Posted by: J. Thomas Ross | July 11, 2017

Word Meaning vs Definition: Denotation, Connotation, and Interpretation

What do you do when you encounter a word you don’t know? Most people would answer: look it up in the dictionary. With current technology, looking up a word’s definition is easier than ever, but is a definition enough for a writer?

According to the dictionary with my word processing program [Word Perfect], definition means:

1 a statement of the exact meaning of a word or the nature or scope of something. 2 the action or process of defining. 3 the degree of distinctness in outline of an object or image.

When I come across a definition worded like the second one, I feel like pulling out my hair. Using a form of the word to give its meaning is not helpful unless you already know what the word means. The first definition, on the other hand, is clear. While that definition is sufficient for most people, the “exact definition” of a given word might not be enough for a writer.

One important task of a writer is choosing the best words to convey meaning. While this seems straightforward, it can be more complex than people think. Writers can’t always count on readers understanding the meaning the writer intends. Too many variables come into play.

First, the word may have more than one denotation [the direct, explicit meaning or reference of a word or term* — in other words, the definition], so the reader has to rely on the context [the parts of a sentence, paragraph, discourse, etc. immediately next to or surrounding a specific word or passage and determining its exact meaning*] to supply the key to which meaning is intended in that instance. If the context is not clear, the reader may be confused.

I experienced this confusion recently when my critique group met. One of our members used a word with multiple meanings in a sentence without clear context. While the word was used correctly, the first definition that popped into the minds of the other four of us was far different from the one our friend intended — which popped us out of the story when we discovered from context a few sentences later that our first impression was wrong. We advised our friend to either use another word or add enough context to that sentence to make the meaning clear. [Finding such things is one of the benefits of having a critique group or partner.]

Second, in addition to multiple meanings, certain words have a connotation [idea or notion suggested by or associated with a word, phrase, etc. in addition to its explicit meaning, or denotation*] not included in the dictionary’s definitions. Connotations often express either positive or negative feelings or attitudes. For instance, referring to a character as an “intellectual” evokes quite a different impression from referring to the character as a “nerd.” [Making you aware of connotations you may not intend is another function of a critique group.]

If you’re a writer, this probably isn’t the first time you’ve heard about denotation and connotation. While these concepts are important for writers to consider, over the years I’ve realized that there’s a third part involved in arriving at the exact meaning of a word: interpretation.

Throughout our lives we learn the meaning of words not by reading their dictionary definitions but through their contexts. We hear people (who may themselves have a skewed idea of the meaning) using words in speaking or we read them in print, and we figure out what the word means from how others use it. Thus, we know what words mean — sort of.

How many times have you been asked what a word means and have struggled to put its meaning into words? One of the reasons for this difficulty is that our conception of a word’s meaning is imprecise because we haven’t learned it from a dictionary. In fact, each of us has put together an individualized notion of each word we know. Most of the time our notions aren’t much different from others people’s, but confusion and misunderstanding can result when there’s a sizeable discrepancy between what a writer or speaker means and what a reader or listener understands — something a writer especially must strive to avoid.

We’ve all experienced this kind of confusion. For instance, most of us have family, friends, and acquaintances whose concept of time varies considerably from our own. If one of them tells you they’ll be ready “in just a minute,” that minute may vary in length from your spouse’s actual minute, to your friend’s five minutes, to your child’s “when I finish this game,” to a coworker’s “when I get around to it.”

This was borne into me in recent months as I noticed a huge discrepancy between my surgeon’s** definition of “healed” and my own. My surgeon considered me healed in three months. I disagreed. I’ve had other, less complex surgeries, and it took a lot longer to heal than the two to three months the doctors claimed it would take. I finally realized that the surgeons’ definition for the word “healed” is not the same as mine. To these surgeons, I am healed when the incisions and bones have knit back together. I understand that, but until all the stiffness, discomfort, numbness, etc. has gone away, I don’t consider myself healed.

So, I don’t agreed that the definition really gives the “exact meaning” of the word. The definition gives the denotation, but a writer must also consider the connotation and the reader’s interpretation to obtain the precise meaning of a word.

That said, I acknowledge that if a writer took the time to carefully examine all nuances of the meaning of each word, few books would be completed. So, just write your story. Don’t stress over variations in word meaning while writing your first draft, but keep it in the back of your mind. The revision stage is when the issue of word meaning needs to be addressed, and editors and critique partners can provide help with this.

Writers help writers. If you don’t have a writing group or critique partner, consider finding one. Another person’s perspective can be invaluable.

*Definitions according to Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition © 2001.

**For more about my surgery, check out my post from May — Inspiration: Celebrate Nature! Celebrate Life!

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