How to Determine Meaning in Verbal Communication

Instructor: Lisa Kuchta

Lisa has a master's degree in communication, has taught college communication and writing courses, and has authored a textbook on presentation skills.

Learn how the symbolic nature of language can lead to miscommunications with others. Also learn how individual words and phrases can carry two levels of meaning, and how the context of a conversation can greatly affect the meaning of the words communicated.

What Did You Say?

It seems like talking should be one of the easiest skills for humans to master. After all, we've been doing it since we were mere toddlers. Still, miscommunications happen with frustrating regularity; we misinterpret others' words and they misunderstand us. Why is this? What is it about language - a seemingly straightforward means of communication - that makes it so prone to confusion?

Understanding Language as an Imperfect System

Verbal communication, the words we use when communicating, relies on the use of language. To understand why miscommunication happens, it is important to understand the imperfections of language. Language is a set of symbols that we use to share meaning with others. There is nothing about a tall plant growing from the ground with a trunk and leaves that directly equates with the letters T-R-E-E, except that at some time long ago people decided to call that plant a tree. The word tree is merely a symbol of the object itself. For some words, like concrete nouns, the symbolism is fairly straightforward. We will all have similar understandings of the word tree, we all understand that a dog is an animal from the canine species, and we know that a fork is a tool used for eating food.

For other words and ideas, the symbolism becomes trickier. For example, what does it mean to 'like someone' - does it mean that you merely find the person relatively pleasant (as I do with my mail carrier, who says, 'Hello' when I see him drive by), or does it entail a much stronger attraction (as people in scandalous television shows and movies might feel about their mail carriers)? The meaning is open for interpretation, because the word like is ambiguous, just like much of our language.

To help us decode the language we hear and decide what language to use when speaking, we can turn for help to two fields of study: semantics and pragmatics.

It's Just Semantics

This study of words and their various meanings is known as semantics. While semantics is an entire field unto itself, there are some basics we can explore here. In the study of language, it is important to note that words have two types of meanings: denotative and connotative meanings. A word's denotative meaning is the dictionary definition of the word. For instance, the denotative meaning of the word warm is 'moderate hot.' The connotative meaning is more open to interpretation. This is the feeling that the word may give to individual people. For instance, to me - someone who really enjoys the heat - the word warm has a comforting and pleasant connotation. To my friend who prefers snow to summer, the word warm has an uncomfortable and unpleasant connotation.

While the connotation of words is always open to individual interpretation, there are some words that generally have positive, negative, or neutral connotations. Take the word house. The connotation is generally neutral; from the word house alone, you probably wouldn't be able to guess my feelings about the structure. If, however, I called it a home, you might start to presume that I had positive feelings toward the house; after all, home is where the heart is. On the other hand, if I called the house a shack or a shanty, you might rightly get the feeling that I didn't really like it.

Here's another example: if we were talking about a famous person, and I called them prominent, it would be evident that I had a positive connotation toward them. If, however, I called them notorious, you would think quite differently. Both prominent and notorious mean famous, but each have very different connotations. If I wanted to make my feelings clear, I should use words with clear, appropriate connotations. If, however, I wanted to remain unbiased and objective, I would need to choose my words carefully to be sure that they have relatively neutral connotations.

Pragmatics and the Importance of Context

Semantics can give us some understanding of how to choose and understand our words, but there are other rules we need to follow. The context of a conversation affects what we say and how we say it. Context includes who is talking to whom, when and where they are talking, and any feelings or prior knowledge from either participant. The study of the context of language and how it affects meaning is called pragmatics. Pragmatics often include the unspoken aspects of language that we are expected to understand and follow.

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