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Denotative Meaning

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English

Denotative meaning, or denotation, is when what you say is meant literally. It does not attach any emotional, implied, or cultural associations to a word or phrase.

What is Denotative Meaning?

Denotative meaning refers to the literal meaning of a word, or its dictionary definition. For example, fungus in the dictionary means 'any of various types of organisms that get their food from decaying material or other living things' (including yeast, mold, and mushrooms). The opposite of denotative meaning is connotative meaning, which refers to the emotional and cultural associations of a word. For example, the word fungus often has connotations of ugliness and disease.

Denotative Meaning example, pixaby.com

Denotative meaning is important for understanding the definitions of words, which in turn helps people communicate clearly, and prevent misunderstandings. In a debate, one person may use the dictionary definition of a word, which another person may misinterpret because they have a different cultural understanding of the word, a particular connotation of the same word.

  • For example, lawyers may stick to dry legal terms or expressions (such as the phrase 'no fixed abode') to avoid positive or negative associations with words such as 'vagrants' and 'homeless', which may cause misunderstandings or bias in court. People working in professional environments stick to plain language, Latin terms, or specific words that do not have strong emotional or cultural associations, as far as possible.

Denotative meaning contributes to our understanding of how meaning is constantly changing, shifting, and is influenced by cultural and historical movements.

Examples of Denotative Meaning

As previously mentioned, denotative meaning is the literal, explicit, dictionary definition of a word. Here are some examples of denotative meaning:

  1. "Jacob ate pancakes with some apples and different toppings".
  2. “Monica was a green dress for the summer ball. She looked beautiful ”.
  3. “A snake entered the villa while I was eating with my family”.

Apples, green, and snake are words used with denotative meanings. There are no hidden meanings.

  • In the first sentence, the word apples refer to fruits with red or green skins.
  • In the second sentence, the word green refers to the color between blue and yellow in the color spectrum.
  • In the third sentence, the word snake refers to the long, venomous reptile.

But all these words can also have a connotative meaning if they are placed in a different context:

  • "Mike is the apple of my eye".

In this case, the word apple is used by the speaker to describe someone they truly cherish, and are extremely fund of.

  • “I'm green with envy because Ella met my favorite singer”.

In this case, the word green is used metaphorically to describe a feeling of envy.

  • "She told me not to trust Tom because he is a snake".

In this case, the word snake refers to somebody evil and untrustworthy.

Literal example of denotative meaning

Denotative meaning is relevant for academic writing, reference work (encyclopedia), and instructions; while connotative meaning is useful for creative writing .

For example, when an author wants to convey a clear message without associated or suggested meanings, denotation is used. However, when an author is trying to build certain emotions or be descriptive, they may use connotations.

This does not mean that denotation can not be used in creative writing. It depends on the writer's intention and the tone of the story. Take a look at this poem by Robert Frost and decide whether Frost denotes or connotes the word wall in his 'Mending Wall' (1941) poem.

Mending Wall

I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;

And on a day we meet to walk the line

And set the wall between us once again.

We keep the wall between us as we go.

To each the boulders that have fallen to each.

And some are loaves and some so nearly balls

[...]

He says again, 'Good fences make good neighbors.'

The poem focuses on the story of two neighbors who repair the fence between their villas. Yet, this moment just describes the relationship between the two people and the literal and metaphorical wall that separate them.

At the first scan of this poem, you may notice that Frost uses the connotative meaning of wall as an emotional and psychological barrier between two people. But after further inspection, the wall starts to denote a literal wall that separates the two main characters.

Characteristics of denotative meaning

Here is a list of some important characteristics to know about denotative meaning.

1. Words and dictionary meaning Some words only have a function (prepositions, grammatical particles, etc.) rather than carrying meaning like morphemes, which can have two tiers of meaning or none (like "ing"). Denotative Meaning, Dictionary Meaning, StudySmarterDictionary Meaning, pixaby.com 2. Multiple words can have the same denotation Some words can have the same dictionary definition. 3. Denotation meaning is objective While connotative meaning can vary, denotative meaning doesn't. For example, the dictionary definition of a home is universal: 'a house or place where one lives'. However, different people may have different connotations to the meaning of home depending on their cultural or social background. 4. Denotation doesn't always carry a neutral meaning

Although denotation is the literal meaning of a word, it is not always neutral. It can have a negative or positive value. For example, the dictionary defines smell as the faculty to perceive odor yet smell is usually associated as something negative: 'he smells.'

