Connotation & Denotation


The main tool that poets can use to create an effect is, obviously, words. The words we use often work on two levels. The first and simplest level is their denotation and the more complex and interesting level is their connotation.



The denotation of a word is its basic meaning. For example the denotation of the word ‘black’ is simply the colour of the text on this screen. ‘Black’ means this colour. The denotations of words are useful for communicating ideas, descriptions and points of view clearly.



The words we use, however, do not stop there. They are rich with the shadows and echoes of other meanings that they have acquired over the course of history. The connotations of the word ‘black’ are therefore much more interesting than the mere colour of this text. In this case ‘Black’ suggests ideas of death, evil, mourning, loss, sadness, darkness, fear, etc …


The important difference to notice is between what a word means and what that word suggests. Simply writing about the meanings of words will not get you a very good mark in your essays. Talking about all the different things that a word suggests, all the different connotations of a word, on the other hand, now that is how to score highly.


Here is a diagram that begins to trace all the different connotations of the colour white: