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Evaluating Connotation
Author: Sydney Bauer

This lesson explains how to evaluate the connotation of vocabulary words.

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Evaluating the Connotation of a Vocabulary Word


Quick reminder! Connotations are the feelings, images, and associations that are attached to words. Rather than be a word’s literal meaning, connotation is what a word implies. Words can share similar meanings or definitions, but evoke different responses from readers.


For example, compare the terms tombstone and headstone: they are both slabs of stone that are set at the head of a grave, and engraved with the dead person’s name, dates of birth and death, or other personal information. The difference lies in the connotation of each word.

Tombstone usually has negative connotations:

  • It contains the word tomb which most people associate with mysterious crypts that are hundreds of years old
  • It is commonly associated with Western themed books and movies.

Headstone usually has positive (or even neutral) connotations:

  • It is a more literal term: a headstone is a stone you place at the head of a grave. (a tombstone on the other hand sounds like a stone someone took from a tomb!)


So what’s the best way to evaluate the connotations of vocabulary words?

  • It’s important to first make sure you understand what the word means and how it is used in the book or assigned reading. Read the sentence containing the word to see how it is used by the author. You might need to read the sentence before/after it as well.
  • Keep in mind that the connotation of a vocabulary word will also depend on the overall tone of the book or assigned reading. You’ll want to determine the tone of the writing: is it positive or negative? What is the author or speaker’s attitude towards the audience or subject matter?
  • Now compare the tone and the way the word is used by the author to make your evaluation. What is the author implying by using that word in that way?


Let’s see this plan in action!

The following is a vocabulary word pulled from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “Wakefield” (1835).  First determine the tone of the writing. The narrator (speaker) seems to be both amazed and amused by Wakefield’s actions, but at the same time he calls Wakefield a fool, and comes across as a little negative.


Tone: amazed, amused, condescending, and somewhat playful


FREAK: an oddity, odd person, a whimsical disposition, and one who has sudden mood swings, or changes of mind.

Author’s use of the term: Howbeit, this, though far from the most aggravated, is perhaps the strangest instance on record of marital delinquency; and, moreover, as remarkable a freak as may be found in the whole list of human oddities.


If we combine the definition, tone, and how the term is used in the sentence, we could say that freak has negative connotations. The author mentions human oddities (like freaks in a circus sideshow) and uses words like aggravated, strangest, delinquency. There is also an undertone of amazement as the author uses the word “remarkable.” 

Source: Definitions from Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary

Evaluating the Connotations of a Vocabulary Word