The denotation of a word is its literal definition; the one you find in a dictionary. The connotation, however, refers to the suggested meaning, including associations and emotional implications. Both “scrawny” and “slender” have similar denotations, but “scrawny” sounds inferior or sickly, while “slender” evokes a more graceful or positive image. Understanding the connotations of words can enhance description, meaning, and tone.
Neglecting a word’s connotations can put your word choice in conflict with your intentions. Let’s say I’m writing a scene about a young woman who has just arrived in Paris, a trip she’s eagerly anticipated as her first solo adventure. At the airport, she finds a taxi:
She heaved her luggage into the trunk.
The word “luggage” implies she’s weighted down and “heaved” suggests effort. This moment seems more burdensome than what I intended for this young traveler. Here’s a revision:
She swung her pack into the trunk.
The moment feels lighter and more energetic, which is more appropriate for the start of this exciting trip. And the shift in meaning is accomplished with attention to connotation.