All terms

What is Denotation?

Literal meaning of a word.

Word Meanings 101: Getting to Know Denotation

When writing creatively, one of the most important aspects to consider is word choice and the meanings of those words. Enter the term denotation, which refers to the literal meaning of a word.

While this may seem like a simple concept, it's crucial to keep in mind when crafting any piece of writing. Words have definitions that we can look up in a dictionary, and as a writer, it's important to use them correctly to effectively communicate your message.

For example, if you're writing a descriptive passage about a tree, you may use the word 'bark'. 'Bark' has a denotative meaning of the protective outer layer of a tree trunk. However, if you were to describe a dog barking, the use of the word 'bark' takes on a different denotative meaning: a sound made by a dog.

By paying attention to the denotative meanings of words, writers can create clear and concise prose that conveys exactly what they intend. So the next time you sit down to write, remember to think not just about what you want to say, but also how you say it and what each individual word means.

Denotation in Literature: Learning from Masters

Understanding denotation is crucial for any writer, but seeing how the masters use it in their own writing can be illuminating. Here are two examples that demonstrate the power of word choice and literal meaning.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

When describing the character Jordan Baker, Fitzgerald uses the phrase 'wan, charming discontented face'. The denotative meanings of the words 'wan' and 'discontented' describe her physical appearance and emotional state respectively, while the word 'charming' juxtaposes with this to create a unique and complex description.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Lee uses the word 'folks' when describing the townspeople of Maycomb. The denotative meaning of the word, 'people', is accurate, but the use of the word 'folks' also conveys a small-town, folksy atmosphere that contributes to the overall mood of the novel.