What Is Denotation? | Definition & Examples

Rhetoric updated on  March 8, 2024 3 min read

Denotation is the literal or objective meaning of a word, devoid of any subjective feelings or associations. It is the most basic definition that everyone can agree upon regardless of their personal experiences or background. Denotation provides a concrete and objective understanding of words, which in turn allows us to communicate with each other effectively.

Denotation example
When you say “chair,” others will generally understand what you are talking about; a one-person seat with four legs and a back. Each person may picture it differently (wooden or plastic, an office chair or a dining chair, etc.) but they all share the same denotation or basic understanding of what a chair is.

Denotation definition

Denotation refers to the standardized meaning of a word within a language, in contrast to the feelings or ideas that the word may suggest. It is what the word technically means without any associations connected to it.

A word’s basic definition typically remains constant or changes very slowly. Because of this, denotation creates a shared understanding of language, reducing ambiguities and misinterpretations. This is especially true in legal or scientific contexts where objective language is crucial.

Additionally, in cross-cultural communication, using the literal meanings of words, without cultural or emotional associations, helps native and non-native speakers communicate effectively. Overall, denotation enables writers and speakers to express their thoughts with precision.

Note
Denotations are not always neutral. For example, the words “smirk” and “smile” may denote similar things (a facial expression), but a smirk is by definition associated with negative emotions.

Denotation vs connotation

Denotation and connotation represent two distinct ways in which words convey meaning. Here are the main differences between them:

  • Denotation refers to the literal meaning of a word, as you would typically see it in a dictionary. It is a word’s most straightforward interpretation, shared by everyone who understands a specific language.
  • Connotation, on the other hand, refers to the implicit or suggested meaning of a word. It is the underlying emotions, judgments, or associations that a word conveys, which are usually subjective or culture-specific. A connotation is typically described as positive, negative, or neutral.

Denotation vs connotation example
The denotation of the word “assertive” is someone who behaves confidently and is not afraid to speak their mind.

Depending on cultural context and individual preferences, the word “assertive” can have different connotations:

  • A negative connotation, as in someone who is domineering and disregards others
  • A positive connotation, as in someone capable of standing up for themselves and their beliefs
  • A neutral connotation, as in expressing oneself confidently without necessarily carrying positive or negative implications

In short, while a word’s denotation is the same for most people, a word’s connotations may differ depending on cultural context and personal associations.

Denotation examples

Below are examples of words that have the same denotation but different connotations. Sometimes the connotation of a word is part of its dictionary definition, while in other cases it depends on context or individual disposition.

Word

Denotation

Connotation

skinny thin unusually thin
slender gracefully thin
mob a group of people an angry crowd
clique a narrow, exclusive circle or group of people
crew a team working together on a common task
chef someone who prepares food in a professional or culinary setting someone with a high level of skill and a leadership role
cook someone who prepares meals without extensive training or expertise
teacher individuals who impart knowledge or skills to others offers guidance and nurturance
instructor provides technical or formal training
educator possesses expertise, does more than teach (e.g., planning or curriculum development)
vintage items previously owned or used by someone else uniqueness, nostalgia, high quality
secondhand functionality, affordability, low quality

Do you want to know more about common mistakes, commonly confused words, or other language topics? Check out some of our other language articles full of examples and quizzes.


Idioms

Parts of speech

Fallacies

Diamond in the rough

Irregular verb

Slippery slope fallacy

Idioms

Gerund

Sunk cost fallacy

Piece of cake

Infinitive phrase

Red herring fallacy

Better late than never

Infinitive

Appeal to authority fallacy

Salt of the earth

Adverb

Circular reasoning fallacy


What is an example of denotation?

A denotation is a word’s literal definition. For example, “home” denotes the building or place where one lives. This primary definition is often contrasted with a word’s secondary associations, called connotations. Thus, “house” and “home” have the same denotation, but “home” connotes intimacy or coziness, whereas “house” does not.

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Kassiani

Kassiani has an academic background in Communication, Bioeconomy and Circular Economy. As a former journalist she enjoys turning complex information into easily accessible articles to help others.

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