Examples for language: connotations

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I’ve developed several examples to explain the differences in connotative and denotative definitions in language and why they are important for a public speaker.

First, I offer a mnemonic device:

  • D is for dictionary = D is for denotative. The denotative is the dictionary definition of the term.

This helps to keep the types of definitions straight.

Then I offer several examples:

  1. “High school.” Some people hear these words and are reminded of the best time of their life but for others it is the worst.
  2. “9/11”: If you look up nine and eleven in the dictionary it is nothing at all like what we think of when we hear those words together. Each of us defines these words in terms of our memories, experiences, and, probably, our politics. This is what connotative definitions are about and how they can vary from person to person.
  3. “Quiz vs. Test”: Ask the students to talk about classes that have only tests and those that have only quizzes. Do they prepare differently for them? I let them know that after changing my syllabus from four unit quizzes to four unit tests, the scores increased by 20% although I did not change anything else about them.
  4. Names are also connotative. If you were told you were going to meet a Gladys and a Zoe later in the day, would you have different expectations about them? That is why names go in and out of style and many choose nicknames or variations on their names. It is also why we so often see name changes in literature: Tom Riddle –> Lord Valdemort, Saul –> Paul in the Bible, etc. For example, before 1961 Norman was on the top 10 names for men for decades. After 1960 it completely fell off the list, does anyone know why? Answer: Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 film “Psycho” featured a serial killer named Norman Bates.

You can also create sentences with a blank for one word and have various options that are similar but not quite the same. For example, “After the late movie, we were _____.” You could have options like tired, exhausted, whooped, sleepy, punchy and have students discuss how the choice of word changes the implications in the sentence.

It is also fun to do short-answer test questions with this idea. Give students words to choose like school, terrorism, drug, argument, etc. and have them identify a possible denotative and connotative definition for the term.


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About teachingpublicspeaking

I believe public speaking can go from most dreaded class to favorite class. I'm a former public speaking college instructor who spent years seeking out activities, assignments and examples to make the class interactive as well as educational -- they are collected here. I welcome suggestions for additions.

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