A connotation is the feeling a writer creates through their word choice. It’s the idea a specific word or set of words evokes.
While the connotation is focused on the idea or feeling a word evokes, the literal meaning is known as the denotation. This is an important difference because a series of words might have the same denotation but every different connotation. If a writer gets the connotation wrong, then the entire piece, whether it be a poem, short story, or novel, is going to be wrong.
Definition and Explanation of Connotation
Understanding connotations might seem complicated at first but with a few examples it becomes quite clear that all one has to do is lean on one’s understanding of English to work out a specific connotation. Everyone is aware of the connotations words have. For example, when considering the words “cheap” and “affordable,” the former sounds worse than the latter. The word “cheap” connotes something is poorly made and likely won’t last the test of time, while the latter, “affordable,” suggests that the thing is as well made as one might want it to be but has a lower price than usual.
Types of Connotation
- Positive. If something has a positive connotation that means it is associated with positive emotions and experiences. These could also be simple or complex associations with a reader’s perception of the world and/or memories. For example, using the word “aroma” to describe someone’s cooking or the word “independent” to describe someone’s friend.
- Negative. If a word has a negative connotation that means it is associated with negative emotions and experiences. When someone reads it, they are immediately transported to a negative frame of mind. This will likely last for more than the line containing the negative word. For example, if someone describes another’s cooking with the word “stench,” rather than “aroma,” it’s likely the reader is going to be disgusted at the thought and that disgust will continue over the next few lines as they consider what the smell might be. Another option is to use the word “unfriendly” rather than “independent” when describing someone.
- Neutral. if a word has a neutral connotation then it has neither a negative nor positive one. Words with neutral connotations can be used without fear that the reader is going to have an unexpected reaction to it. But, at the same time, the word is also going to be less interesting than its counterparts and describe less for the reader.
Examples of Connotation in Literature
The Sun Rising by John Donne
In ‘The Sun Rising,’ readers can find a great example of a connotation at the end of the poem. Here are the first four lines of the last stanza:
She’s all states, and all princes, I,
Nothing else is.
Princes do but play us; compared to this,
All honor’s mimic, all wealth alchemy.
When the poet’s speaker describes his lover as “all states” and he as “all princes” he is creating the connotation that he and the person he loves are wealthier than both. They have everything that a prince who lords over lands owns, and are happy because of it. By implying this, the poet’s speaker is also suggesting that the two have no need for money or power. They’re happy as they are.
Read more poetry by John Donne.
Here are a few lines from Frost’s well-known poem, ‘Out, Out–.’ In this scene, the boy whose “doing man’s work” has just cut off his hand.
The boy’s first outcry was a rueful laugh,
As he swung toward them holding up the hand
Half in appeal, but half as if to keep
The life from spilling. Then the boy saw all—
Since he was old enough to know, big boy
Doing a man’s work, though a child at heart—
In the fourth line of this short excerpt, the poet uses the word “life” to refer to the blood that’s undoubtedly pouring forth from the boy’s arm where his hand used to be. It connotes the importance of containing the injury and ensuring the boy doesn’t lose so much “life” that he dies.
Read more poetry from Robert Frost.
The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare
In Act II Scene 5, Antonio speaks the following words in the presence of Shylock, momentarily, for the first line, and Bassanio for the second. He says
Hie thee, gentle Jew.
The Hebrew will turn Christian: he grows kind.
In this section of the play, Antonio makes a remark to Shylock about his religion. He uses “gentle Jew” sarcastically, suggesting that he actually feels exactly the opposite. When Shylock exists between the two lines, he makes a comment about Christianity and those who are Christian, being inherent kind. The word “Christian” in this context, connotes kindness while the word “Jew” connotes cruelly and wickedness. This is a great example of how the connotation of words changes depending on who is using them and who is reading them.
Connotation or Denotation?
It’s quite important to be able to tell the difference between what a word’s connotation and denotation are. The connotation is the implied feeling or emotion connected to a phrase or word while a denotation is the word’s definition. The two exist together but are not always going to line up when it comes to words that mean the same thing. For example, “cheap,” “economical,” and “affordable” might have the same definition but they do not have the same connotation. One is going to seem more negative or positive than the others.
Connotation or Double Entendre
A double entendre is also related to connotation, but the two are not the same. It refers to a word or phrase that has two meanings. One of those meanings is more obvious than the other. The less obvious meaning might be untoward in some way, or even taboo, while the more obvious meaning is easily worked into conversations. Both connotation and double entendre refer to a word’s meaning but the connotation of a word is the implied meaning while the double entendre has an assigned meaning.
Why Do Writers Use Connotation?
Connotations are important in writing because they set the tone for whatever it is that the writer is trying to describe. Since connotations can be negative or positive, it’s incredibly important that the writer chooses words with the right connotation. If the wrong words are chosen then the writer might be left with a passage, or even an entire book or poem, that has consistently the wrong tone. Their intentions will be misrepresented and the reader will walk away from the poem/story/book with the wrong idea.
Related Literary Terms
- Denotation: the literal definition of a word. It is the meaning that’s most commonly found in dictionaries and other academic sources.
- Double Entendre: a literary device, phrase, and/or figure of speech that has multiple meanings or interpretations.
- Riddle: tricky phrases or questions that have double meanings and are usually challenging to solve or answer.
- Ambiguity: a word or statement that has more than one meaning. If a phrase is ambiguous, it means multiple things.