Denotation - Definition and Examples

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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). Verb: denote. Adjective: denotative. Also called extension or reference.

Put another way, "[L]inguistic expressions are linked in virtue of their meaning to parts of the world around us, which is the basis of our use of language to convey information about reality. The denotation of an expression is the part of reality the expression is linked to" (Kate Kearns, Semantics, 2011).

Denotative meaning is sometimes called cognitive meaning, referential meaning, or conceptual meaning.


From the Latin de + notare, "completely + note"

Examples and Observations

  • Vizzini: He didn't fall? Inconceivable.
    Inigo Montoya: You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
    (The Princess Bride, 1987)
  • "You know a phrase I never understood? King size. It's used to denote something larger, but most of the kings you see are short. You ever notice that? Usually, a king is a short little fat guy." (George Carlin, Napalm & Silly Putty , 2001)
  • Wally: I can't believe I fell for counterfeit Superbowl tickets. The guys will be crestfallen when they find out.
    Homer: Yes, if by "crestfallen" you mean they're going to kill us.
    ("Sunday, Cruddy Sunday," The Simpsons)

Denotation and Connotation: "House" and "Home"

  • "[T]he denotation of a word is its primary signification or reference; its connotation is the range of secondary or associated significations and feelings which it commonly suggests or implies. Thus 'home' denotes the house where one lives, but connotes privacy, intimacy, and coziness; that is the reason real estate agents like to use 'home' instead of 'house' in their advertisements." (M.H. Abrams and Geoffrey Galt Harpham, A Glossary of Literary Terms, 9th ed. Wadsworth, 2009)
  • "The denotation of a term is its exact and literal meaning. Consider the word home. Its denotation, or precise meaning, is 'residence or fixed dwelling place.' The denotation of the word city is 'center of population and commerce.'

    "A word's connotation, on the other hand, consists of its emotive value. For example, connotations of the word home might be a refuge, resting place, even boring or predictable habitation. The word city might connote a place of excitement, energy, danger, or even sin...

    "Think of denotation as the dictionary definition of a word, using the d as a mnemonic device. A connotation is the subjective, personal, even poetic interpretation of a word." (Chrysti M. Smith, Verbivore's Feast: A Banquet of Word & Phrase Origins. Farcountry Press, 2004)

    Denotation and Connotation in a Poem by William Wordsworth

    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)

    Poetic Language vs. Legal and Scientific Language

    "It is characteristic of poetic language that it gives us not simply the denotation of a word (what it refers to), but a whole cluster of connotations or associated meanings.

    It differs in this respect from legal or scientific language, which seeks to pare away surplus connotations in the name of rigorous denotation. By and large, legal and scientific language aims to constrict meaning, whereas poetic language seeks to proliferate it."​ (Terry Eagleton, How to Read a Poem. Blackwell, 2007)

    Denotation and Connotation in a Poem by E.A. Robinson

    In the following poem by Edwin Arlington Robinson, distinguish between the denotative and connotative meanings of the words in italics.

    Richard Cory (1897)

    Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
    We people on the pavement looked at him:
    He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
    Clean favored, and imperially slim.

    And he was always quietly arrayed,
    And he was always human when he talked;
    But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
    "Good-morning," and he glittered when he walked.

    And he was rich--yes, richer than a king,
    And admirably schooled in every grace:
    In fine, we thought that he was everything
    To make us wish that we were in his place.

    So on we worked, and waited for the light,
    And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
    And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
    Went home and put a bullet through his head.

    Language and Science

    "Language is only the instrument of science, and words are but the signs of ideas: I wish, however, that the instrument might be less apt to decay, and that signs might be permanent, like the things they denote." (Samuel Johnson, Preface to Dictionary, 1755)

    Pronunciation: DEE-no-TAY-shun

    Also Known As: cognitive meaning