Denotation and connotation

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The terms, denotation and connotation, are used to convey and distinguish between two different kinds of meanings or extensions of a word. A denotation is the strict, literal, definition of a word, devoid of any emotion, attitude, or color. The connotation of a word or term adds elements of emotion, attitude, or color. The meaning or use of denotation and connotation depends partly on the field of study.

The meaning of denotation and connotation

  • In media-studies terminology, denotation is the first level of analysis: What the audience can visually see on a page. Denotation often refers to something literal, and avoids being a metaphor. Here it is usually coupled with connotation, which is the second level of analysis, being what the denotation represents.
  • In logic, linguistics, and semiotics, a denotation of a word or phrase is a part of its meaning; however, several parts of meaning may take this name, depending on the contrast being drawn:
  • Denotation and connotation are either
    • in basic semantics and literary theory, the literal and figurative meanings of a word, or,
    • in philosophy, logic and parts of linguistics, the extension and intension of a word
  • Denotation can be synonymous with reference, and connotation with sense, in the sense and reference distinction in philosophy of language.
  • In Computer science, denotational semantics is contrasted with operational semantics.
  • In Semiotics, denotation also has its own meaning.

In logic and semantics, denotational always attracts the extension, meaning "in the pair," but the other element genuinely varies.

The distinction between connotation and denotation corresponds roughly to Gottlob Frege's ground-breaking and much-studied distinction between Sinn (sense) and Bedeutung (reference).

Bertrand Russell, in 1905, published a seminal article on the topic of denotation, entitled "On Denoting."

Denotation often links with symbolism, as the denotation of a particular media text often represents something further; a hidden meaning (or an enigma code) is often hidden in a media text.


In order to understand fully the difference between denotation and connotation in media studies and semiotics, it is helpful to examine some examples:

The denotation of this example is a red rose with a green stem. The connotation is that is a symbol of passion and love—this is what the rose represents.

The denotation is a brown cross. The connotation is a symbol of religion, according to the media connotation. To be more specific, this is a symbol of Christianity.

The denotation is a representation of a cartoon heart. The connotation is a symbol of love and affection, not in the way of a rose, but a symbol of true love.

Definition of Connotation

A connotation is a subjective cultural and/or emotional coloration in addition to the explicit or denotative meaning of any specific word or phrase in a language.


Within contemporary society, connotation branches into a culmination of different meanings. These could include the contrast of a word or phrase with its primary, literal meaning (known as a denotation), with what that word or phrase specifically denotes. The connotation essentially relates to how anything may be associated with a word or phrase, for example, an implied value judgment or feelings.

  • A stubborn person may be described as being either "strong-willed" or "pig-headed." Although these have the same literal meaning (that is, stubborn), strong-willed connotes admiration for someone's convictions, while pig-headed connotes frustration in dealing with someone. Likewise, "used car" and "previously owned car" have the same literal meaning, but many dealerships prefer the latter, since it is thought to have fewer negative connotations.
  • It is often useful to avoid words with strong connotations (especially disparaging ones) when striving to achieve a neutral point of view. A desire for more positive connotations, or fewer negative ones, is one of the main reasons for using euphemisms. (Although, not all theories of linguistic meaning honor the distinction between literal meaning and connotation).


In logic and in some branches of semantics, connotation is more or less synonymous with intension. Connotation is often contrasted with denotation, which is more or less synonymous with extension. A word's extension is the collection of things it refers to; its intension is what it implies about the things it is used to refer to. So, the denotation or extension of "dog" is just the collection of all the dogs that exist. The connotation or intension of "dog" is (something like) "four-legged canine carnivore." Alternatively, the connotation of the word may be thought of as the set of all its possible referents (as opposed to merely the actual ones). So saying, "You are a dog," would imply that the subject was ugly or aggressive rather than a literal canine.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Barnard, Malcolm. 1996. Fashion as Communication. London: Routledge. ISBN 0415111579
  • Barthes, R., A. Lavers, and C. Smith. 1967. Elements of Semiology. New York: Hill and Wang.
  • Frege, Gottlob. 1982. "Über Sinn und Bedeutung," Zeitschrift für Philosophie und philosophische Kritik, NF 100, S. 25-50.
  • Frege, G., P. Geach, and M. Black. 1952. Translations from the Philosophical Writings. Oxford: Blackwell & Mott.
  • Leiss, William, Stephen Kline & Sut Jhally. 1990. Social Communication in Advertising: Persons, Products and Images of Well-Being London: Routledge ISBN 0415966760 ISBN 9780415966764
  • Russell, Bertrand 1905. "On Denoting," Orig. pub. in Mind, 1905; Reprinted in Logic and Knowledge, ed. Robert Marsh. London: George Allen & Unwin LTD, 1956, 1964.
  • Williamson, Judith. 1978 Decoding Advertisements. London: Marion Boyars. ISBN 9704526142

External links

All links retrieved January 29, 2024.

General philosophy sources


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