Connotative vs. Denotative Vocabulary
Words are not limited to one single meaning. Most words have multiple meanings, which are categorized as either denotative or connotative. The denotation of a word is its explicit definition as listed in a dictionary. Let’s use the word “home” as an example. The denotative or literal meaning of “home” is “ a place where one lives; a residence.” Hint: Denotation, denotative, definition, and dictionary all start with the letter ‘D.
The expressiveness of language, however, comes from the other type of word meaning—connotation, or the association or set of associations that a word usually brings to mind . The connotative meaning of “home” is a place of security, comfort, and family. When Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz says, “There’s no place like home,” she’s not referring to its denotation, but the emotions “home” evokes for her and most people.
Connotation Determines Use
The connotative and denotative meanings of words are both correct, but a word’s connotation determines when it is used. By definition, synonyms have the same denotation or literal meaning, but almost always have different connotations, or shades of meaning. For example, the synonyms of “boat” include ship, yacht, dinghy, and ferry. All these words refer to the same thing, but each elicits a different association in the reader’s mind.
Connotative and Denotative Vocabulary Exercises
Connotative anddenotativevocabulary exercises test your understanding of how word choice affects the meaning of what you say and write. A quiz may ask you to select words or write sentences that convey positive, neutral, or negative connotations. For example, notice how the sentence meaning shifts when the underlined word is changed:
Positive: Sally was an enthusiastic member her sorority.
Neutral: Sally was an active member of her sorority.
Negative: Sally was a fanatical member of her sorority.
Shades of Meaning Activities
Create your own connotative, or shades of meaning, activity worksheet. Make three columns on a sheet of paper with the headings “positive,” “neutral,” and “negative.” Select a paragraph from a reading assignment and record words of differing connotation. Next, rewrite sentences from the paragraph, substituting synonyms that have different connotations. Observe how the intent of each sentence changes.
The main lesson: Always consider a word’s denotation and connotation if you want to avoid misinterpretation. In recent years, “political correctness” has swept through the English language due to our increased sensitivity to negative connotations. While some ridicule it as being “PC,” expressions such as “differently-abled” (instead of “crippled”) have had a positive effect on society.