one's beak, to make the beast with two backs— that last one's Shakespeare's.

Example 5
Connotation 222222.jpg
Example 6
Southern Nevada Regional Professional Development Program (7)
Improving Vocabulary
Word Connotation and Denotation

The choice of words often reveals a writer’s attitude toward a subject.
The boy seemed very youthful.
The boy seemed very immature.
Immature suggests that the boy is childish and juvenile.
Using that word makes it clear that the writer’s attitude is negative.
Youthful just suggests he is young.

Let’s take a look at the words: trip and vacation.
Both words have similar denotations, but vacation has an extra level of meaning.
It makes us feel a sense of freedom, relaxation, and fun.

Understanding connotations is important because some words have similar denotations but opposite connotations.
POSITIVE CONNOTATIONS: The city was bustling with people during the holiday.
NEGATIVE CONNOTATIONS:The city was mobbed with people during the holiday.
In these examples, the words bustling and mobbed both mean “filled.”
However, bustling suggests a positive feeling of energy and excitement, while mobbed suggests a feeling of overcrowding and restricted movement.

Example 7(7)

The connotation of some words - or the attitudes we associate with them - can be seen in these pairs of words that are similar in meaning, but different in the positive or negative attitudes they evoke in most people.
  • refreshing – chilly
  • plain – natural
  • clever – sly
  • snob – cultured
  • cop – officer
  • skinny – slender

Positive Connotation:
The child held tightly to his mother.
Negative Connotation:
The kid hung onto his mother.
The words child and held tightly sound more sensitive and compassionate than kid and hung onto.

Positive Connotation:
The doctor gave the child an injection.
Negative Connotation:
The doctor gave the child a shot.

Example 8 (7)
If you look up the words house and home in a dictionary, you’d find that both words have almost the same meaning - "a dwelling place."
However, the expression above suggests that home has an additional meaning.

The feelings, images, and memories that surround a word make up its connotation. Why do you think that real estate advertisers use the word home more frequently than house?

The glass has shattered.
The glass has cracked.
Both words mean “broken,” but have different connotations. Cracked is less severe than shattered. Shattered implies being broken violently into many pieces and beyond repair. Cracked implies it’s not completely destroyed.

Example 9 (8)
Chandler on SIGNS
a 'signifier' is the form which the sign takes; and
the 'signified‘ is the concept it represents.


Some other examples:

For example, a stubborn person may be described as being either strong-willed or pig-headed; although these have the same literal meaning (i.e. stubborn), strong-willed connotes admiration for the level of someone's will (a positive connotation), while pig-headed connotes frustration in dealing with someone (a negative connotation).(9)

Innocent and genuine both denote an absence of corruption, but the connotations of the two words are different: innocent is often associated with a lack of experience, whereas genuine is not.

An example is the different associations brought up by the words pride and arrogance. While the two words have similar meanings, pride is generally has positive associations while arrogance carries negative associations. (10)

2. In logic and Semantics

In logic and semantics, connotation' is roughly synonymous with intension. Connotation is often contrasted with denotation, which is more or less synonymous with extension. Alternatively, the connotation of the word may be thought of as the set of all its possible referents (as opposed to merely the actual ones). A word's denotation is the collection of things it refers to; its connotation is what it implies about the things it is used to refer to. The denotation of dog is (something like) four-legged canine carnivore. So saying "you are a dog" would imply that you were ugly or aggressive rather than stating that you were canine. Moreover, connotation especially depends on the audience. The word "dog" denotes any animal from the genus canis, but it may connote friendship to one reader and terror to another. This partly depends on the reader's personal dealings with dogs, but the author can provide context to guide the reader's interpretation. (9)

2.1 Osgood’s “Semantic Differential” (11)
u Measured the dimension of meaning we call CONNOTATION
u Concerned with semantics
u Plotted differences between individuals’ connotations for words
“Subjects were given a word, for example 'car' and presented with a variety of adjectives to describe it. The adjectives were presented at either end of a seven-point scale, ranging from, say, 'good' to 'bad' or from 'fast' to 'slow'. In this way, he was able to draw up a 'map' of people's connotations for a given word.”
Like the picture here shows:my_picture_please_do_not_change_it_any_more...jpg
Osgood’s map of people’s connotations for the word ‘polite’ showing 10 scales used by Osgood. The map shows the average responses of 2 groups of 20 subjects.

