What Is Connotation?

Connotation is a further understanding of a word's meaning. As well as a literal meaning, a word can also carry an additional idea or feeling, which is called its connotation. For example:
  • The word "meticulous" means thorough. It has a positive connotation. It describes a person who ensures every detail is covered.
  • The word "nitpicking" also means thorough. It has a negative connotation. It describes a person who consistently highlights minor issues in a pedantic way.
Connotation contrasts with denotation, which is the literal meaning of a word. So, the denotation of "meticulous" and "nitpicking" is thorough.

Table of Contents

  • Easy Examples of Connotation
  • Real-Life Examples of Connotation
  • Positive and Negative Connotations
  • Why Connotation Is Important
  • Test Time!
connotation positive and negative examples

Easy Examples of Connotation

The examples below all denote an adult female, but they have different connotations (i.e., additional associated ideas). In all examples in this section, the connotations are shaded.
  • He's an adult.
  • (Connotation: a sensible man)
  • He's a real man.
  • (Connotation: a robust or strong man)
  • He's a gent.
  • (Connotation: a polite or considerate man)

Real-Life Examples of Connotation

A word can have a positive, neutral, or a negative connotation.
  • This task will be difficult / challenging.
  • (The word "difficult" has a negative connotation. It suggests there are problems ahead. "Challenging" has a positive connotation. It suggests the problems will be overcome.)
  • Welcome to my home / house.
  • ("Home" (where loved ones live) has a positive connotation, while "house" (a functional building to live in) has a neutral connotation. This is why engineers build houses but estate agents sell homes.)
Connotation contrasts with "denotation," which is the literal meaning of a word.
  • You are tenacious / stubborn.
  • (The denotation of these words is "determined," but "tenacious" (won't give up) is a compliment, whereas "stubborn" (won't alter course under any circumstances) isn't.)
  • She is confident / egotistical.
  • (The denotation of these words is "self-assured." "Confident" (showing certainty) has a positive connotation while "egotistical" (overly self-centred) has a negative connotation.)

Positive and Negative Connotations

Here are some more examples of words with a similar denotation but different connotations:
Word with a Positive Connotation Word with a Negative Connotation Approximate Denotation of Both
EconomicalTight fistedCost-effective

Why Connotation Is Important

Here are two good reasons to care about connotation.

(Reason 1) Use connotation to influence your readers.

As a writer, you can influence your readers' opinions with the words you choose. The connotations of your chosen words determine whether your text is biased or unbiased.
  • For all the billions of dollars created here, Silicon Valley is remarkably stingy when it comes to giving. (American journalist Sarah Lacy)
  • (Instead of using "stingy," Sarah Lacy could have chosen any of the following words: "careful," "economical," "frugal," "thrifty," "miserly," or "tight-fisted." She opted for "stingy" because it has a negative connotation. She wanted to portray Silicon Valley's wealthy as privileged and self-centred. Her sentence is an attack not just a statement.)
By choosing words with the right connotations or with no connotations, you can present a non-biased text or biased one ranging from subtly nudging your readers towards your position to exposing your position with a rant. It's all in your word choice and the connotations of those words.

Read more about influencing your readers with emotive language.

(Reason 2) Use connotation to write concisely and precisely.

The best writing is concise and precise (read more on the diction page). Writing concisely is about word efficiency (i.e., avoiding wordiness), while writing precisely ensures your readers take in your ideas accurately. Writing concisely and precisely is achieved by using descriptive words that carry the correct connotation.

Using descriptive words

  • David looked furiously at his critics. wrong cross
  • (This sentence is not concise or precise. The word "looked" is not descriptive. As "looked" is so nondescript, the writer felt the need to use the adverb "furiously" to help with the description. That's why it's not concise. "Stared" would be better, but even "stared" can be improved upon.)
  • David glared at his critics correct tick
  • ("Glared" is a synonym for "stared," but it's not exactly the same. It's stronger. With a strong, descriptive word like "glared," the adverb "furiously" can be dropped. Remember: The best writing is concise and precise.)
Read more about synonyms.

Using words with the correct connotations

  • The panel described you as forceful.
  • (Is "forceful" the right word? Perhaps "assertive," which has a more positive connotation would be more accurate. What about "domineering," which has a negative connotation?)
  • His proposal was unusual.
  • (Is "unusual" the right word? What about "extraordinary" (positive connotation) or "bizarre" (negative connotation)?)
Read more about diction.

Key Points

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This page was written by Craig Shrives.