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Communicating Using Words


How Words Work

Shades Of Meaning


General Precautions

Language Barrier

Communicating Using Words

You may wonder why this chapter is not called "Verbal Communication". That would certainly contrast nicely with the next chapter heading, which is Non-verbal Communication. However, many people assume that "verbal communication" refers to spoken communication only, thus excluding written communication. That is why, although it is rather clumsy, I use the term "communicating using words" when I am referring to spoken and/or written communication.

Communicating using words inevitably means using a language – a system which governs the use of agreed sounds or other symbols in order to exchange information. Like the basic communication process itself, language is an enormous topic, about which I will say a little in an appendix (Appendix 2) and almost nothing in the book itself.

I will mention a few very general points about language in this chapter, but they will all be oversimplifications. Everything in Appendix 2 is also an oversimplification. Countless thousands of pages have been written about language, by people who know far more about it than I do, but all I intend to do here is to include a few thoughts which I hope may be helpful.

Because this chapter addresses one very important method of attempting to share meaning, I will paraphrase the brief remarks I made about information and meaning in the first chapter before continuing. This may seem a little repetitious, but I think it is critical to understanding the present chapter.

Even though it exists within each individual mind, meaning is never fully transferable. All communication is subject to this limitation, whether we like it or not. The sender and the receiver have different sense organs and different cognitive function. They are also subject to many other influences which can affect the meaning ultimately assigned to a message.

Factors such as the choice of words, the surrounding words and sentences, various language features, sentence structure, timing, stress, intonation, and the overall structure and organisation of a message, all exert an influence on the meaning ultimately attributed to it. So do the individual characteristics of the sender and the receiver, as well as any other messages they are exchanging at or about the same time.

The pre-existing knowledge of both parties, the relationship between them, the method and form of the delivery of information, the purpose of the communication, the audience for which it is designed and the overall situation in which it occurs, including both local and distant events, also play their part. This chapter, and indeed every chapter, must be read in the light of these unavoidable uncertainties regarding meaning.


How Words Work

It is a truism, but still worth remembering, that communication via words can only be successful if the sender and receiver have a language in common, and use it. The successful representation and transfer of information will be useless if that representation means nothing to the receiver.

We are so used to using words to communicate, that we usually don't think of the process as being in any way unusual or special. Nevertheless, communicating using words, whether spoken or written, does have some very special advantages.

These advantages all flow from the fact that the information is encoded. Any language, such as the English language I am using now, is a type of code. That code has three main elements: words, the rules which govern the way those words are used, and the context in which the words are used.

The context, broadly speaking, consists of the surrounding words, the way the words are delivered, any concurrent messages, and the overall circumstances in which the communication occurs. This in fact adds up to a very large part of language, potentially including all the types of influence on meaning discussed near the end of the first chapter.

Of course, encoding can be a decided disadvantage if the code is not known. However, this is not a problem as long as the common language requirement is met. Then, although no language can exactly represent the content of human consciousness, the net benefit of language is considerable.

Firstly, because a word has a definition, its meaning is usually fairly precise. Of course, this virtue is somewhat diluted if a word has more than one meaning, or if the definition of its meaning lacks precision. Even then, though, the context is usually sufficient to clarify the intended meaning of a word – though, as previously discussed, the overall meaning is at the mercy of many influences and cannot be exactly controlled.

Another advantage, which flows naturally from the first, is that a relatively few words, each possessed of a significant amount of agreed meaning, can express a total amount of meaning which might take a long time to impart, if there were no defined words to cover the subject matter. We can therefore add efficiency to the relative precision already mentioned.

A third advantage of words is the flexibility of management which results from their coded nature. This allows many operations to be performed on collections of words. A few examples are convenient storage, repeated editing and translation into other languages. There is some more about this in Appendix 2 and Appendix 4, but for now we can simply add convenience to the precision and efficiency already noted.

Human languages evolve continuously through the use of spoken words, becoming more useful and usually also more complex. The later addition of writing increases their usefulness yet further, and considerably so. Although speaking and writing are both methods of delivering words to a receiver, there are some important differences between them.

Not only is it routine to use slightly different vocabulary and grammar, depending on whether the communication is spoken or written, but the physical representation of words as sounds bears virtually no relationship at all to their physical representation as written or printed text.

The non-verbal messages which accompany words may also seem subtly different, according to whether they are heard or seen. In addition, while the sender is usually not in a position to observe a person who is reading a written message, the sender usually can observe the effect of a spoken message. Such observation can lead to the correction of misunderstandings.

An important practical point, when giving instructions or explanations in the form of spoken words, is that it is best to follow up with the same information clearly set out in written or printed text. While the general meaning may have been understood and remembered, details are frequently missing.

Indeed, the sender may well realise, when preparing the written version, that some important details were omitted altogether when speaking about the matter. In addition, if the receiver was under stress at the time of the conversation, almost everything is likely to be vaguely remembered, or not remembered at all.

Shades of Meaning

When words are used to communicate information, their meaning can be anything from very vague to very precise. In addition, words can be entirely descriptive, entirely abstract, or anywhere in between. If they are descriptive, they might evoke the imagery of any or all of the main inputs, and sometimes the subsidiary inputs as well. Alternatively, if the meaning is abstract, they will evoke no sensory imagery at all.

