Guide to Literary Terms

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Explain the differences among connotation, denotation, and emotive meaning, using examples throughout.

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The distinction between denotation and connotation is a philosophically important one that, in modern philosophy of language, traces back to work on the nature of meaning by the German philosopher, logician, and mathematician Friedrich Ludwig Gottlob Frege (1848–1925).

Frege was concerned about the limitations of an account of meaning and identity of words as grounded in what they referred to. If meaning is purely referential, then "the morning star" would be identical to "the evening star," as they both refer to or denote the planet Venus that appears near the horizon either in the morning or evening. Yet. despite the morning and evening star both being the planet Venus, the two phrases are not identical. Although they have the same denotation, they have different connotations.

Words with the same denotation but different connotations can differ in emotional significance. The terms "embryo" and "unborn child" can be used to refer to the same stage of development of an embryo (in humans, the first seven weeks after conception), but the first term is neutral and scientific, and the latter can be used by anti-abortion activists to sway the emotions of an audience and imply that aborting an embryo is identical to murdering a child.

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Denotation, connotation, and emotive language are different types of grammar. They define different aspects of words and phrases, which helps to better understand how they can be used.

Denotation is the literal definition of a word. For example, son is defined as the male child of an individual. A parent can talk directly to or about their son, as this is the literal meaning of the word.

Connotation is the implied or cultural meaning of a word. Words can have many different connotations, depending on the context. For example, if someone calls a boy “son,” they may just be using it figuratively to refer to him affectionately or condescendingly. The individual may not literally be their son.

Emotive meaning is the emotional meaning or definition of a word. The emotive meaning of the word "son" may recall feelings of acceptance or love, because emotive meaning is the emotions that a word or phrase invokes in an individual.

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Words are signifiers, part of a language code to convey thoughts from sender to receiver.  The “denotation” of a word is its “lexical" meaning, its definition; its referent is an object, idea, etc.—“dog” is a word (a signifier) referring to a domesticated mammal that barks.  It is the same, lexically, as a “domesticated canine”.  But words like “mutt”, “pooch”, “doggy”, etc., while still referring to a “domesticated canine” have connotative value in a communication as well, given them by use in contexts over a period of time.  The connotative “meaning” of “mutt” is a mixed breed, accidentally formed rather than intentionally bred, and of questionable intelligence and value.  A “pooch” is loveable, cute, unassuming—this is the connotation of the word “pooch”; if you called a family pet a pooch, you would be complimenting the animal, but is you called a thoroughbred poodle a “pooch” you would be diminishing its value, not a pleasing term in the ears of its owner.  So, while “pooch” has connotations, it also has emotive power, in that the use of the word carries with it an emotional response or “meaning.”  A better example of “emotive” meaning in a word might be shown with insults or criticism:  in the free enterprise world, “prostitute” carries its denotation even when used metaphorically, but “whore”, “woman of the night”, “escort”, etc., all have emotive impact and do not transfer well as metaphor.  One cannot call a certain bird a “nightingale” without bringing along the emotive power of the word.  The best way to explain the difference between connotation and emotive is that connotation builds on past uses that have “frozen” the word (the word “discrimination”, for example, has accumulated connotation from its political use), while emotive builds on images and sounds suggested or even echoed in the denotated word: murmur, moonscape, sunrise, echo, etc.  Politically correct language, then, must include sensitivity to the connotative and emotive power of the words chosen, as well as their lexical "meaning."

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