What is connotation? We often hear about how certain things have good or bad connotations, but how do we know? We’re going to answer that question by looking at some connotation examples in literature and film. By the end, you’ll know how to recognize and apply all sorts of connotative language in writing and everyday life.

What Does Connotation Mean?

Exploring the connotation meaning

What does connotation mean? The connotation meaning can be traced back to the beginning of linguistics and semiotics. Connotation is simply anytime anything is regarded as something other than its literal textbook definition. This short video from Khan Academy explores the connotation meaning by looking at connotation vs denotation examples.

Connotation Meaning  •  What is Connotative Language

It may seem like connotation is something profoundly simple... and it is. But I suppose it’s true that sometimes the simplest ideas are the hardest to grasp. Connotation can be applied in an infinite ways. But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s formally define connotation.

CONNOTATION DEFINITION

What is connotation?

A connotation is a non-literal framing of a term that intends to add an association beyond its literal meaning. Connotations can have negative, neutral or positive implications on a term. Take happiness as the neutral for example: the negative connotation of happiness could be mania and the positive connotation could be vibrancy.

Types of Connotation:

  • Negative – when a word or symbol has a non-literal association that we regard as bad.
  • Neutral – when a word or symbol has a non-literal association that we don’t regard as good or bad.
  • Positive – when a word or symbol has a non-literal association that we regard as good.

Connotation Definition by Contrast

Connotation vs denotation

The biggest difference between connotation and denotation is that the former is non-literal and the latter is literal. Let’s take the word "sharp" for example: 

The denotation of “sharp” is literal, like a sharpened knife. In a sentence, the applied denotation would sound like, “Can you hand me that sharp knife?”

One possible connotation of “sharp” is smart or witty. In a sentence, the connotative language might look like, “She’s a sharp student.”

This next video explores the differences between connotation and denotation examples in further detail.

What is Connotation? Connotation vs Denotation Explained

It may be helpful to think of connotation and denotation as opposite terms. Whereas one relies on subjective, non-literal implications, the other relies on objective, literal inherent qualities.

Connotation and Denotation Examples

Connotative language in action

Connotation is the feeling that’s communicated by a word. Think about a word you hate. Why do you hate it? What does it remind you of? How about a word you love? Why do you love it? What do you associate it with? Most words have a connotative meaning. By understanding how connotative language is applied in literature, we can see the impact that word choice has on writing.

Think about intelligence for example:

If a writer hopes to communicate a negative connotation of intelligence, they might use the word nerd. Nerds are generally assumed to be subservient which we regard negatively.

Conversely, if a writer hopes to communicate a positive connotation of intelligence, they might use the word brilliant. Brilliance literally refers to the brightness of light, but connotatively, it’s often used to suggest great intelligence.

We know these connotative words are positive or negative because they’ve been reinforced to us in our everyday culture. Ah, therein lies the rub – connotation is subjective and only applicable when people know what it means. Words have different meanings all over the world, but there are plenty that have shared meanings as well. 

Here are some examples:

  • Positive: childlike — Negative: childish
  • Positive: vintage — Negative: decrepit 
  • Positive: confident — Negative: cocky

We often see shared connotative words used in news headlines to invoke reactions from readers. Take this famous exercise as an example – two headlines address the same event but use different connotations to evoke different feelings.

  1. Freedom fighters gunned down in pro-democracy protest 
  2. Rebels neutralized for illegal gathering

Two completely different things right? The difference in terms like “freedom fighters” vs “rebels,” “gunned down” vs “neutralized,” or “protest” vs “illegal gathering” has a huge effect on readers.

CONNOTATION LITERARY DEFINITION

Connotation examples in literature

Now that we’ve looked at how connotations are used in writing, let’s look at an example from H. P. Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulhu to see how connotative language is used effectively in literature to build mood.

“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”

Word choice plays a huge role in Lovecraft’s stories. What does he mean when he uses words like “merciful, placid, terrifying, deadly,” etc.? Is he using them literally? Is he playing with irony? As a method of juxtaposition? Not all of these terms are used connotatively, but they’re all used expressively. Read Lovecraft’s excerpt again and think about how he uses terms literally and non-literally to expert effect.

For more specific connotation examples, let’s look to William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Act I, Scene III:

“What, lamb! What, ladybird! God forbid! Where's this girl? What, Juliet!” – Nurse

Did you spot the connotation? The term “ladybird” is used connotatively to compare Juliet to a ladybird – or as it was known in Shakespeare’s era, a ladybug. This excerpt from Romeo and Juliet is a great example of how to use connotative language in dialogue. Let’s look at a few more connotation examples to see how they’re used in film.

Connotative Words Become Symbols

Connotation examples in film

We see connotations everywhere in cinema – like in Sunset Boulevard when Norma Desmond says, “I am big! It’s the pictures that got small” with "big" being regarded with a positive connotation and "small" being regarded with a negatively. Or consider when Buddy the Elf mistakenly calls Peter Dinklage’s character an elf. Of course, Dinklage’s character isn’t an elf – even though Buddy earnestly thinks he is. Remember: context matters with connotation.

Connotation in film is a branch of cinematic semiotics. What is semiotics? Semiotics is the study of symbols and how they’re interpreted. So, cinematic semiotics is the study of symbols as they relate to film. We connote that a symbol may mean something based on our understanding of semiotics. It’s confusing I know – let’s look at an example that may clear things up.

Connotation Def in the Red Shoes in Guillermo del Toro’s ‘The Shape of Water’

Connotation Def in the Red Shoes in del Toro’s The Shape of Water

What’s going on in this shot? What does it mean? Well, considering the context of the film, and how closely it relates to classic fairy tales, we can connote that the red shoes may be a reference to Hans Christian Andersen’s classic fairy tale The Red Shoes.

Yes, the red shoes are a symbol – but connotation is one way we’re able to confirm they’re a symbol. But my analysis is only an educated guess. Just because I connote that’s what the red shoes mean doesn’t prove that’s what director Guillermo del Toro meant for them to mean.

Perhaps they’re simply red shoes. Nothing more, nothing less. But there’s no denying that red shoes carry with them a certain connotation – whether they simply be an object of desire, Dorothy's ruby slippers or a reference to Hans Christian Andersen’s story.

Connotation Synonym - The Red Shoes in David Lean’s ‘Summertime’

Connotation Synonym  •  The Red Shoes in David Lean’s Summertime

Connotative language is something that’s very important to understanding film language. For more on connotation and semiotics analysis, check out the video below.

What is Connotation in Symbols?  •  Semiotics Analysis for Beginners

The video does a great job of proving why understanding the four elements of film language: mise en scene, sound design, cinematography, and editing are essential in applying semiotic analysis and recognizing denotations and connotations.

The Meaning of Connotation for Artists

How connotation can help writers

So, what is connotation? The art of connotative language allows artists to communicate something beyond their literal meaning to the audience. Connotations are a pathway towards turning objects into symbols and metaphors. Just remember that connotations are often subjective and difficult to identify.

But by appropriately applying connotations, you can add linguistic/visual nuance and metaphorical impact to your own stories. Ultimately, connotative language is a gateway to the world of non-literal storytelling

UP NEXT

How to Turn Props Into Symbols

Props serve as perfect instruments for translating connotative meaning. In this next article, we look at a variety of props from Juno, Star Wars, and more to see how filmmakers use items to convey metaphorical meaning. Our guide might inspire you to turn a prop into a symbol in your next film or play!

Up Next: Prop Selection Guide →
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