3. Usage of Connotation in Writing

u "No one can write with color, force, and persuasiveness without control over connotation." (Weaver, R.M. A Rhetoric and Composition Handbook. New York, NY: William Morrow & Co., 1974.)

u "Skill in using the emotional appeal of connotation is essential in any writing designed to persuade, convince, anger, inspire, or soothe a reader." (McCrimmon, J.M. Writing with a Purpose. Cambridge, MA: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1950.)

u "In most contexts, denotation is less important than attitude, implied emotional stance, or tone." (Jerome, J. The Poet and the Poem. Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books, 1979.)
From three quotations above, we can see that using connotation in writing is an essential skill for academic writing learner.
Writers have always been sensitive to the emotional power of words.
Writers who wish to create a more emotional response in their readers will choose words with a stronger connotation.

Example 1
Let’s say you want to describe someone.
The first word that comes to your mind is loud.
Loud can describe many things, from sounds to people to colors.
Now, you have to decide if loud is the best word to use in this situation.
loud adjective
  1. marked by extremely high volume: earsplitting, deafening, roaring
  2. tastelessly showy: chintzy, flashy, gaudy, tacky, garish
  3. offensive in manner: unpleasant, aggressive, distasteful (7)
Choose another to replace the original one could be much better.

Example 2
For example, both "woman" and "chick" have the denotation "adult female" in North American society, but "chick" has somewhat negative connotations, while "woman" is neutral.

For another example of connotations, consider the following:
There are over 2,000 vagrants in the city.

There are over 2,000 people with no fixed address in the city.

There are over 2,000 homeless in the city.

All three of these expressions refer to exactly the same people, but they will invoke different associations in the reader's mind: a "vagrant" is a public nuisance while a "homeless" person is a worthy object of pity and charity.

Presumably, someone writing an editorial in support of a new shelter would use thepositive form, while someone writing an editorial in support of anti-loitering laws would use the negative form.

In this case, the dry legal expression "with no fixed address" quite deliberately avoids most of the positive or negative associations of the other two terms -- a legal specialist will try to avoid connotative language altogether when writing legislation, often resorting to archaic Latin or French terms which are not a part of ordinary spoken English, and thus, relatively free of strong emotional associations.

Many of the most obvious changes in the English language over the past few decades have had to do with the connotations of words which refer to groups of people. Since the 1950's, words like "Negro" and "crippled" have acquired strong negative connotations, and have been replaced either by words with neutral connotations (ie "black," "handicapped") or by words with deliberately positive connotations (ie "African-Canadian," "differently-abled").

That is why we need to study connotation to avoid showing aggressiveness in writing.

Example 3 (12)Understanding Connotation and Denotation
In language, it is possible to say one thing and mean another. It is also possible for words to carry many different shades of meaning. For example, words can "mean" on both denotative and connotative levels. To denote is to signify directly; denotative meaning is literal meaning. To connote is to signify something beyond the literal meaning. In your writing, you must pay attention not only to what your words denote, but also to what they connote.
Consider the following list of words: car, auto, sedan, coupe, junker, rig, jalopy, heap. Do they mean the same thing or different things? On what level do they mean the same thing?
For example, consider the following sets of words that denote the same thing, but connote different things and the sentences you get by filling in the blanks with each term in the sentence-templates that follow:
u We went down to the . [tavern / pub /bar / dive ]
u He was _. [between careers / out of work / on welfare / a bum ]
u Her prose style was .[direct / simple / simplistic ]
How much information does the sentence "We went down to the tavern" contain compared to "We went to the bar."? Is it OK to say "I like hanging out in dives"? Call your friend's prose-style "simplistic" to her face?

Rule of thumb: Expressive, highly charged connotative meanings make your writing both more interesting and more meaningful but can lead you to convey meanings that you didn't intend (or probably should have kept hidden). Also, connotation must be kept as consistent as any nitpicky grammatical thing like verb tenses and such.

