Denotation is the literal, basic meaning of a word or expression. Denotation contrasts with connotation, which refers to the ideas or emotions suggested by a word.

Easy Examples of Denotation

The denotations of clique, club, group and team are essentially the same. They all mean a set of people. However, these words are not interchangeable because they have different connotations (i.e., they come with different unsaid ideas).
cliquea set of peopleClique is understood to be a set of self-serving people who exclude outsiders (i.e., is not welcoming). It has a negative connotation.
cluba set of peopleClub is understood to be a set of enthusiastic people who have voluntarily united to share an interest. It has a positive connotation.
groupa set of peopleGroup is understood to be set of people. There is no positive or negative associated idea. It has a neutral connotation.
teama set of peopleClub is understood to be a set of people working towards the same aim. It has a positive connotation.

More about Denotation

You will often hear denotation (or denotative meaning) described as "the dictionary definition of a word" and connotation (or connotative meaning) as an additional, unsaid idea or emotion evoked by the word. However, this is not entirely accurate because dictionaries often include the positive and negative ideas associated with a word as part of the definition.
  • Skinny. The dictionary definition of skinny is unattractively thin.
  • Slender. The dictionary definition of gracefully thin.
In fact, denotation is best described as the literal, basic meaning. So, the denotation of skinny and slender is thin (i.e., having little flesh or fat on the body). Actually, the connotation of a word could be stated (i.e., part of the dictionary definition) or unstated (e.g., personal to an individual, relevant to a specific group or dependent on context).
WordDenotation Stated Connotation
(included in the dictionary)
tenaciousnot readily relinquishingThe dictionary definition of tenacious is fervent in pursuit of, and not easily dispelled from, an aim.
stubbornnot readily relinquishingThe dictionary definition of stubborn is showing dogged determination not to change one's mind, especially in spite of good reasons to do so.
WordDenotation(personal to an individual)
parentalrelating to parentsDepending on personal experience, parental could have a positive connotation (e.g., loving), a neutral connotation (e.g., relating to parents) or a negative connotation (e.g., abusive).
WordDenotation(relevant to a specific group)
Britishfrom BritainDepending on each reader's background, British could have a positive connotation (e.g., high-quality), a neutral connotation (e.g., from Britain) or a negative connotation (e.g., aggressive)
WordDenotation(dependent on context)
cheapinexpensiveDepending on context, cheap could have a positive connotation (e.g., good value), a neutral connotation (e.g., inexpensive) or a negative connotation (e.g., low quality).

Why Should I Care about Denotation?

If you've worked in a multinational environment, you may have come across this observation: Non-native speakers can understand the first meaning but not the second.

Essentially, this is a warning that foreign readers of your work are less likely to follow the connotations in your writing. (It's why many non-native English speakers prefer Mr Bean to Blackadder.) As a consequence, when writing to a multi-national audience, you should try to use simplistic words with neutral connotations (i.e., words whose complete definitions are a close match to their denotative meanings).
English-speaking EnvironmentOption for a Non-native-speaking Environment
Do not be picky when selecting staff.
The leaders are miserly.
He jabbers a lot.
Do not look for perfection when selecting staff.
The leaders are reluctant to spend money.
He talks a lot without saying anything meaningful.
Remember, we are not talking about creating diplomatic language, only understandable language.

Avoiding words with strong connotations is a consideration when working in a multi-national environment. Do not try to avoid connotation at all times. Choosing a word with the right connotation is a key part of writing effectively.

Key Point

  • If writing to a multi-national audience, don't rely too heavily on connotation to express yourself.
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