What Is Denotation? (with Examples)
DenotationDenotation is the literal, basic meaning of a word or expression. Denotation contrasts with connotation, which refers to the ideas or emotions suggested by a word.
Easy Examples of DenotationThe denotations of "clique," "club," "group," and "team" are essentially the same. They all mean a set of people. However, these words are not interchangeable because they have different connotations (i.e., they come with different unsaid ideas).
This table shows the difference between denotation and connotation:
|clique||a set of people||Clique is understood to be a set of self-serving people who exclude outsiders (i.e., is not welcoming). It has a negative connotation.|
|club||a set of people||Club is understood to be a set of enthusiastic people who have voluntarily united to share an interest. It has a positive connotation.|
|group||a set of people||Group is understood to be set of people. There is no positive or negative associated idea. It has a neutral connotation.|
|team||a set of people||Club is understood to be a set of people working towards the same aim. It has a positive connotation.|
More about DenotationHere are some more examples of denotation and connotation associated with the same word:
|Fox||Red small wild dog||Attractive lady|
|Greasy||Covered in grease||Creepy|
|Snake||Long legless reptile||Untrustworthy person|
Denotation Is the Literal, Basic MeaningYou will often hear denotation (or denotative meaning) described as "the dictionary definition of a word" and connotation (or connotative meaning) as an additional, unsaid idea or emotion evoked by the word. However, this is not entirely accurate because dictionaries often include the positive and negative ideas associated with a word as part of the definition.
- Skinny. The dictionary definition of skinny is unattractively thin.
- Slender. The dictionary definition of gracefully thin.
The table below shows the basic meanings of five words (i.e., their denotations) but also highlights the possible scope of these words' connotations.
(included in the dictionary)
|tenacious||not readily relinquishing||The dictionary definition of "tenacious" is "fervent in pursuit of, and not easily dispelled from, an aim."|
|stubborn||not readily relinquishing||The dictionary definition of "stubborn" is "showing dogged determination not to change one's mind, especially in spite of good reasons to do so."|
(personal to an individual)
|parental||relating to parents||Depending on personal experience, "parental" could have a positive connotation (e.g., loving), a neutral connotation (e.g., relating to parents), or a negative connotation (e.g., abusive).|
(relevant to a specific group)
|British||from Britain||Depending on each reader's background, "British" could have a positive connotation (e.g., high-quality), a neutral connotation (e.g., from Britain), or a negative connotation (e.g., aggressive)|
(dependent on context)
|cheap||inexpensive||Depending on context, "cheap" could have a positive connotation (e.g., good value), a neutral connotation (e.g., inexpensive), or a negative connotation (e.g., low quality).|
Why Should I Care about Denotation?If you've worked in a multinational environment, you may have come across this observation: Non-native speakers can understand the first meaning but not the second.
Essentially, this is a warning that foreign readers of your work are less likely to follow the connotations in your writing. (It's why many non-native English speakers prefer Mr. Bean to Blackadder.) As a consequence, when writing to a multi-national audience, you should try to use simplistic words with neutral connotations (i.e., words whose complete definitions are a close match to their denotative meanings).
|English-speaking Environment||Option for a Non-native-speaking Environment|
|Do not be picky when selecting staff.|
The leaders are miserly.
He jabbers a lot.
|Do not look for perfection when selecting staff.|
The leaders are reluctant to spend money.
He talks a lot without saying anything meaningful.
So, avoiding words with strong connotations is a consideration when working in a multi-national environment. However, do not try to avoid connotation at all times. Choosing a word with the right connotation is a key part of writing effectively.