How to Use Denotation
The way to use denotation is simple—choose words for their meaning, not the feelings they create or the associations they may have. Denotative meaning should be used when writing objectively. In truth, a word’s denotative is very limiting and restrictive for authors; thus, they typically rely on connotative meanings when writing in all subjective and creative forms—just as we do in everyday speech. All language relies on both denotation and connotation, but denotation is mostly relied upon for words with neutral connotation, like objects. For example, the word “car” has a neutral connotation, so its only significance is its denotation—its literal meaning.
People often misuse words because they do not understand their denotation. For instance it is very common in today’s speech to use the word “literally” for exaggeration, when in fact, people are not being literal at all. For example, “It is so hot I am literally going to melt.” The meaning that people want to purvey with this expression is that it is so hot that they feel like they could melt. They are not literally, in reality, going to melt.
When to Use Denotation
Denotation is used when an author wants the reader to understand a word, phrase, or sentence in its literal form, without other implied, associated, or suggested meanings. Accordingly, it isn’t a good choice to employ words or phrases by their denotation when you are trying to be descriptive, or create feelings or emotional responses with your words. The best time to choose words or phrases based on their denotation is when you want to convey a straightforward and clear meaning, i.e., when you want your words to be understood objectively, not subjectively. Accordingly, denotative meanings are most relevant in academic writing and reference works like encyclopedias; and are less valuable in creative writing.