Grammar for Fiction Writers: Busy Writer's Guides Book (2014)

Part II. Knowing What Your Words Mean and What They Don’t

Chapter 10. Connotation vs. Denotation

As we said in the introduction, this is a book on grammar for fiction writers. That means we’re delving into areas where you aren’t wrong for using a specific word, but that doesn’t mean you’re right, either. You saw this in the previous chapter on weak words, where a word technically worked in a sentence, but it wasn’t as strong and clear as it could be. In this chapter, we’re going to look at the connotation vs. the denotation of a word.

Denotation refers to the dictionary definition of a word. This is its literal meaning.

The connotation of a word, though, refers to the emotional baggage the word carries, the associations we, as a society, formed around it. As fiction writers, one of the tricks we can use to add layers of meaning to our work is to consider the connotations of the words we use.

I’ll give you an example. Here are the denotations of two words, compliments of the dictionary.

Thin: having little flesh, spare, lean

Skinny: very lean or thin

Denotatively, they mean the same thing.

Connotatively, they don’t.

When we say someone is thin, we usually mean it in a positive way. The connotation attached to thin is that thin is healthy and the opposite of fat. When we say someone is skinny, it carries the connotation of unhealthy, an eating disorder, or starvation.

So when you’re having your point-of-view character describe someone they’ve just met, someone who is lean, you need to consider what you want to imply. Do you want to imply that the lean character is fit, perhaps a runner? Or do you want to imply that this character has a secret—a spouse who’s starving them, not enough money to buy groceries, or maybe anorexia?

Let’s take another example.

Naked: being without clothing or covering

Nude: naked or unclothed

Same denotation. Different connotation.

You wouldn’t say that someone was part of a naked colony or that it’s a naked beach. We talk about nudist colonies and nude beaches.

Naked carries with it the connotation of shame and inappropriateness. You’re naked if you’re not wearing clothing when you should be.

You’re nude if you’re not wearing clothing in the appropriate setting. A nude model. A nude beach.

A woman is nude with the husband she loves but naked when she’s raped by a stranger. You would only describe a woman as naked in front of her husband if you want to suggest that she’s ashamed of the way her body looks, or if he’s abusive. Being aware of the connotation allows you to add that subtext that enriches a story.

Denotation vs. connotation isn’t something to sweat over during your first draft. It’s something you’ll want to watch for as you go through on your polishing edit.