Word Connotations

Contributor: Suzanne Riordan. Lesson ID: 13948

Would you rather be called lazy or relaxed? Nosy or curious? Stingy or thrifty? Words may have similar meanings but different connotations. Learn the effect of word choices, and write real estate ads!


Comprehension, Writing

English / Language Arts
learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Lion, Otter
Grade Level
Middle School (6-8)
Lesson Type
Skill Sharpener

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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Sometimes, we use words whose dictionary meanings are different from the meaning we're actually trying to get across.

Listen to a letter of recommendation a boss wrote for an employee who wasn't very good at his job in the video below.

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The above video is humorous because the letter of recommendation doesn't say anything bad about Willoughby, yet we get the idea that he was not a good worker!

  • What was the employer saying about Willoughby?
  1. Notice he says that Willoughby "has been on the payroll" instead of "has worked for" the organization. (This implies that he didn't do much work, but he did get paid.)
  1. The employer says he's "very willing to help him find another job." (This implies that he's eager to get rid of him.)
  1. His work, relationships with other workers, and appearance were "beyond description." (Was he so good that he was beyond description or so bad?)
  1. The employer "cannot praise him too highly." (Perhaps it is because he can't praise him at all!)
  1. The new employer "will be fortunate if he can get Willoughby to work for him." (The old employer couldn't get Willoughby to do his work, so he hopes the new employer can!)

This "letter of recommendation" demonstrates the difference between denotation and connotation.

  • What are those?


The denotation of a word is the dictionary meaning.

For example, the Merriam-Webster definition for the word hardworking is:

constantly, regularly, or habitually engaged in earnest and energetic work


While denotation tells us the definition of a word, connotation goes beyond what the dictionary says. It deals with how the word affects us and our connections with it.

A word may bring up certain emotions, or we may associate it with certain memories. When we read hardworking, we may think of someone with a lot of energy who works hard and never seems tired. We may be amazed at such a person, or we may admire them very much.

We may picture in our minds someone like this.


Hardworking has a positive connotation. Connotations can be positive, negative, or neutral. That usually depends on the context, but it can also depend on our experiences.

  • What if, instead of hardworking, we described someone as a workaholic?
  • That has a more negative connotation.

We may think of someone who always puts work first ahead of family, friends, and even their health.

man at office desk

Look at more examples of related words with negative, neutral, and positive connotations.

  Negative Neutral Positive
    impatient   excited   eager
    pushy   determined   driven
    isolated   alone   independent
    stubborn   firm   steadfast
    miserly   economical   frugal
    nosy   curious   inquisitive
    bossy   assertive   commanding


An easy way to remember the difference between denotation and connotation is that denotation starts with a d, and so does dictionary and definition! Connotation starts with a c, and it deals with the connections we have with the word.

  • Are you ready to test your knowledge of denotation and connotation?

Move on to the Got It? section now!

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