What Does Connotation Mean? (with Examples)

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, called its connotation. Connotation contrasts with denotation, which is the literal meaning of a word.)

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.
  • She's an adult.
  • (Connotation: a sensible woman)
  • She's a real woman.
  • (Connotation: a curvaceous woman)
  • She's a real lady.
  • (Connotation: a classy woman)
  • She's a real babe.
  • (Connotation: an attractive woman)

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.)
connotation positive and negative examples

Positive and Negative Connotations of Words with Similar Denotations

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
SlenderSkinnyThin
AssertiveDomineeringForceful
MeticulousNitpickingThorough
EconomicalTight fistedCost-effective
YouthfulChildishYoung
TenaciousStubbornPersistent
UnassumingPlainNormal

Why Should I Care about Connotation?

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.
    • (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
    • (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.
    Read more about choosing betters words and omitting adverbs (see "Issue 1").

  • 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.
    Interactive Exercise
    Here are three randomly selected questions from a larger exercise, which can be edited and printed to create exercise worksheets.

See Also

What is denotation? What does literal meaning mean? What is figurative language? What are metaphors? What are metonyms? What are similes? What are idioms? Glossary of grammatical terms