Denotative and Connotative Meaning


  1. Choose your words strategically
  2. Uncover author’s bias

denotative meaning (dictionary definition) – Mom – female biological parent

connotative meaning (all other implied meanings) – Mom – nurturer, confidant, protector etc.

In the 1980s, there was a group of people trying to overthrow the government in Afghanistan called the “Afghan Freedom Fighters.” In the early 1990s, there was a group of people trying to overthrow the Somali government called, “Somali War Lords.” Why is this significant in a lesson about the use of language in persuasion and connotation?

The point is that it matters which words you choose. What difference does it make if you use the word “buddy” instead of “friend?” What does it say about your relationship to the person about whom you are speaking? Does one word define the setting as more formal? In other words, would you use “buddy” in a conversation but “friend” in a business letter.

Exercise 1: Pretend you are preparing a pro-life speech to be delivered to a mixed audience.  You must decide how to refer to your opposition from the three choices below. Choose one and explain why you think it will be more effective than the other two.

  1. “pro-choice,”
  2. “anti-life,”
  3. “baby killers”


Exercise 2: Choose a word in the article excerpt below that has a strong connotative meaning. (Choose one of the article’s author’s words, not a word that she quoted.) For the word you chose, think of two words that the author could have used instead—one that increases the connotative meaning and one that decreases the connotative meaning. For example, in the excerpt below the word “require” (in green below) could be replaced by the word “demand” using connotation to increase the blame on the church, or the word “require” could be replaced by the word “ask” decreasing the blame on the church. 

EXCERPTS FROM: “AIDS Death Rate High For Catholic Priests” BY JUDY L. THOMAS. Mercury News Staff Writer Maya Suryaraman contributed. (Knight Ridder News Service, Posted at 12:09 a.m. PST Monday, January 31, 2000.)

Hundreds of Roman Catholic priests across the United States have died of AIDS-related illnesses, and hundreds more are living with HIV, the virus that causes the disease. The actual number of AIDS deaths is hard to determine. But it appears priests are dying of AIDS at a rate at least four times that of the general U.S. population, according to estimates from medical experts and priests and an analysis of health statistics by the Kansas City Star. The deaths are of such concern to the church that most dioceses and religious orders now require applicants for the priesthood to take an AIDS antibody test before ordination…

Education needed, priests say
Most priests, however, said the church failed to offer an early and effective sexual education that might have prevented infection in the first place. Two-thirds said sexuality either was not addressed at all or was not discussed adequately in the seminary. Three of four said the church needed to offer more education about sexual issues. “Sexuality still needs to be talked about and dealt with,” said the Rev. Dennis Rausch, a priest with AIDS who runs an AIDS ministry program for Catholic Charities in the Archdiocese of Miami. “I’ve been trying to get into the seminary here for the last several years to do an awareness course for the guys, so when they come out, they at least have some knowledge.” Thomas Shanks, former director of the Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, a Jesuit school, said he was not surprised by the study’s findings…

Church’s failing
Moreover, by treating homosexual acts as an abomination and the breaking of celibacy vows as shameful, the church has scared priests into silence, some say. “I think this speaks to a failure on the part of the church,” said Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Gumbleton of the Archdiocese of Detroit. “Gay priests and heterosexual priests didn’t know how to handle their sexuality, their sexual drive. And so they would handle it in ways that were not healthy. “How to be celibate and to be gay at the same time, and how to be celibate and heterosexual at the same time, that’s what we were never really taught how to do. And that was a major failing.” Roman Catholic cardinals in the United States and high-ranking church officials in Rome declined requests to discuss the issue or the newspaper’s findings…

Consider the author’s bias – What percentage of the blame does THE AUTHOR place on the priests, the church, and no one? ____% priests ____% church ____% no one