Consider the following opening sentences from a paper on smoking laws:

u "Pity the lost smoker, shut out from the best restaurants in the land."
u "Smokers are a dying breed."
u "When New York City enacted its anti-smoking ordinances in 1994, thousands-- maybe millions-- of smokers suddenly found themselves unable to enjoy the pleasure of a cigarette after a good meal."
What would you expect of the papers to follow? Would they be factual and objective, or sarcastic, or sympathetic? Does any limit you more than the others?
Example 4 (13)
Word Choice: A Dog is not a Pooch
Denotation means the literal or dictionary definition of a word. Connotation, on the other hand, describes the feelings, associations, and suggestions that a word invokes. Writers quickly learn that words with the same denotation often carry very different connotations. A large part of the art of writing lies in choosing words that convey the perfect connotation along with the correct denotation. For example, if I use the word "dog" in a sentence, it carries a very different feeling than if I use the word "pooch". To understand this difference more clearly, use your dictionary to look up the word "administration" (as in "the Clinton administration") and the word "regime" (as in "the Clinton regime"). This exercise is meant to strengthen your understanding of the impact of connotation and help you select the best words in your writing.

Example 5 (14)
Denotation versus Connotation
Denotative Language and AudienceThe words a writer selects relate directly to the audience. At the denotative level, an audience understands only language that relates to its knowledge and experience. Familiar language speaks to everyone. Specialized words from medicine, law, theology, and literary criticism speak to doctors, lawyers, theologians, and critics. Precise language that shuns emotional colorations speaks to logical and reasonable people, regardless of profession.
Connotative Language and AudienceLanguage is not denotative only; it possesses the capacity to mean beyond the symbolic equivalency to object, action, idea, and relationship. As coin of the realm, words pass from hand to hand, acquiring their own patina. Not just ten cents, dime says cheap, like dime candy. "Give me a dime" asks for a handout. Language's connotative meaning refers to the patina, the social meaning words acquire through use. At the connotative level, language evokes the audience's emotional associations. When a writer uses highly connotative language, he appeals more to his audience's emotion than to its reason.We can see the impact of connotative language in today's highly volatile and emotional abortion controversy. According to the Oxford English Dictionary__, when the word abortion entered the English language in the sixteenth century it meant any premature delivery of a child. The word's use soon extended beyond the domestic arena to refer to anything "born before its time." In the seventeenth century the word's use shifted to the "imperfect offspring of an untimely birth." Since medicine and midwifery were, at best, rough practices, children born early were often disfigured. As a consequence abortion came to mean something disfigured--a monstrosity. Today abort still denotes ending anything, particularly a pregnancy, prematurely. For some, abort still carries the connotation of disfigurement and monstrosity. Those who favor abortion, then, not only favor ending pregnancy, they favor monstrosity. With the weight of this negative connotative meaning, those who favor legal medical termination of pregnancy, refer to themselves as pro-choice. Even the anti-abortion groups avoid the word; they are not anti-abortion but pro-life.Connotative language also reflects social, racial, political, or religious stereotypes. When a writer's language relies on these connotations, he expects his audience to share the beliefs at the stereotype's center. A writer referring to liberals as "bleeding hearts" or even "idealists" and conservatives as "hard-minded" communicates not only his own bias, but his expectation that the audience shares his bias.

Example 6(9)
UsageWithin today's society, connotation branches into a mixture of different meanings. These could include the contrast of a word or phrase with its primary, literal meaning (known as a denotation), with what that word or phrase specifically denotes. The connotation essentially relates to how anything may be associated with a word or phrase, for example, an implied value judgment or feelings.It is often useful to avoid words with strong connotations (especially disparaging ones) when striving to achieve a neutral point of view. A desire for more positive connotations, or fewer negative ones, is one of the main reasons for using euphemisms.Deliberate use of connotation may involve selection of a word to convey more than its dictionary meaning, or substitution of another word that has a different shade of meaning. The many words for dogs have a spectrum of implications regarding the dog's training, obedience, or expected role, and may even make a statement about the social status of its owner ("lap dog" versus "cur"). Even synonyms have different connotations: slender, thin, skinny may each convey different images to the reader's mind. The writer should choose the connotation, positive, negative, or neutral, that supports the mood.

