Denotation: Definition and Examples

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The definition of 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).

Key Takeaways: Denotation

  • Denotation describes a concise dictionary definition of a word, without taking into account any current slang or connotations it may have.
  • Legal and scientific language strives for precision in its language, adhering to denotative meanings for clarity.
  • Advertising and poetry, on the other hand, look for words rich in connotations to pack every word with extra layers of meaning.

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.

Slang, Social, and Cultural References

Remember to consider denotation vs. connotation as it impacts 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. 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. Today, if you'd use those gender-specific terms, it would show you are out of date and may make people think you're sexist.

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, consider professional sports team names that are under scrutiny and being debated for revision. Some 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 Literature

When analyzing poetry, 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 the last line, Wordsworth is indeed literally talking about denotative rocks, stones, and trees. However, the connotative implication of the rocks, stones, and trees is that the active, lively girl of the first stanza is now dead and buried in the second.

"Mending Wall" by Robert Frost

In "Mending Wall" by Robert Frost, he literally talks about the annual chore of mending a stone wall (the denotative meaning of a wall) that lies between his and his neighbor's property. He also ponders what he and his neighbor are fencing in or out, under what circumstances it's not needed, and the statement by his cohort, "Good fences make good neighbors."

In the figurative sense, his neighbor is saying that not only can walls and fences clearly mark property lines and alleviate land disputes before they start, but also it's good to have figurative boundaries with the people you live next to day in and day out. With the annual mending, they have a tradition together, the need to cooperate to fix it up, and joint satisfaction of a job well done when it's completed.

These poems represent just two of myriad examples from literature, as anytime a writer means something literally, he or she is using denotative language. Understanding the connotative layers is often the trick to understanding the piece of literature overall, but all readers need to start with a clear picture of the denotative words first, else the symbolism from the additional meanings will be lost.