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Today on Everyday Grammar, we will explore the meanings of words considering how we think and feel about them. We will learn how to choose the best words based on their definitions and additional meanings, or connotations, when we speak or write.


Unlike the definitions that we find in our dictionaries, called denotations, there are different meanings associated with a word that give us more information about it. These are called the connotations of a word. The connotation can tell us if the word is more intense or less intense, if it is positive, pleasing to the speaker, or negative, something that is unpleasant to the speaker. Sometimes these associations can even be emotional or cultural.

Negative, neutral and positive connotations

Words can fall within a range of negative, neutral, or positive connotations. We can use a line graph to show where words fall within such a range.

Consider the word “smell.” The definition of the word smell is “something sensed by the nose.” A general association of “smell” is neutral, meaning that it could be positive or negative depending on its use in a sentence.

Other words that have the same basic meaning of “sensed by the nose” include words like “scent” and “odor.”

Let us look at these examples:

The scent of the flowers welcomes you to the garden.

A “scent” is a smell, but the association is positive. The smell of the flowers is very pleasant.

The odor of old fish filled the market.

“Odor” is also a smell, but the connotation can be negative and unpleasant. If the fish is old, it would not have a very good smell.

The smell of old books helps me to remember my childhood library.

The smell of old books could be positive or negative depending on the person, so it is neutral.

Everyday Grammar: Connotation
Everyday Grammar: Connotation


Words also have different strength or intensity associations. Words can be strong or more intense to weak or less intense. We can also show this kind of connotation with a line graph as a range.

Everyday Grammar: Connotation
Everyday Grammar: Connotation

Let us compare these sentences:

The restaurant was filled with the scent of coffee.

The smell of bread baking made me hungry.

“Scent” may be slightly stronger than “smell” in this sentence because the smell of the coffee could fill the whole restaurant.

The baseball players’ clothes have a strong odor

An “odor” is often a very intense smell.

Other examples of connotation

Words can also carry emotional and cultural connotations.

Consider this example:

I woke up to the aroma of hot chocolate on a snowy morning.

Here the words “aroma” and “hot chocolate” create a warm and relaxing feeling even during the cold morning. An “aroma” is also a smell. The connotation is very positive and strong. We often use it to describe the smell of food.

Cultural connotations are specific to a country, culture, or people.

For example in the United States, apple pie, a favorite sweet food, is associated with being American.

How to choose the right connotation

It is helpful to not only look up the definition of words within a dictionary, but to look up synonyms of a word in a thesaurus to understand different connotations.

For cultural and emotional connotations, ask people for their feelings about the word or if it has any importance in their culture or country.

If a teacher or native speaker tells you not to use a word, ask them about the connotation of the word.

You can also read books, magazines, internet stories and social media to compare the use of words in different situations.

Closing thoughts

Today we looked at the connotations of words. Connotations are associations that expand the meaning of a word. These can change depending on the sentence. Connotations can be positive, neutral, or negative. And connotations of words can range from more intense to less intense. These associations can also be emotional or cultural.

Let us end this report with some homework. Can you think of some more synonyms for the word “smell” that have different connotations? Maybe a word that is just as positive as "aroma," or even more negative and more intense than “odor?” Can you think of any cultural connotations that you know of?

Write your answers in the comments below!

I’m Faith Pirlo

Faith Pirlo wrote this report for VOA Learning English.


Words in This Story

associated – adj. connected or related to

range – n. a group or collection of different things or people that are usually similar in some way

garden – n. an area of ground where plants (such as flowers or vegetables) are grown

library –n. a place where books, magazines, and other materials (such as videos and musical recordings) are available for people to use or borrow

baking –v. to cook in an oven using dry heat

aroma n. a noticeable and usually pleasant smell

synonyms n. a word that is similar in meaning to another word

thesaurus – n. a type of dictionary for synonyms