What Does Denotation Mean in English Grammar?

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girl dancing on the grass in front of her home
The word home "denotes the place where one lives with one's family, but it connotes comforts, intimacy, privacy" (Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of Synonyms, 1984).

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Denotation refers to the direct or dictionary meaning of a word, in contrast to its figurative or associated meanings (connotations). To understand the difference, think of how words would be used in writing about science or legal matters (with a precision of meaning) vs. how words would be used in poetry (rich with allusion, metaphor, and other shades of meaning than just their straight dictionary meanings).

Author Terry Eagleton sums it up this way in his book "How to Read a Poem":  "By and large, legal and scientific language aims to constrict meaning, whereas poetic language seeks to proliferate it"  (Blackwell, 2007).

As a verb, the term is to denote, and as an adjective, something is denotative. The concept is also called extension or reference. Denotative meaning is sometimes called cognitive meaning, referential meaning, or conceptual meaning.

Denotation and Connotation: House versus Home

Look at the simple words house vs. home. Both have a denotative meeting as a place where you live. But you can tap more connotations with home than house, which is a word that's more cut-and-dried. Say you are writing ad copy and want to have connotations that include a feeling of belonging, of privacy, of safety, of coziness. You'd choose home over house to be able to include those emotions in your copy just by this one word choice.

If you're writing an article for a construction trade magazine, you'd probably refer to the place as a house because you wouldn't need any extra "warm and fluffy" layers in your copy. A real estate agent would use home rather than house for the same reasons—sales to homebuyers are full of emotions.

But any records about the property kept at the county wouldn't bother calling it a home. Its language probably would be even more formal than house, as well, something more like "single-family detached dwelling" to differentiate it from a duplex, condo, or another type of building where more than one family could live in the same physical building or two buildings separated by only a fire wall.

Slang, Social, and Cultural References

One area where you need to be aware of the seriousness of word denotation vs. connotation in your writing and speaking (formally or informally) is cultural sensitivity. Or, call it political correctness—which can be what people call the same concept when they feel it goes overboard.

Sometimes it takes a while for the language to catch up with society and for people to catch up with change. For example, the workplace in the past 50 years has expanded for women and men, with both genders moving into jobs previously held solely by members of one gender or the other. A female postal worker wouldn't be called a "mailman" or a "mailwoman" in this day and age. You call them both "mail carriers." An officer of the law isn't a "policeman" or a "policewoman." They're both "police officers." You no longer call a nurse who's a man a "male nurse." He's a nurse, just like a female nurse is a nurse.

On planes, you don't have "stewardesses" and "stewards." You have "flight attendants." Today, if you'd call someone a "stewardess," it would show you are out of date. If you're creating an elderly fictional character, the fact that the language changes over time can be used effectively. You'd want that person to have the diction of his or her age. He or she wouldn't be calling someone "woke" or say, "That gives me life" in ordinary diction—it'd be for effect only. 

In another arena—literally—take professional sports team names that are under scrutiny and being debated for revision. Average Caucasian sports fans may know that the name of the football team out of Washington, the Redskins, is a pejorative term for Native Americans, but because they don't have a history of the term being applied to them, don't give it much thought.

It's just a word without connotations for them, just the simple denotation of the name of the football team. However, for Native Americans, the term is offensive, as it was a word applied to their people in relation to a bounty paid for killing them. 

Denotation and Connotation in a Poem by William Wordsworth

When analyzing poetry, you'll look for connotations of words to expose the deeper meanings and metaphors evoked through word choice. Let's examine a William Wordsworth poem for examples. 

A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal

by William Wordsworth (1880)

A slumber did my spirit seal;
I had no human fears—
She seemed a thing that could not feel
The touch of earthly years.

No motion has she now, no force;
She neither hears nor sees;
Roll'd round in earth's diurnal course
With rocks, and stones, and trees.

"In order to create the stark contrast between the active, airy girl of the first stanza with the inert, dead girl of the second, Wordsworth relies partly on the connotative effect of the last line. We know the denotative meaning of 'rocks, and stones, and trees,' but in this context, the emotional or connotative meaning is unpleasant and grating. Rocks and stones are inanimate, cold, cutting, impersonal. Although we usually think of trees as beautiful and majestic, here the association of trees with rocks and stones makes us think of tree roots, of dirt, and thus of the girl's burial." (Kelley Griffith, "Writing Essays about Literature: A Guide and Style Sheet," 8th ed. Wadsworth, 2011)