What is Denotation? Definition, Meaning, and Examples of Denotation

Definition of denotation: Denotation is the technical or dictionary definition of a word, rather than the connotative or associative meaning of a word.

What Does Denotation Mean?

What is denotation? The denotation of a word is the technical, literal meaning of a word. This is the meaning one would find when looking the word up in a dictionary.


Example of Denotation:

what does denote meanFor example, if you were to look up the word house or snore in the dictionary, you may see something like this.

  • House: a building for human habitation
  • Snore: to breathe with a rough hoarse noise while sleeping

Denotation is contrasted with connotation, which has to do with the feelings a word suggests.

Let’s compare the denotation and connotation of the words house and snore.

  • House:
    • Denotation: a building for human habitation.
    • Connotation: warm, friendly, comforting.
  • Snore:
    • Denotation: to breathe with a rough hoarse noise while sleeping.
    • Connotation: loud, abrasive, irritating, unnerving.

Let’s explore these two ideas a bit further.

Denotation vs. Connotation

denotation meaningWhile denotation deals with the dictionary or technical definition of a word, connotations are the feelings or ideas a person has in regards to a word. Therefore, the connotation a person has with a word will depend on his or her experience with it.

Here are some examples of the differences:

  • Husband = word
    • A male partner in marriage = denotation
    • Safety = connotation someone may have if in a healthy marriage
    • Heartache = connotation someone may have if she suffered a failed marriage
  • School = word
    • An institution for teaching and learning = denotation
    • Success = connotation someone may have who has had a positive experience in school
    • Frustration = connotation someone may have who has struggled in school

As you can see, while the denotation remains the same, the connotation is subjective upon a person’s own feelings associated with the word.

The Purpose of Denotation

The purpose of denotation is for a word to be understood by a reader. If the word is not understood, the reader may look this word up in order to obtain the correct meaning.

If words did not have denotation, we would not have a consistent definition to refer to and readers would be confused on meaning.

How Denotation is Used in Literature

denotative meaningWhen reading literature, it is important to look up unknown words in a dictionary in order to obtain the word’s denotation.

In Homer’s The Odyssey, one must look up the word aloof in order to understand Penelope’s relationship with her husband once he reveals his identity to her:

  • “Who else in the world/ would keep aloof as you do from her husband/ if he returned to her from years of trouble,/ cast on his land in the twentieth year.”

The denotation of aloof is unfriendly. By knowing this the reader knows that his wife is at first distant in regards to her feelings with her husband

In William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, by knowing the definition of grievance, it gives the reader an understanding of Romeo’s feelings.

  • “See where he comes. So please you step aside,/ I’ll know his grievance, or be much denied.”

The denotation of grievance is complaint or cause of suffering. This lets the reader know that something is bothering Romeo in a negative way.


Define denotation: A denotation is a word’s technical or dictionary definition.

Final example,

  • Christina’s personality was often described as gregarious in nature.

Without any contextual clues, one would want to look up the denotation of gregarious in the dictionary in order to determine the correct trait for Christina.

Gregarious : social