What Is the Difference Between Denotation and Connotation?

Definitions and Concepts in Critical Thinking

Communication dictionary definition royalty free vector illustration
bubaone/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images

Understanding the difference between denotation and connotation is important to understanding definitions and how concepts are used. Unfortunately, that is complicated by the fact that these terms can be used in two different ways: grammatical and logical. Even worse, both uses are worth keeping in mind, and both uses are relevant to the project of logical, critical thinking.

Meaning: Denotation and Connotation

In grammar, a word’s denotation is whatever the word directly refers to, roughly equivalent to its lexical definition.

Thus, the word “atheist” denotes a person who disbelieves in or denies the existence of gods. A word’s connotation refers to any subtle nuances that might or might not be intended by its use. For example, one possible connotation for the word “atheist” might be someone who is immoral and wicked, depending upon who is doing the speaking or listening.

Separating grammatical denotation from connotation is important because while one might assume that a word’s denotation is fully intended, whether a word’s connotations are intended is much more difficult to determine. Connotations are often emotional in nature, and thus if they are intended, it may be for the purpose of swaying a person’s emotional reactions rather than the logical evaluation of an argument.

If there are misunderstandings about how a person is using a word in a particular debate, a primary source of that misunderstanding might lie in the word’s connotations: people might be seeing something not intended, or the speaker may be intending something people don’t see.

In constructing your arguments, it’s a good idea not merely to look at what your words denote, but also what they connote.

In logic, the uses of denotation and connotation are very different. The denotation, or extension, of a term, is the list of a class of objects referred to by the word (think of it as “how far does this word extend?”).

Thus the word “planet” denotes specific objects such as Venus, Earth, Jupiter, and Neptune. Whether it also denotes an object like “Pluto” is a matter of some debate among astronomers for reasons I will explain shortly.

The connotation, or intension, of a word, is the list of attributes shared by all members of the class named by the word (think of it as “by using this word, what do I intend?”). Thus the word “planet” connotes certain characteristics which astronomers have decided differentiate certain objects from other objects like comets, stars, and asteroids. The debate over whether the word “planet” denotes “Pluto” is because astronomers disagree on what sorts of attributes are connoted by the word “planet,” and hence whether “Pluto” has the right attributes to qualify as a planet.

Connotation vs. Denotation: Which Comes First?

The debate over the status of Pluto indicates that whereas the extension of a word is determined by its intension, the reverse is not also true. Put more simply, the list of objects covered by a word is determined by the list of characteristics that word is thought to describe; on the other hand, the list of characteristics described by a word is not determined by the list of things covered by that word.

The objects covered by the word “planet” are determined by what characteristics the word “planet” is supposed to describe, but not the other way around.

At least, that’s what some philosophers argue. Others disagree and argue the contrary: that a word is used first to describe a list of objects thought to be similar in some important ways and then, once this denotation of the word is established, the connotation is developed by teasing out a set of reasonable characteristics from the list of objects. Thus, the connotation is determined by the denotation.

Who is right? Perhaps they both are. An example of how difficult it is to determine this might be the word “tree.” Did people first create a list of tree-like qualities and then later decide which objects go on the list of “trees,” or did people first start calling certain objects “trees” and only later decide what “tree-like” qualities justified inclusion in the list of trees?

In logic, science, and philosophy — basically, in any field where very careful thought is required — intension should determine extension. In casual usage, however, it may well be that as a practical matter extension can determine intension.

Meanings Change

The meaning of words can change over time because people will simply use them in different ways, but any change in meaning might represent an extensional change (in what the word denotes), an intensional change (in what the word connotes), or both. For example, the word “marriage” doesn’t currently denote (for most people) any unions between two members of the same sex. If we started to denote such unions by “marriage,” would that require a change in connotation (what characteristics the word intends) or not?

This is, in fact, a key element in the debate over gay marriage. When people disagree over whether gays should be allowed to marry, they disagree in part over the proper intension of the term “marriage.” Unless they come to some agreement over the term’s intension, they will never see eye-to-eye over its extension.

Naturally, if someone is asked for a definition of a word, they can provide vastly different answers based on whether an extensional or intentional definition is offered. An extensional definition is basically a list of the entities covered by the term — for example listing the planets when asked what a planet is or listing “poem, play, novel, or short story” as a definition of a “fictional work.” Such a definition has advantages because it necessarily contains hard examples of what is being discussed.

An intensional definition, however, lists the attributes or characteristics of the concept — for example, listing the qualities that an object must have to qualify as a planet instead of an asteroid. For obvious reasons, this is often easier than an extensional definition because there is no need to list a long series of examples — a list of attributes is always shorter and quicker.