Denotative vs. Connotative meaning

Denotative meaning is the opposite of connotative meaning, but how different are they? What happens if a writer uses denotation instead of connotation to describe a scene?

Connotative meaning

Connotative meaning refers to the associated, implied, or secondary meaning of a word. It is connected to the emotions and experiences of human beings. Connotative meaning can be positive, neutral, or negative, depending on the way a word or a sentence is said (e.g. its pronunciation or intonation).

The word unique can have two meanings:

  • Denotative meaning: being original, or “one of a kind”.
  • Connotative meaning: special (positive), peculiar (neutral), or different / weird (negative).

Or the word basement, which can have two meanings:

  • Denotative meaning: part of a house that you can find below ground.
  • Connotative meaning: a dark, creepy, or dangerous place.

Denotative Meaning - Key takeaways

  • Denotative meaning is the literal, explicit, dictionary definition of a word.
  • Denotative meaning is relevant for academic writing, reference work (encyclopedia), and instructions; while connotative meaning is useful for creative writing. Connotative meaning refers to the associated, implied, or secondary meaning of a word.
  • There are four characteristics of denotative meaning: Every word has a denotative meaning. multiple words can have the same denotation, denotation meaning is objective, and denotation doesn't always carry a neutral meaning.
  • The difference between denotative and connotative meaning in literature depends on the tone and setting of the story. Denotative meaning is used when the author wants the reader to see a word in its literal form, yet connotative meaning adds extra meaning to the word, which can create emotional or cultural associations to that word that change the tone and mood of the story.

Denotative Meaning

Denotation represents the literal meaning of a word, the definition you find in the dictionary, without any additional associative value.

An example of denotative meaning is the word cold. In the sentence “the girl sitting next to me was cold”, the word cold refers to the corporal temperature of the girl.

Denotative meaning can also be called literal meaning, explicit meaning, or the dictionary definition of a word.

 The opposite of denotative meaning is connotative meaning, which refers to the associated, implied, or secondary meaning of a word.

Denotation is only the literal meaning of a word. Connotation, instead, has a positive, neutral, or negative meanings.

Final Denotative Meaning Quiz

Question

In which texts are denotative meanings most relevant?

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Answer

Academic writing, reference work and instructions. 


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What is the denotative meaning of the word delete?


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The word delete is related to cancel.

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What is the denotative meaning of the word curious?


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The word curious is related to interest.

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What is the denotative meaning of the word effort


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The word effort is related to hard work.

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True or false?


A connotation can only be positive.

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False

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True or false?


Connotations are connected to the emotions and personal experiences of people.

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True

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What are some other names of denotative meaning?


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 Denotative meaning can also be called literal meaning, explicit meaning, or the dictionary definition of a word.

Show question

Question

True or false?


A denotation is the literal meaning of a word, the definition you find in the dictionary.


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True

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True or false?


Denotative meaning illustrates the subjective meaning of a word.


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False

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The opposite of denotative meaning is what?


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Connotative meaning

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Does the dictionary contain the denotative or connotative meaning of words?

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Denotative

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True or false?


The denotative meaning of leave in the sentence “I want to leave the house”, is 'to spend time in a place'.


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False

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Denotative meaning is...

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objective

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True or false?


Multiple words can have the same denotation.


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True

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True or false?


Not every word has a denotative meaning.

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False

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Denotative meaning is an ________ meaning.

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explicit

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Fill in the blank:


When finding a denotative meaning, it is useful to look at the __________ definition.

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dictionary

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Fill in the blank:


Denotative meaning is important for understanding the ___________of words.

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definitions

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Denotative meaning contributes to our understanding of how meaning is _______ changing.

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constantly

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Fill in the blank:


Denotative meaning helps people ___________ clearly.

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communicate

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Denotative meaning can _______ misunderstandings.

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prevent

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Do denotations always have to carry a neutral meaning?

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No

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Question

True or false?


Connotations are objective.

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False

Show question

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When an author is trying to build certain emotions or be descriptive, they may often use...

Show answer

Answer

connotation

Show question

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When an author wants to convey a clear message without associated or suggested meanings, they use...

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Answer

denotation

Show question

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