An ELT Glossary : Denotation and Connotation

  • Denotation = the basic meaning of a word

  • Connotation = the evaluative, emotive or other additional  meaning associated with the word

  • Example : slim and scrawny. Both of these mean thin - the denotation. However, slim has a positive connotation suggesting attractiveness, whereas scrawny has a negative connotation suggesting the person/animal is undernourished and unpleasantly thin.
  • Example : cottage. This really only means a small house (the denotation) . However, it also has emotive associations of warmth, cosiness, friendliness etc. These are its connotations.
  • Example : The police questioned the suspect vs The police interrogated the suspect. The two verbs have the same denotation, but interrogate suggests that the questioning was "stronger" - possibly that it went on for longer, the questions were harsher etc. Interrogate would also be chosen in a situation where threats or torture were involved, eg The regime has interrogated and imprisoned hundreds of dissidents.

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