Semantic differential

The semantic differential is a scale used for measuring the meaning of things and concepts. There are two aspects of meaning: denotative and connotative. The semantic differential measures connotative meaning.

  • Denotation - what a name or concept refers to (denote - to mark out plainly, to indicate)
  • Connotation - the suggestive significance of a word, apart from its explicit and recognized meaning

Consider automobiles or school mascots. Names such as "Jaguar" or "Huskies" denote animals. Their connotation is power. In contrast, the "Oregon Ducks" project a different image or connotative meaning.

denotation = eagle, bird

connotation = strength, power

Creating the scale

The scale is set up using polar adjectives (opposite-meaning terms) at each end. After examining the connotative meaning of thousands of concepts, Charles Osgood and his associates identified three major dimensions of meaning: strength, value, and activity. The first two examples below fit the theme of strength. The second two represent value, and the last two illustrate activity.

Strong ____:____:____:____:____:____:____ Weak
Decisive ____:____:____:____:____:____:____ Indecisive
Good ____:____:____:____:____:____:____ Bad
Cheap ____:____:____:____:____:____:____ Expensive
Active ____:____:____:____:____:____:____ Passive
Lazy ____:____:____:____:____:____:____ Industrious

The respondent is asked to rate an object, person or any concept, by putting a mark on one of the 7 spaces along each dimension.

Layout and length

It is not necessary to use these particular sets of adjectives, or cover all three themes. Any set can be substituted, depending on the purpose of the research.

To avoid fatigue or boring the respondent, do not use more than 20 lines, and 10-12 adjective pairs is better. Using fewer is acceptable.

The location of the positive attributes should be varied from left to right. Do not put all the "good" adjectives on one side, as it might bias the responses.

Provide clear instructions for the respondent so that they put their marks in the right place. Otherwise, some people will circle the colons (:).

Instructions: Make your ratings by checking the appropriate space. For example,
Rate the current Secretary-General of the United Nations on each of the following dimensions:
Strong ____:____:____:____:____:____:____ Weak
Decisive ____:____:____:____:____:____:____ Indecisive
Good ____:____:____:____:____:____:____ Bad
Cheap ____:____:____:____:____:____:____ Expensive
Active ____:____:____:____:____:____:____ Passive
Lazy ____:____:____:____:____:____:____ Industrious

Although a 7-point scale is common, it is acceptable to provide fewer choices, 5 or even 3. For example,

Rate the park on the following dimensions:
Safe ____:____:____ Dangerous
Dirty ____:____:____ Clean
Quiet ____:____:____ Noisy


The blanks are numbered from 1 to 7 and then the responses are averaged for each dimension. The average is plotted on the form and provides a profile of the connotation of the target concept.

Here is an example of semantic differential results comparing the connotative meaning of a university and state college system. The differences on each dimension can be statistically analyzed.

State College


If respondents, despite the instructions, circle the colon, you can score the dimension using a midpoint. For example, if they circle the colon between the first and second space, score it as 1.5.

Results can be presented in a figure, as above. Or you can list the average scores on each dimension, and then draw conclusions.


The semantic differential requires respondents that are intelligent and cooperative. It requires respondents with a good knowledge of language, who are willing and able to make fine distinctions. It would not appropriate for children, unless presented in a simplified form.

When you have studied all the modules, take self-test #4

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