Do you find yourself struggling to teach students how to choose better words for their writing? Do readers misunderstand their assignments because they get stuck on a word or turn of phrase? Diction is a powerful tool but many emerging readers and writers fail to understand the nuance of language in order to use this tool to their full advantage. Teaching students the definition of connotation in literature can help!
When students read The Great Gatsby, there’s always a handful who are absolutely stumped by the line “I hope she’ll be a fool—that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.” Invariably a student will shoot their hand up and express outrage that Daisy would have the audacity to say she wants her daughter to be a fool. What kind of mother wants their kid to be foolish?
Of course Daisy doesn’t really want poor little Pammy to grow up to be a fool. It’s simply a misunderstanding of the connotation in literature.
Difficulty in understanding the difference between connotative and denotative language is pretty common for students, and this post will provide examples from literature and life to help you teach connotation vs. denotation and textual analysis with confidence.
Definition of Denotation in Literature
The definition of denotation in literature is the objective meaning of a word. An author uses a word with its explicit meaning intended to be understood by their audience. In other words, whatever the definition of the word would be when you look it up in the dictionary, that’s the denotative meaning of that word.
You might help your students think of it as denotation=dictionary definition.
Definition of Connotation in Literature
The definition of connotation in literature is the implied meaning of a word. Generally, when the connotative meaning of a word is used, the author is appealing to the emotional association a reader would have with that word. This emotional association is usually derived from the context in which the word is used or the reader’s experiences. Connotation in literature is suggestive and requires inferential reading skills to understand.
Connotation in literature falls into three categories:
- Positive: When the feelings and ideas associated with a particular word are intended to create a positive response in the reader.
- Negative: When the feelings and ideas associated with a particular word are intended to create a negative response in the reader.
- Neutral: When the feelings and ideas associated with a particular word are neither positive or negative. Usually, neutral words take on certain meanings based on the readers’ experiences and the context in which it was used.
What are examples of connotation?
Some examples of connotation include:
- He looked so cool in his new car.
- She felt blue after Mark broke up with her.
- There’s no place like home.
- He was as sharp as a tack.
- The decrepit old woman leaned on her cane.
- The stench of rotting garbage permeated his face mask.
In the first example, the word cool has the connotative meaning associated with it.
The dictionary would tell us that the word cool means to be at a fairly low temperature. However, in the case of this example sentence, it doesn’t mean that the owner of this car is at a fairly low temperature, but rather that he’s hip, admirable, and aesthetically pleasing.
We understand that the word cool has multiple meanings, and in this sentence the emotional association of being hip or popular is used to demonstrate how the new car made the owner look.
While we can associate an emotional meaning that differs from the dictionary definition of the word like in the first example, we can also rely on the dictionary definition itself to create emotional impact, or connotative meaning.
For example, in the last sentence, the words “stench,” “rotting,” “garbage,” and “permeated” all carry emotional meaning. There’s no dual meaning to these words, instead, it is their very definition that packs the punch.
Stench is understood to be far worse than say “stink,” and rotting is far worse than say “newly thrown out.” Similarly, the word garbage has a more negative and disgusting association than its synonym, trash. Even though there’s not a play on the denotative meaning of these words, the negative emotional association comes from understanding that these words are far worse than words with synonymous meaning.
And I don’t know about you, but the stench of rotting garbage permeating a face mask is far more disgusting than the smell of onions in my kitchen trash after Taco Tuesday, and even that is pretty bad!
Meaning of Connotation and Denotation With Examples
Think about the differences between the objective meaning and implied meaning of the following series of words:
- Drug addict v. druggie
- Disabled v. differently abled
- Mentally ill v. lunatic
- Journalist v. newshound
- Photographers v. paparazzi
- Ghost v. spirit
- Skinny v. lean
- Muscular v. ripped
- Woman v. chick
Did any of these stand out to you as positive or negative? Did any seem more neutral?
