Denotative and Connotative Language – Differences and examples

We explain what denotative and connotative language are, the characteristics of each one and various examples.

denotative and connotative language
The denotative language is universal while the connotative can vary between communities.

What are denotative language and connotative language?

When we speak of denotative language (or denotation) and connotative language (or connotation), we are referring to the two forms of interpretation or assignment of the meaning of words that exist: the one that takes them in an objective sense, and the one that he takes them in a metaphorical sense.

The denotative language is that which is established in the dictionarys, which operates universally for speakers of the same language, and which exists in any possible context. It is the language used by science and formal explanations. For example, the denotative meaning of “rat” is that of a hairy rodent with a long hairless tail, which usually lives in garbage dumps and drains in cities.

Instead connotative language is one that works based on “double meaning” or metaphor, that is, to the cultural or social association that is superimposed on the objective meaning, giving it new nuances and new uses. This sense tends to vary between speaking communities and between geographic regions, and to grasp it we often need to have the right context.

Sayings are a perfect case of this, or also dialect vocabularies. For example, in Venezuela the term “rat” is used to refer to someone cruel or malicious, while in Argentina it is often used as a synonym for “mean”, “miser” or “not very generous”.

Denotative and connotative language are part of the same coin, and one does not usually exist without the other, since language operates as a reflection of our individual and collective thoughts and emotions. On the other hand, artists of verbal language (writers, poets and the like) work with both types of language, to establish their own meanings and expand what language is capable of saying with the same words.

Examples of denotative and connotative language

The following are examples of denotative and connotative language from like words:

Denotative languageConnotative language
Birds are flying, feathered, bipedal animals.A bird in hand is better than a hundred flying.
There are very few stray dogs in this city.In this city we lead a dog’s life.
Venus and Mars are the closest planets to Earth.Men are from Mars and women are from Venus.
I’m very hungry right now.I am hungry for experiences and knowledge.
Today’s sky is full of clouds.Cristina always has her head in the clouds.
Cats are generally nocturnal animals.At night, all cats are gray.