Word ChoiceWriting for the learned, connotation may involve etymology or make reference to classic works. In schoolbooks, awareness of connotation can avoid attracting extraneous ideas (as when writing "Napoleon was a bigger influence than Frederick the Great on world history" provokes thoughts of Napoleon's physical stature). In encyclopedias, words should connote authority and dispassion; the writer should avoid words whose connotations suggest bias, such as pejorative words.

4. Exercises
Exercise 1(15)

Test Your Knowledge
by Kelli Trungale

Test your understanding by choosing the word with the more positive connotation in each of the following sentences.1. Many business professionals and amateurs alike have (invested/gambled) on Wall Street and have made millions of dollars.2. Jenny (smirked/smiled) when her son showed her all of the A’s on his report card.3. Teresa’s peers admire her (unique/weird) sense of fashion.Now test your understanding by choosing the word(s) with the more negative connotation in each of the following sentences.4. The (newshounds/journalists) can’t seem to get enough of the Michael Jackson trial.5. The bingo hall down the street is always full of (spinsters/unmarried women).6. Harry was (terminated/canned) from his job yesterday.Answers1. Many business professionals and amateurs alike have invested on Wall Street and have made millions of dollars.2. Jenny smiled when her son showed her all of the A’s on his report card.3. Teresa’s peers admire her unique sense of fashion.4. The newshounds can’t seem to get enough of the Michael Jackson trial.5. The bingo hall down the street is always full of spinsters.6. Harry was canned from his job yesterday.

Exercise 2
Exercises from Southern Nevada Regional Professional Development Program(7)
Which words have a more positive connotation?
Every October the old maple (paints, litters) the lawn with its falling leaves.
The girl ran (courageously, recklessly) into the flaming barn to save her colt.
We walked at a (leisurely, sluggish) pace.
Every October the old maple paints the lawn with its falling leaves.
The girl ran courageously into the flaming barn to save her colt.
We walked at a leisurely pace.

The man and woman were retired and living on a fixed income, which forced them to be very -A. generous.
B. cheap.
C. careless.
D. thrifty.

Answer: D
Cheap and thrifty have close to the same dictionary meaning.
However, the connotation of the word cheap is so different.
It’s almost like a criticism, while thrifty seems more like a natural description of a way someone is forced to live and implies a wise or careful use of what’s available.

Choose the word below that suggests a more positive connotation.
The portions at the restaurant were -A.sufficientB. adequateAnswer: A
However –Sufficient suggests exactly what is needed.
While the word adequate implies barely enough.

Hector was a _ teenager whose arms and legs seemed to get in his own way.
Which of the following words has a less flattering or more negative connotation?

A.tallB.ganglingAnswer: B
The word gangling implies that someone is very tall and usually awkward.
Tall just implies having greater than ordinary height.

There is nothing wrong with the old hotels in Las Vegas. However, many hotels are antiquated and should be replaced. Which of the following words has a more positive connotation?
A. old
B. antiquated
Answer: A
The word antiquated suggests the hotels are old-fashioned and out of date.
Old merely suggests they’ve been around for a long time.

The audience _ when the master of ceremonies introduced the singer by the wrong name.Which of the following words has a less flattering or more negative connotation?
A.snickeredB. chuckledAnswer: AThe word snicker suggests laughing at someone in a smirking, unkind way.Chuckle suggests a more good natured type of laughter with someone.
7My neighbor is always dressed when she goes out. Which of the following words has a more flattering connotation?

Answer: BThe word impeccable suggests flawless, elegant, and close to perfect.While the word nice is also a compliment, it suggests neat, presentable, and suitable and is not quite as strong.

4.2 Some external Links of Exercises1.The Hidden Power of ConnotationsSee Exercise 1-7 LanguageA thesaurus can help you find just the right word with just the right connotation to develop tone in your writing. for New Media: Image Connotation/Denotation

Improve your writing skill of word choice and using connotations with those tests and exercises!

5. Reference(1)David Megginson, ”Connotations and Denotations” 25th, 2011(2)



(8) Chandler, Daniel. “Semiotics for Beginners.”



(11)“Osgood and Semantic Differential.”

6. External Links