Would 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 the word before.

noun \ˌkä-nə-ˈtā-shən\
an idea or quality that a word makes you think about in addition to its meaning
Webster's Dictionary

In English, as in other languages, words have 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. Connotations can also be formal or informal. In this case, we are focused on the positive or negative connotation of the word. Although both words have a common denotation (overweight), most people would rather be chubby, because chubby has more positive connotations and less negative connotations than fat does.

Examining Connotations in Detail

Let’s examine this idea a little more closely by looking at example sentences which use both words.

Example 1: Positive and Negative Connotations — “Fat” vs. “Chubby”

Sentence 1:
Jane is fat.
Very overweight; Obese; Thick; Greasy.

Sentence 2:
Jane is chubby.
Somewhat overweight; Plump; Babies; Cherubs.

Both sentences are grammatically correct and complete. Both sentences use words that 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 very negative, and in the second sentence, we are being positive. While both sentences are unkind, “chubby” is much more gentle than “fat”, and less likely to get you in trouble!

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:

Example 2: Positive and Negative Connotations — “House” vs. “Home”

Sentence 1:
They are trying to sell the house down the street.
Strangers; Empty.

Sentence 2:
After a long day of playing in the snow, the family had hot chocolate at home.
Family; Memories.

As these examples show, a home is where a family lives emotionally, 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:

Example 3: Formal and Informal (Social) Connotations — “Interesting” vs. “Cool”

Sentence 1:
James and his friends think SB40 is a really cool band.
Informal; Slang.

Sentence 2:
James thinks astronomy is interesting.

While both sentences in the example describe something that captures the attention, “cool” is a more informal word than the word “interesting” is. While “interesting” is appropriate for use with all kinds of people and in almost any setting, “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 alternative words for one concept, the importance of connotations in English cannot be overstated. A deep 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.” Juvenile has the same denotation as youthful, but juvenile has the added connotation of “immature,” and is associated not with beauty, but with children. As a result, the advertisement will probably not convince a lot of people to buy the product!

So what can you do about it?

In much the same way as 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 assistance improving your English skills, check out our Learning English Center.

Subscribe to newsletter

Stay up to date with the latest information