English Connotations Explored

scaleWould you rather be fat or chubby? If you said chubby – and most people would – you understand the idea of connotations – even if you have never heard to word before! You see, in English, as in other languages, words have both strict, factual definitions as well as emotional associations. We call the strict, dictionary definition of a word its denotation and we call the feelings or emotions associated with that word its connotations. As the example of fat and chubby demonstrates, these feelings can be positive or negative but they can also be formal or informal. In this case we are focused on positive and negative Although both words have a common denotation – overweight – most people would rather be chubby because chubby has more positive associations – connotations – than fat.

Examining Connotations in Detail

Let’s examine this idea a little more closely but looking at examples sentences which use both words:

Jane is fat.
Jane is chubby.

Both sentences are grammatically correct and complete because both words have the same denotation mentioned above: overweight. Their connotations are different, though, and because of this we can understand the difference between them. In the first sentence we are being negative and in the second sentence we are being positive. While both are a little unkind, chubby is much more gentle than fat!

Consider the difference between a house and home. Although both describe a place where people live, which one is more positive? If you said home, you would be right. Consider the following examples:

They are trying to sell the house down the street.
After a long day of playing in the snow, the family had hot chocolate at home.

As these examples show, a home is where a family lives while a house is exactly that: a dwelling. That is why real estate agents sell houses, not homes – only a family can make a home.

Take one last example to address the idea of formality. Do you know the difference between cool and interesting? These examples might help:

James and his friends think SB40 is a really cool band.
James is thinks astronomy is interesting.

In this case, while both describe something that captures the attention, cool is a more informal – social – word than interesting. While interesting is appropriate for all kinds of people, cool is best used among friends in informal settings.

Why is it important to learn connotative words?

Although it may seem tiring – or overwhelming – to learn so many alternatives for one concept, the importance of connotations cannot be understated in English. A good understanding of connotations is necessary for professional, academic, social or indeed any situation where it is important to send the correct message. Otherwise, we may offend or mislead someone or even be misunderstood completely!

Consider a cosmetics advertisement that offers a “healthy, juvenile appearance.” While juvenile has the same denotation as youthful, because juvenile has the added connotation of “immature,” and is associated not with beauty but with children. As a result, it will probably not convince a lot of people to buy the product!

So what can you do about it?

In much the same way Rome was not built in a day, connotations cannot be mastered overnight. Practice is crucial but in our experience a slow and steady approach is the way to master this topic. After all, too much of anything can be overwhelming! So instead of studying word lists until you are blue in the face let us help you. For more on improving your English skills, check out our Learning English Center.