Identifying Denotation and Connotation

Learning Objectives:

  • Identify the denotative meaning of complex terms.
  • Identify the connotative meaning of complex terms.

Writers constantly make choices about the specific words they use. This means that you, as a reader, have to be aware not only of the actual meaning of words, but other meanings that are attached to them, as well. This is also true when you write.

Recognizing the denotativeThe literal or formal meaning of a word. and connotativeThe meaning of a term that departs from the literal meaning. It conjures up other ideas based on how it is used. Connotations can be either negative or positive. meanings of words can help ensure that you understand exactly what an author is trying to say as well as ensuring that you are saying exactly what you want to say in your own writing.

The denotative meaning is the literal or formal meaning of a word. For instance, the term dog denotes an animal with fur, four legs, and a tail. But when someone calls someone else a dog, this does not mean that the person has four legs and is furry. Instead, the connotative meaning of the word is used, which conjures up ideas based on how it is used in pop-culture or in an overall metaphorical sense. Connotative meanings can be either positive or negative; dog can be a derogatory term meant as an insult, or it can used in a light-hearted way meaning friend.

Unless an author clearly defines how a word or complex term is being used in a readingA piece of writing to be read. A reading can either be a full work (i.e., a book) or partial (i.e., a passage)., both denotative and connotative meanings should be considered. In your own writing, both are acceptable to use, but you must be aware that people may interpret the word differently than you intended if you choose a word that can be read in more than one way.

Because of subtle differences in both denotative and connotative meaning, be very careful when you use a thesaurusA reference book that lists words with groups of synonyms and related words. as you write. Some of the words listed as synonymsA word or phrase that has an identical or very similar meaning to another word. Example: tiny is a synonym for small. or antonymsA word or phrase that has the opposite meaning from another word. Example: huge is an antonym for small. cannot be switched out equally. Be sure to use a dictionary to look up the meaning of a word if you are uncertain of what it means in the context of the sentence.

Below are some examples of denotative and connotative meanings of words.


Denotative Meaning

Connotative Meaning


high temperature; heated

extremely attractive; angry


low temperature

popular; acceptable


absent of life and/or animation

unusually quiet setting


young bird

girl or woman


insane; mentally unstable

wild and exciting


predatory fish

highly skilled