For me, when I think of a photographer, I think of a bubbly professional behind a lens taking pictures of a family standing in a field of sunflowers for annual family pictures. She’s making the kids giggle by telling jokes in order to get the best shots of their newly-missing-front-tooth-smiles.
But when I think about paparazzi, I see images of Princess Diana circa the 1990’s being harassed by a swarm of men with flashing Nikons stuck in her face, unable to get away. I think of not only harassment, but also Princess Diana’s ultimate death.
Not at all the same.
I’ve associated far different emotions with each of these words even though their denotative meanings are very similar. One is far more positive than the other to me. These associations come from my own personal context. If you’ve had a bad experience with a family photographer, or your mother was not obsessed with Princess Diana, you might not have the same associations with these words that I do.
What is connotative language in literature?
What is the connotative language in literature? It is the use of the feelings, emotions and implied meaning of a word to create a response in the reader. Authors usually use this as an emotional appeal to create connection to the text and enrich the reading experience for the reader.
Some famous examples of connotative language in literature include:
- “I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear, /Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong, /The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam, /The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work…” -“I Hear America Singing” by Walt Whitman
In his poem, Whitman uses a variety of titles for skilled laborers to represent the hardworking, industrious spirit of Americans. Whitman understands his audience is likely to feel similarly to him about the characteristics of Americans and uses these words to evoke the patriotic emotions associated with them.
- “Get thee to a nunnery” –Hamlet by William Shakespeare
Oh, poor William. Talk about a punchy quote that goes overlooked by thousands of high schoolers every year. Hamlet says this line to Ophelia in a scene in which he is growing exasperated with her (although, I would argue that Hamlet is exasperated like 90% of the play, but that’s a different discussion for a different day).
On the surface, this line doesn’t seem as biting as it really is.
A nunnery is another word for convent, or where women go to live and devote their lives to God. Seems harmless enough, right? But in a convent, a woman gives up her right to marriage. This in turn prevents her from having any influence over a man. And Ophelia certainly has a lot of influence over Hamlet’s emotions.
So you can see how his words have a deeper emotional connotation to them. However, it goes even deeper when the connotation of the word “nunnery” in Elizabethan England is considered. During Shakespeare’s time, the word “nunnery” was also used as a slang term for “brothel.”
So, in reality, this seemingly benign line is a major dis when connotative meaning is analyzed.
- “We could live offa the fatta the lan’” –Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
When George says this to Lennie, he’s using connotative language to convince Lennie that with their own hard work and resourcefulness, they could be independent, surviving solely on what the Earth can provide. It paints a picture of mother earth as plentiful and giving, and them as the benefactors.
- “A cloud, the exact color of the boy’s hat and shaped like a turnip, had descended over the sun, and another, worse looking, crouched behind the car. Mr. Shiftlet felt that the rottenness of the world was about to engulf him.” –The Life You Save May Be Your Own by Flannery O’Connor
In this excerpt from Flannery O’Connor’s short story, the words “cloud,” “descended,” “crouched,” “rottenness,” and “engulf,” have all been carefully selected for the emotional association. The word cloud is used to indicate both a literal and a metaphoric cloud. Crouched, rottenness, and engulf all have more negative associations to them, adding to the ominous mood of the short story.
Having a clear definition of connotation in literature can help students become better readers and writers. Practice identifying and analyzing these choices will also help.
Challenge your writers to go back into their writer’s notebooks and select several words that may have different meanings based on connotation. Have them play with swapping out their selected words for words that would change the connotation and share with a thought partner.
Ask students to go back into their choice reading book or a novel study book and find examples of the use of connotation in literature. Make a list with the class and discuss the different words the author could have used in place of that word. What would change if the word was swapped?
There are so many simple ways to get students to start thinking about connotations in literature. Leave a comment below – what’s something you plan to do in your classes to help students learn or improve this important communication and reading skill?
Hey, if you loved this post, you’ll want to download a FREE copy of my guide to streamlined grading.
I know how hard it is to do all the things as an English teacher, so I’m excited to share some of my best strategies for reducing the grading overwhelm.