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Denotative Meaning

Imagine words as keys - each unlocking a particular meaning. In language, the 'denotative meaning' is the key that opens the most basic, literal, and direct interpretation of a word, also known as its 'dictionary definition'. It's devoid of emotion, personal interpretation, or connotation. 

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Denotative Meaning

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Imagine words as keys - each unlocking a particular meaning. In language, the 'denotative meaning' is the key that opens the most basic, literal, and direct interpretation of a word, also known as its 'dictionary definition'. It's devoid of emotion, personal interpretation, or connotation.

For example, the denotative meaning of the word 'rose' is simply a type of flowering plant. This differs from its connotative meaning, which might evoke feelings of love, romance, or beauty. Understanding denotative meaning is crucial to effective communication, as it forms the foundational understanding upon which more nuanced or subjective meanings are built.

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

Denotative meaning definition

Denotative meaning refers to the literal meaning of a word. This also means 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, mould, 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 Image of a fungus with a red head. The mushroom lies in a forest bed. StudySmarterFig. 1 - The denotative meaning of a fungus is an organism that gets food from decaying material.

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.

Denotative meaning examples

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 neighbour 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 neighbours.'

The poem focuses on the story of two neighbours 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.

Features of denotative meaning

Here is a list of some important features 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").

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 Meaning, An image of a Dictionary showing the entry for Focus, StudySmarterFig. 2 - The denotative meaning of a word is the literal meaning that you can find in a dictionary.

Denotative and 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?

If the denotative meaning of the word means the precise, literal definition of that word according to its dictionary definition. For instance, the denotative meaning of the word "snake" is a long, legless reptile. It doesn't take into account any subjective or cultural interpretations, such as considering it as a symbol of danger or deceit, which would be its connotative meaning.

Connotative meaning, therefore, 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.

Frequently Asked Questions about 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.

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

True or false?A connotation can only be positive.

True or false?Connotations are connected to the emotions and personal experiences of people.

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

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