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Connotation and Denotation Study Guide

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Updated on Sep 20, 2011

Connotation and Denotation

No one means all he says, and yet very few say all they mean, for words are slippery and thought is viscous.

—HENRY BROOKS ADAMS (1838–1918) (AMERICAN NOVELIST AND HISTORIAN)

This lesson will help you become more aware of how one word can convey several meanings. Becoming sensitive to the implied meaning of new vocabulary words will help you build your word power.

The previous study guide focused on strategies for finding the meaning of words by looking closely at their context, or surroundings. In this lesson, you'll learn to identify subtle differences in the meanings of words that may seem quite similar at first.

At first glance, many words seem to convey the same thought, but upon closer inspection, you'll discover that this is not always the case. Words can mean very different things. We describe a word's meaning by using these two categories:

    Denotation: the literal, dictionary definition of a word.
    Connotation: the suggested, emotional, cultural, or implied meaning of a word.

Think about two simple words we all know and often use: home and house. Dictionary definitions of these words are quite similar:

    house (noun): a structure serving as an abode for human beings.
    home (noun): one's own dwelling place; the house or structure in which one lives; especially the house in which one lives with one's family; the habitual abode of one's family.

But, do the two words always mean the same thing? Look at the following sentences and consider the different uses of the word home.

    Israel is the ancestral home of many of the world's religions.
    Pedro is an American citizen, but he considers Mexico his home.
    The way home for the runaway is often long and lonely.

In each sentence, the word home means something different, something more subtle and complicated than the denotative meaning of a dwelling or a structure. In the second sentence, Pedro's emotional attachment to Mexico is great enough for him to think of it as home, a place of warmth, love, family, and happiness, even though he has an actual dwelling or abode somewhere in the United States.

In general, words have connotations that are positive or negative; sometimes a connotation is neutral, but this is less likely. Most often, words derive their connotations from the context in which they appear, or the way people use them. It's rare to use words only in their denotative, dictionary meaning, and because words can carry complicated meanings, it's important for you to be sensitive to their possible connotations. The more connotations you know, the stronger your word power will be.

Practice exercises and answers for these concepts can be found at:

Connotation and Denotation Practice Exercises

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