The Difference Between Connotation and Denotation
The differences and nuances between connotation and denotation are a popular topic to cover and review when discussing English grammar. Even after students are taught the difference in the early stages of learning, it is important to continue the discussion as word choice becomes more imperative in the mastery of writing, and word recognition is increasingly important to engage advanced reading. In order for students to best understand and apply the use of tone in writing and literature, they must have a firm grasp of the distinction between what words denote and connote.
Denotation is the strict, “dictionary” definition of a word. Connotation refers to the emotions and associations that attach to words, and expand beyond their proper definitions. Poor word choice or misrecognition of wording can dramatically alter imagery, tone, mood, or message of a piece. Revisiting the differences between the denotations of words and their connotations help students master their writing and reading.
As seen below, a misunderstanding can quickly change the literal meaning of a message (as is the case with "weasel"). It can also change the tone of the message, consider the difference between feelings evoked by "mom" and "mother". Some other denotation examples include words used to describe people like pig, chicken, bull, ox, or something like a teacher's pet.
Showing Connotation and Denotation in Storyboards
Storyboards make a great medium for practicing and demonstrating this semantic challenge. Whether you use them as non-linguistic representations of the concept, or you have students explore the concept themselves by using and/or creating storyboards, it will strengthen their understanding of an important reading and writing skill. Here are a few example activities:
- Model the issues of this semantic challenge by giving students storyboards of words with many connotations. Have students identify and discuss the nuances of the example.
- Provide a template storyboard for quick and easy practice (see example below). Your template can have a specific word filled in, and students can complete the board with their own word choices. In an exercise like this, students see the varied emotions and ideas attached to words. Variations:
- Use a specific word from context of a story to strengthen vocabulary
- Let students discover and practice with words they explore
- Provide students with an opportunity to create storyboards demonstrating difficult or humorous use of words. The act of creating a storyboard has them focus and think critically about the word choice, and applicable demonstration of it.
Negative Connotation Examples
There are many words and phrases that we associate negatively for various reasons, sometimes brought on from a small number of examples, from a regional or cultural bias, or from past associations with the word. Take a look at the examples below and write down some of the first words you think of. Are there negative connotations with any of those words?
- Tax Collector
- Fast Food Clerk
Common Core State Standards
The activities above help address numerous areas of the Common Core State Standards, in particular, standards in language and writing.
ELA-Literacy.L.9-10.3: Apply knowledge of language to understand how language functions in different contexts, to make effective choices for meaning or style, and to comprehend more fully when reading or listening
ELA-Literacy.L.9-10.4: Determine or clarify the meaning of unknown and multiple-meaning words and phrases based on grades 9-10 reading and content, choosing flexibly from a range of strategies
Use context (e.g., the overall meaning of a sentence, paragraph, or text; a word’s position or function in a sentence) as a clue to the meaning of a word or phrase.
Identify and correctly use patterns of word changes that indicate different meanings or parts of speech (e.g., analyze, analysis, analytical; advocate, advocacy).
Consult general and specialized reference materials (e.g., dictionaries, glossaries, thesauruses), both print and digital, to find the pronunciation of a word or determine or clarify its precise meaning, its part of speech, or its etymology.
Verify the preliminary determination of the meaning of a word or phrase (e.g., by checking the inferred meaning in context or in a dictionary).
ELA-Literacy.L.9-10.5: Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meanings
ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.4: Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience. (Grade-specific expectations for writing types are defined in standards 1–3 above.)
- ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.6: Use technology, including the Internet, to produce, publish, and update individual or shared writing products, taking advantage of technology’s capacity to link to other information and to display information flexibly and dynamically
Check out these activities that include connotations from our guides on the poems "Women", "A Poison Tree", and "The Raven".