A Primer to Logic: Use of Words – Connotation and Denotation

In my previous post, we  discussed use or mention of words. We now focus on categorizing two specific uses of a word. The first is that of connotation. The connotation of a word (its intensional meaning) refers to the characteristics or attributes implied by that word. For instance, the word “human” connotes the attributes of being able to reason about simple and complex issues, being able to communicate verbally and nonverbally, being able to form value judgments, being created in the image of God, and so on. In short, the connotation of a word consists of those attributes that make up the essence of a particular class. Note that when we speak of what a word connotes, we usually refer to a word that serves as a noun, pronoun, object, or indirect object of a sentence.

Further, the word can either refer to a concrete object or idea (such as “human”), or an abstract word or idea. Take for example Romans 13:10:

Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law (Rom. 13:10, ESV)

In this verse, “love” is the subject of both clauses, thus it is incumbent upon the reader to know what the word connotes in order to understand the link Paul makes between one’s action toward their neighbor and fulfilling the law of God.   A difficulty with abstract words such as “love,” though, is that it can be difficult to nail down the essential attributes that define them. Ask a number of individuals to define love, and you will get just as many definitions. Because there are some words or ideas that are difficult to define, it is often easier to point to an example of or describe what they look like.

Despite this difficulty, philosophers and theologians alike over the centuries have sought to define such abstract words and ideas. If ideas of love, justice, and evil (to name a few) are of such importance and are universal to mankind, then it behooves us to seek to understand what such words connote. For the Christian, what love connotes is found in the word of God; though we can see examples of love exhibited by believers and unbelievers, it is only through knowing who God is through his revelation that we can better understand what love is. As such, love is a commitment between two parties; it is the sacrificing of one’s desires for those of another, and so on. This discussion alludes to an important concept that will be discussed in a later post—the role that the setting and the context of a word plays. It is good to point out now that the context in which a word is used serves as a necessary and useful tool in determining the connotation of a word.

In addition to a word’s connotation is its denotation (or its extension). A word’s denotation is those things which the word refers to.  Whereas a word’s connotation refers to its essential characteristics and attributes, its denotation are the specific things referenced to by the word. For instance, “human” denotes Augustine, Jonathan Edwards, and Alvin Plantinga. When it comes to “love,” it denotes various actions that exhibit love, such as the act of marriage, the giving of one’s time to help another in need, and, ultimately, Christ’s laying down his life in our place.

Why, though, is it important to understand the distinction between what a word connotes and what it denotes? As stated earlier, simply understood, an argument consists of words put together in a coherent and logical manner in order to support a claim; the goal of the argument is to persuade others to support the given claim as opposed to the rejection of that claim. What the arguer intends for the words to connote and denote plays a crucial role in the outcome of the argument, and it plays a significant role in the audience’s determination of the argument’s validity and whether the claim should be accepted or not. Unfortunately, it is not always clear what a word connotes or denotes. Sometimes the problem arises because the arguer intentionally obscures the intended meaning; most times, however, the problem arises due to problematic language.

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