What Is Connotation? Learn About Connotation in Writing With Examples

Written by MasterClass

May 24, 2019 • 3 min read

Language is fluid and full of nuance. Writers sculpt language with narrative techniques to create complex ideas and deeper meanings. One of the best ways to do this is through connotation, a literary device that refers to the selection of a word or phrase for its suggested meaning instead of its literal one. It is the difference between referring to an adult as “youthful” versus “childish”: the definition of the words is the same, but the implied meaning is very different.


What Is Connotation?

Connotation is the use of a word to suggest a different association than its literal meaning, which is known as denotation. For example, blue is a color, but it is also a word used to describe a feeling of sadness, as in: “She’s feeling blue.”

Connotations can be either positive, negative, or neutral. Writers often use different connotations to inject multiple layers of meaning into a word, phrase, or passage. Take this sentence, for example: “The dog is thin.” It has neutral connotations because it is simply a statement of fact. However, the same sentence rewritten as “The dog is emaciated” has negative connotations: the word “emaciated” implies the dog has a neglectful owner.

3 Types of Connotation in Writing

Writers often use connotation to create emotional associations that can be either positive, negative, or neutral.

  1. Positive connotation. Words that conjure a favorable emotional response. For example, describing someone ambitious as a “go-getter” or someone who is lively and curious as “youthful.”
  2. Negative connotation. When a negative connotation is made, it presents the person or thing in an unfavorable light. Using the examples above, the same ambitious person might be described as an “overachiever,” while the curious person might be referred to as “childish.”
  3. Neutral connotation. This is when a word says what it means with a neutral point of view, and no attached positive or negative connotation. The statement, “He is ambitious” suggests a person works hard and strives to achieve, without judgment on whether the ambition is a good or a bad thing.

Why Is Connotation in Writing Important?

Connotation is an essential part of a writer’s word choice. Words carry weight and can, individually and together, create a certain tone for a sentence, passage, scene, or entire story. Connotations can also be used to:

  1. Write a multidimensional text. Connotation is useful in creating imagery. For example, the description “He was dressed like a pig” gives the reader a better visual sense of someone’s dress and sense of style than simply saying, “He was unkempt.”
  2. Develop characters. Readers visualize a story based on the descriptions a writer provides. If a character is described with positive connotations, readers will like them more. In thrillers, using connotation this way can throw readers off the scent. In Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, for example, the first-person narrator, Dr. James Sheppard, describes himself as a “professional man.” The connotation is that he a consummate truth-teller, and a man who can be trusted. Which makes the fact that he’s the killer all the more shocking for readers.
  3. Draw emotion out of language. Connotation draws emotion out of language, for both the writer and reader. In L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz, for example, Dorothy is obsessed with the idea of “home”: not just as the literal place where she lives, but all the positive connotations that are associated with it, like family, love, nurture, and comfort. When she finally clicks her heels and repeats, “There’s no place like home,” the reader understands and shares in her excitement and eagerness to return home.

2 Examples of Connotation in Literature

In the following examples, two writers use connotation in different ways to achieve their intended purpose.

  1. William Shakespeare, Hamlet. When Hamlet confronts his love interest, Ophelia, with his suspicions of where her loyalties lie, he tells her: “Get thee to a nunnery.” In one way, Hamlet is telling Ophelia to go live a life of purity in a convent. However, in Elizabethan times, “nunnery” was also slang for “brothel.” Shakespeare chose this word for both its literal meaning and its negative connotation to add an extra layer of meaning to Hamlet’s words.
  2. George Orwell, Animal Farm. In Orwell’s classic novel, animals are assigned roles according to their societal connotations. For example, pigs are the authority figures, while sheep are the unquestioning followers.

Learn more about writing techniques in Neil Gaiman’s MasterClass.