Denotation and Connotation

Let’s talk about the terms connotation and denotation. For a long time, I found it very difficult to remember which one was which.

That was because I was trying to hang my understanding of their meaning on their pronunciation. But starting with pronunciation did nothing for my understanding; I had things exactly backwards in terms of the way to understand and make sense of these words. In fact, the way to understand any word is to start with the spelling, and in particular the units of meaning (morphemes) in that word. That is the only way to connect our understanding of the meaning and spelling of that word to stable units that make sense. And the reason we need to do that is because that’s how our spelling system works. The spelling of a word is not PRIMARILY a representation of its pronunciation, but is PRIMARILY a representation of the sense and meaning of the word.

In order to make sense of words — their spelling, meaning, AND the relationships between their graphemes and phonemes — we need to study all of those aspects in the context of morphology (structural units), and etymology (relationships to other words, both historically and in present day English.)

It’s worth noting that my confusion with <connotation & denotation> was an unusual situation for me — one that I noticed because it was frustrating. I’m generally good at just memorizing words by rote so I don’t run into this problem very often. However the students I work with are not good at rote memorization and thinking about words through the lens of their structure (morphology) and relationships (etymology) is vital for them and for anyone who is having trouble remembering the meaning and spelling of all kinds of words. And in fact, it deepens everyone’s understanding of words even if they never struggle with memorizing them at all!

One of my students had a very confusing experience with the terms personification, simile, & metaphor. It was eye-opening for me to see how the spellings of those words make them understandable. I describe that experience in a webinar that I did for IDA-UMB on “Developing Literacy in the Content Areas through Structured Word Study.” You can find a link to that webinar on the Further Resources page. 

So how do we make sense of <connotation & denotation>? Well, we start by making sure we know what they mean. When we’re talking about a word, we want to be sure we’re all talking about the same word. Let’s look at what the dictionary on my Mac has to say about these words:

connotation, noun, “an idea or feeling that a word invokes in addition to its literal or primary meaning.”

denotation, noun, “the literal or primary meaning of a word, in contrast to the feelings or ideas that the word suggests”

Next let’s look into the spelling of those words. We can start by looking at their morphological structure — the sequence of units of meaning (morphemes) in those words. Here are word sums for those two words:

connotation con + note/ + ate/ + ion

(The slash mark in a word sum signals the replacement of a final <e> by a vowel suffix.)

denotation de + note/ + ate/ + ion

We can see that these two constructions have different prefixes, and it looks as though they share the same base. But let’s check that out. Just because a base is spelled the same does not mean it is the same unit of meaning. To verify that, we need to look at the etymology — the history and relationships — of that word.

We can start at Here’s what we see for these two constructions:

denotation (n.)


This entry tells us that the information about this word continues at the word <denote>, and we need to go there to see the full history of the word.

denote (v.)


So this is sending us on to the entry for <note>, but before we go there, let’s take a look at <connotation>:

connotation (n.)


To really understand these words completely, I would need to go to the entry for <note> and see what is there. Both words point to that entry, and etymological information on these words will continue at that entry.

But I’m not going to do that right now. I have verified that the <note> in both <connotation & denotation> are the same base. They both derive from the Latin form <notare> which has a sense of “to mark, note, make a note.” They share the root <notare>. So we’ll stop there for now.

We’ve established that our words share the same morphemes, with the exception of their prefixes. They share the same base, and we can show with word sums that they both include suffixes <ate & ion>:

<denotation de + note/ + ate/ + ion>

<connotation con + note/ + ate/ + ion>

We can put them into a lexical matrix, like this:


In <denotation> we find the prefix <de->, giving a sense of “completely.” Prefixes don’t carry meaning the way that bases do. That prefix <de-> can nudge meaning in different ways in different words. But in this word family, it adds a sense of “completely.” So with <denotation>, the sense of this word is that we have “completely” noted the meaning of the word. A denotation is a literal meaning, as we saw in the definition from the dictionary earlier.

However, in <connotation> we have a prefix that has the sense of “with or together.” So a connotation is a secondary meaning — perhaps a sense or feeling — that is associated along with the primary or “complete” meaning of the word.

Etymonline explains it this way: “A word denotes its primary meaning, its barest adequate definition… A word connotes the attributes commonly associated with it…” (emphasis mine).

Now here’s another term that’s important to know: “mark, note, make a note” is the orthographic denotation — the literal or primary “complete meaning” — of these words. This orthographic denotation comes directly from the base element in all of these words. The adjective orthographic tells us that the denotation is embedded in the orthography — the written form of this word.

In both <denotation & connotation> the orthographic denotation is “mark, note, make a note”; that orthographic denotation comes from the base element <note>.

When I wanted to make sense of the difference in meaning between “denotation” and “connotation,” thinking about the orthographic denotation of the base in these two words and the influence of the prefixes allowed me to have a deeper understanding of these words and to remember what they mean.  I was able to do that by studying the written morphemes in their spelling, and the “meaning” embedded in those written morphemes.  

The sense of <connotation> makes the most sense to me; it is a meaning that is noted along with the literal sense. And sometimes distinguishing between two confusing terms is as simple as knowing one term clearly and knowing that the other one is NOT that.

Now let’s look back at our <note> matrix. I verified that these constructions are all related: <annotation, denote, notable>.

The orthographic denotation —“mark, note, make a note” — of all of these words is the same. So every word in this matrix will have a denotational sense of “mark, note, or make a note.”  Sometimes that denotation is present as just a faint echo in those words. And words built from a base may connote many other things that are associated with that underlying denotation; for example, a notary is someone who does a very specific type of job, but that job has an underlying sense of being authorized to make certain types of marks on paper.

So we can understand and remember the meaning and spelling of words by seeing the morphological and etymological relationships present in their spelling. We can understand why there are two <n>’s in <connotation> and only one in <denotation>. And it’s not because of pronunciation, it’s because of meaning and structure.

The spelling and meaning of words make sense in the context of their morphology (their structure) and their etymology (their history and relationships with other words).

Spelling always makes sense.

Contact me with your thoughts and questions here.