That’s not what I meant – Words can interfere with communication – Denotative and connotative meanings

By David Joel Miller MS Licensed Therapist & Licensed Counselor.

Why what you thought I meant and what I meant to say get so far apart.


Looking it up in the dictionary won’t help.
Photo courtesy of

Even when we talk with someone in the same language and we think we should both know what the other one is talking about, we can walk away shaking our heads about how far apart our understandings are of the conversation.

These misunderstandings often get attributed to other people lying to us. It is not unusual for two people both engaged in an argument to accuse each other of lying. To the outside observer, it sounds like they are talking about two unrelated topics.

One cause of these disagreements is the different meanings we ascribe to the words we use. The things we say begin as thoughts in our heads. We can make a strong argument that thoughts are largely mental words or self-talk. Those thoughts are strongly influenced by our feelings before they leave our body via speech and action.

Words are symbolic and there is not a direct one to one correlation between thoughts and words. We can and often do disagree about what word best describes a thing or a feeling. Then our thoughts need to be transferred into words sent to the other person and then decoded. There is plenty of room for error in this process.

Consider the common two finger gesture. Sometimes this is interpreted as a “peace sign” and other times as the sign for victory. Words frequently have multiple meanings.

Four discrepancies in the way we attach meanings to words can result in garbled communication even when we think we are being clear and that we understand what the other person is saying. Those four communication traps are the differences between “denotative” meanings and “connotative” meanings, personal idiosyncratic meanings and slang.

What slang words mean.

Slang words require both people using them to attach the same meaning to the expression. They change over time and vary between subcultures.

Consider the word “hot.” To a weatherman, it could mean an above average temperature or a day in the hundreds. To the scientist, this may be a statement about the amount of energy the item contains. To someone else, this may mean something that is new, in fashion or desirable.

So the person in the shop points to an item on the table and says “that new part is really hot.” The apprentice quickly picks it up and then screams in pain. He expected this new part to be something novel that he might want. His coworker was warning him about the items temperature and potential to harm. See how using a word in multiple ways can obscure communication?

Denotative meanings.

Denotative meaning is what the dictionary says the word means. Look up most words in a dictionary and you will find that there are multiple definitions for the same word. Check many dictionaries and you get alternative meanings.

Most of us have learned a large number of words from hearing others use them in speech. We haven’t looked up every word and while we can feel pretty sure we know what we mean when we say the word we can’t be sure someone else has the same meaning in mind.

If I were to say that someone had been staring at the moon too long – what might you think I meant? That they are in love from too much time in the moonlight? That they had gone crazy as in becoming a “lunatic.” Or do we mean that they and their friends have been exposing their naked rear ends a lot? It would make a lot of difference in our conversation.

What is a connotative meaning?

Connotation is when a meaning is implied or attached to something in addition to its basic denotative meaning. For a long time, black has been attached to bad, evil or another negative opinion. If I describe someone’s character as black, it makes a lot of difference whether I am talking about someone from the African-American community who exemplifies what an African-American should be or if I were describing a Caucasian who is doing some evil things.

Idiosyncratic meanings.

Sometimes words develop a specific meaning for a person or group of people because of a particular experience.

Say a man came from a family that had a dog when he was a young child. For whatever reason he had difficulty saying the word dog and used its name, Spot to called the pet. From then on all dogs became “Spot.”  To this day if someone uses the word spot in a conversation this family will laugh and think of that dog. This has resulted in some embarrassing moments at the dry cleaners.

Other people might hear the word spot and think of a place they had visited, a stain on the carpet or an ad on T. V. The online dictionary I use listed 21 meanings for the word spot.

So when we consider that words can have so many different meanings, is it any wonder that we can have a conversation, think we have conveyed some meaning and then later find that what we said was totally misconstrued.

The real wonder is that with all this confusion we are able to communicate at all.

Staying connected with David Joel Miller

Three David Joel Miller Books are available now!

Bumps on the Road of Life. Whether you struggle with anxiety, depression, low motivation, or addiction, you can recover. Bumps on the Road of Life is the story of how people get off track and how to get your life out of the ditch.

Casino Robbery is a novel about a man with PTSD who must cope with his symptoms to solve a mystery and create a new life.

SasquatchWandering through a hole in time, they encounter Sasquatch. Can they survive? The guests had come to Meditation Mountain to find themselves. Trapped in the Menhirs during a sudden desert storm, two guests move through a porthole in time and encounter long extinct monsters. They want to get back to their own time, but the Sasquatch intends to kill them.

For these and my upcoming books; please visit my Author Page – David Joel Miller

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For more about David Joel Miller and my work in the areas of mental health, substance abuse, and Co-occurring disorders see my Facebook author’s page, davidjoelmillerwriter. If you are in the Fresno California area, information about my private practice is at

5 thoughts on “That’s not what I meant – Words can interfere with communication – Denotative and connotative meanings

  1. Pingback: Why worry may not be a bad thing | counselorssoapbox

  2. Pingback: 3 reasons why people keep telling you that | counselorssoapbox

  3. Pingback: Are you a Mind Reader? | counselorssoapbox

  4. I read somewhere that studies (?!) have shown that 90% of communication is misunderstood. (though whether I understood that correctly, could be a moot point !). Theres often more going on than meets the eye, for sure 🙂


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