Difference Between Denotation and Connotation with Examples

Difference between Denotation and Connotation with Examples

In the context of meaning in ordinary and literary language, a distinction is made between 'denotation' and 'connotation'. Denotation is a term used that is used for distinguishing basic, or central or common meanings of words as distinct from those represented by the term connotation, which refers to the associative or metaphoric meanings in literary contexts. In literature, connotations exist in the frequent use of figures of speech. That is, words are used in ways other than in their ordinary meanings to make a word picture or a comparison.These figures of speech help to beautify language and enable the writers to make their descriptions more effective.


In English, as in most other languages, words have denotative and also connotative meaning. Denotation is the literal meaning of a word. For example, when you say 'This is a stone', you are referring to an object which is a stone. It is a clear statement. There is no other meaning of this sentence.

On the other hand, if we say 'she has a heart of stone' the meaning changes. What does it mean? It simply means that she is cruel or hard-hearted. In fact, it refers to all the qualities you associate with the stone. This is what we mean when we say that a word has several connotations. 

The denotative meaning of the word 'home' can be 'a dwelling place' but in a special or connotative use it can mean 'warmth' and also 'domesticity'. A 'house' is also a place where one lives. Does it have the same connotations of the word 'home'? 

For example, in this sentence, 'you should comb your hair more often', the word comb is used in its denotative or literal sense. We are asking this person to 'tidy, clean, straighten, or arrange his hair with a comb'.

But if we say 'The police combed the forest for the missing boy', we are using the word comb to mean 'search thoroughly'. This is an extension of meaning. Just as the comb goes through the hair to clean and tidy it, so the police search the forest to find the boy. By using a word in its connotative sense we help to make concrete the idea we are trying to convey. For instance, in the sentence above, it becomes easier for the reader or listener to visualize or see in his mind what the police are doing - their thoroughness in searching the forest becomes vivid.   

Examples of Connotation Used in Sentences

Given below are some example sentences in which certain words are used in its extended or connotative meaning. Read and understand the shades of meanings of those words. 

 1  His knowledge of history was getting rusty.

The usual association of the word rusty is with things made of iron which get covered with rust; e.g., a rusty box, rusty nails, etc. When iron and some other metals are exposed to water and air, reddish brown surface forms on them. This is called rust. So, 'rusty nails' are nails covered with rust; they have lost their brightness because they have been lying unused for a long time. This idea of things getting rusted has been transferred to one's 'knowledge' of a subject to mean that it is mostly forgotten because it has not been used for a long time.

 2  Our conversation drifted from cricket to politics.

In a literal sense, we can say that 'logs drift in the river'. They float and are driven along by the waves. The logs have no control over their movement. Likewise, the conversation changed gradually from cricket to politics without the speakers being conscious of it. 

 3  It would be a crime to send the child out in the cold.

A crime is an offence punishable by law. If the child is sent out, he will catch a cold. Here the word crime is highlighting the effect of the cold outside.

 4  They heard the newcomer's shrill voice raised in a torrent of abuse.

A torrent of water is a violently rushing stream. Similarly, the newcomer's used a torrent of bad language or abuse. 

 5  As long as she doesn't break the peace, I have nothing to do with her.

An object may be broken into parts. If peace is broken, it means that it has come to an end.

 6  He is a budding poet.

A bud is a young tightly rolled up flower before it opens. A budding poet is one who is just beginning to develop his talent.

 7  Hari flared up.

When something flares up, it suddenly burns with a bright flame for a short time. Similarly, Hari showed sudden anger.

 8   His clothes are generally of a loud colour.

'Loud refers to noisy sounds. Similarly, loud colours are unpleasantly bright.

 9   You are acquitted of laziness.

Usually, one is acquitted of a crime by a court of law. The effect of the use of the word 'acquitted' here is humour.

 10  In any case, the Englishman's cold reserve was infinitely preferable to the familiarity of the French.

'Cold' means 'having a low temperature'; you can feel it when the weather is cold. In an extended or connotative meaning 'cold' means 'showing a lack of friendly feelings'. The word 'reserve' refers to the quality typical of a person who does not like to talk about himself or to make his feelings known. He is therefore described as cold.

Connotation used in standard works of literature

  11  ''a sweet stench of human flesh' (Kamala Das: Nalapat House)

Generally, 'stench' is a bad smell, perceived by the nose. Here the word 'sweet' is used with 'stench'. 'Sweetness' is a pleasant taste perceived by the tongue. It seems to suggest that the smell of human flesh was not unpleasant. 

 12  The Susta (river) 'chatters over stony ways and babbles on the pebbles'. (Tagore: 'Hungry Stones')

When people talk rapidly and at length, we say they are chattering. 'Babbling' also refers to people talking quickly and foolishly. Similarly, the river makes continuous sounds when it runs gently over rounded stones.

 13   'Once upon a time the Babus of Nayanjore were famous landholders...Kailas Babu, our neighbour, is the last relic of this extinct magnificence...Before he grew up, his family had reached its lowest ebb'. (Tagore: 'Babus of Nayanjore')

The denotative meaning of 'ebb' is the flow of the sea away from the shore. The sea reaches its lowest level during the ebb. Kailas Babu's family has reached its lowest state.

 14   'The South Wind whispered in his ears.' (Tagore: 'The Kingdome of the Cards')

Whispering is 'speaking with noisy breath but not with a voice so that a person close by can hear'. That is denotation. The south wind made a soft sound of the same type.

 15   Age is my alarm clock the old man said. Why do old men wake so early? Is it to have one longer day? (from Ernest Hemingway: The Old Man and the Sea).

An alarm-clock wakes one up. Here it means that as one grows older one loses some sleep. The old man naturally gets up early.

 16   'Karuthamma's whole body became bathed in perspiration'. (Chemmeen)

We generally bathe in water. Similarly, here, perspiration covered the whole body.

 17   'Karuthamma, worried that the quarrel was becoming too heated, put her hand over her mother's mouth'. (Chemmeen)

An object gets heated on the fire or in the sun. If we say the quarrel has become too heated, it means there is a state of excitement in which people are likely to use their self-control.

Denotation and Connotation exercise

In the sentences below, a number of words have been used twice, once in the denotative sense and the second time in a connotative sense. Identify denotation and connotation in each of the following sentences. 
  1.  He was angry with me because I had broken his pen. 
  2.  Huge waves rose in the angry sea. 
  3. They fired at the house. The bullets buried themselves in the wall. (connotation)
  4. 'Three nights later old Major died peacefully in his sleep. His body was buried at the foot of the orchard'. 
  5. Death is a true friend.
  6. John is my best friend.
  7. In ancient times, the Romans brought slaves from battles.
  8. 'I was exposed as a slave of habit even in so trifling a matter as getting the first cigarette out of a new packet'.
  9. Sara's peace of mind was shattered.
  10. A glass pane of our window was shattered by a cricket ball.

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  2. connotation
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  8. connotation
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