To make the meaning more vague, one can choose words with less specific meanings, or arrange words in a way that allows for more than one interpretation, or both. To make the meaning more precise, one must avoid doing either of those things, so that there is as little flexibility as regards meaning, as possible.

Descriptive communication with words provides information which allows the identification of something which is already known to one or more of the five senses. For example, the words "a large green tree stood there, bathed in brilliant sunlight, like a giant sentry guarding the newly ploughed field" are likely to evoke visual memories, making it easy for the receiver to imagine seeing such a sight.

Similarly, the words "the rain drumming loudly on the roof made a deafening roar, echoed by the rattling of the windows and accompanied by the moaning of the wind" are likely to evoke auditory memories, making it easy for the receiver to imagine hearing such a sound.

To evoke tactile memories, words like smooth, prickling, cold and sharp might be effective. To evoke olfactory memories, words like aroma, scent or smell might be employed. Finally, to evoke gustatory memories, words like flavour, tasty and spicy could be pressed into service.

It is also possible, when communicating using words, to include an element of embedded meaning. This is achieved by using ordinary words – but not in ordinary ways.[1] It may involve unusual, perhaps surprising, word choices, unusual ways of putting the words together, or various specific poetic devices such as rhyme, rhythm, alliteration and onomatopoeia.

Although the methods mentioned in the previous paragraph may be employed with the intention of expressing a particular meaning, it must be remembered that the very fluidity of this art form allows for an extremely wide range of possible interpretations. Therefore, what can be a very powerful form of communication is usually also very imprecise!

The end result of the various ways of influencing meaning described above is that a group of words can provide far more meaning than might be expected from the usual meanings of the individual words. The extra meaning (which may be the main, or perhaps the only meaning) is often said to reside "between the lines". The commonest examples are found in poetry, philosophy and the lyrics of songs.

However, people may also resort to symbolic language during a conversation, either because they are attempting to express the inexpressible, or because they do not want to state the facts baldly. Terminally ill patients often refer to their uncertain future in this way. This can sometimes lead to a more direct discussion of the prognosis, but on other occasions an answer in the same symbolic vein may be more appropriate.

A rather different example of extra meaning embedded within a group of words is sarcasm, in which apparently innocent words are intended – and interpreted – as harsh criticism. The principle is the same, in that the words are used as raw materials to build a meaning which goes beyond the literal one.


General Precautions

The possibility of different meanings being attributed to the same words is, of course, not necessarily beneficial, because it may result in misunderstanding. Although, as previously discussed, exact transfer of meaning is not feasible, a great deal can be done to minimise misunderstanding. Firstly, it usually helps to employ well-known words, to speak or write them clearly, and to use fairly short sentences of simple structure.

Secondly, it is essential to know your audience. Words are used differently, sometimes with different shades of meaning but quite often with completely different meanings, in different age groups, cultures and subcultures. In addition, the context may be different in various ways which are associated with the particular group. Even the grammar will not escape unscathed!

It is also a good idea to review the meanings of statements mentally, while formulating them, and again before sending them. Just by wondering what the words could possibly mean, what images they might evoke and how they might make someone feel, one's choice of words can often be improved.

Language Barrier

The general precautions mentioned above, together with some specific ones, become particularly important in the presence of a language barrier. In this situation, many nuances of meaning may be misinterpreted, and some essential content may be lost altogether. In addition, as I will discuss later, gestures may have quite different meanings in different cultures.

In any conversation with a person who is using a second or other language, it is more important than ever to use the simple words, short sentences and clear enunciation mentioned above under General Precautions. In addition, the speed of delivery must be adjusted to the needs of the particular recipient.

It is also important to check at frequent intervals, to see whether the intended messages (and no major misunderstandings!) are getting through. This can best be judged by a mixture of careful observation of the receiver's non-verbal output, for clues suggestive of uncertainty; and direct questioning, to evaluate comprehension of the matters which have been discussed.

Frequent eye contact may be one useful part of the assessment of comprehension, but it is sometimes perceived as intrusive or vaguely disturbing by the other person. (In a teaching situation, a similar caution applies to watching a speaker's lips, which can help to determine the cause of pronunciation errors, but can also make the watched person feel uncomfortable, unless the reason for it is explained).

If a particular word is critical to the understanding of the subject matter, it is a good idea to ask specifically whether its meaning is known. People often feign comprehension in order to be polite, to avoid being a nuisance, or simply because they think they will be able to guess the overall meaning soon.

Students of a second or other language often carry around a small translation dictionary, either electronic or printed (the latter usually being preferable, at the time of writing). However, the meaning found in a dictionary should always be considered provisional, especially if the person seems surprised by it, as some words have very different alternative meanings.

Drawing pictures or diagrams to represent important elements of a sentence can be a very useful device. Asking a person to interrupt you whenever they don't understand is probably also worth a try, but the politeness and guesswork mentioned above often prevent this plan from working. Asking specific questions, which can only be answered correctly if the sentence has been understood, gives much better results.

That is all I will say about words under this heading. As mentioned above, there is a little more in Appendix 2. There will also be some references to the use of words in the chapters which follow. However, most of the finer points belong to disciplines like English Expression, English Literature and Poetry – and those disciplines are entirely outside my scope.

(Click the number of a footnote to return to its reference in the text)

[1] The way in which the words are delivered is also significant, but that is a non-verbal addition here, we are just considering the words.


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