Most people go through life using language haphazardly. That’s how we get words like irregardless, which has the exact same meaning as regardless.
But writers, and especially poets, don’t have the luxury of throwing words around. Clear and compelling prose and verse demand that we pay due diligence to the words we choose. We look for the most precise and accurate words available to express any given idea.
Words have two basic meanings: denotation and connotation. Let’s find out the difference between the two and look at how we, as writers, can use denotation and connotation to strengthen our prose and verse.
Denotation is the literal meaning of a word, the dictionary definition.
The word mom means a female parent. The word mother also means a female parent. These two words share the same definition (and therefore the same denotation), but as we’ll soon see, they can have very different connotations.
Language evolves over time through common usage, and words acquire cultural and emotional overtones. Connotation is the implied meaning of a word, which goes beyond its dictionary definition.
Connotation could also be thought of as the flavor of a word. Mom and mother both have the same dictionary definition, but these words have different flavors once we put them into context. Consider the following sentences:
Mom, can I audition for the school play?
Mother, may I audition for the school play?
The word Mom has an intimate and casual connotation whereas Mother carries a more formal overtone. These words have the same meaning but the subtext is different. This is due, in part, to context. Mother may sound formal in the example sentence above, but there may be contexts in which that is not the case:
She’s a loving and devoted mother.
As we can see, a word might express different connotations in different contexts.
Using Denotation and Connotation in Poetry Writing
In poetry writing, denotation and connotation are critical considerations. A key component of poetry is word choice and the language we use to express thoughts, ideas, and images. Denotation and connotation allow us to choose words that give our poetry greater depth and deeper meaning.
Some words have multiple definitions. Most writers will default to the simplest word and most common definition. If they want to show a detective chasing a suspect through a forest, they might say the detective sprinted through the trees. But a poet will look for a word that can be used more fully: the detective darted through the trees.
The word sprint works because it means “to run fast,” but the word dart deepens the meaning because it denotes running fast, a spear-like weapon, and a small projectile that is shot at a target. All of these definitions underscore what is happening when a detective is chasing a suspect.
Although these literary devices aren’t exclusive to poetry (they are found in all forms of writing), poets tend to make the best use of denotation and connotation because the craft of poetry emphasizes language and word choice. Poets spend an inordinate amount of time laboring over word choices, searching for language that perfectly expresses whatever the poet wants to say.
Writers outside the realm of poetry can learn a lot from poetic devices like denotation and connotation, using these tools and techniques to enrich their own work, whether they write fiction, creative nonfiction, or anything else.
Are you a poet? Do you ever pause to carefully consider your word choices? Have you ever applied the concepts of denotation or connotation to your writing? Share your thoughts and experiences by leaving a comment, and keep writing!