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Social Sci LibreTexts

3.3: Using Words Well

  • Page ID
    14262
  • Learning Objectives

    • Discuss how the process of abstraction and the creation of whole messages relate to language clarity.
      Employ figurative and evocative language.
      Identify strategies for using language ethically.

    Have you ever gotten lost because someone gave you directions that didn’t make sense to you? Have you ever puzzled over the instructions for how to put something like a bookshelf or grill together? When people don’t use words well, there are consequences that range from mild annoyance to legal actions. When people do use words well, they can be inspiring and make us better people. In this section, we will learn how to use words well by using words clearly, using words affectively, and using words ethically.

    Using Words Clearly

    The level of clarity with which we speak varies depending on whom we talk to, the situation we’re in, and our own intentions and motives. We sometimes make a deliberate effort to speak as clearly as possible. We can indicate this concern for clarity nonverbally by slowing our rate and increasing our volume or verbally by saying, “Frankly…” or “Let me be clear…” Sometimes it can be difficult to speak clearly—for example, when we are speaking about something with which we are unfamiliar. Emotions and distractions can also interfere with our clarity. Being aware of the varying levels of abstraction within language can help us create clearer and more “whole” messages.

    Level of Abstraction

    The ladder of abstraction is a model used to illustrate how language can range from concrete to abstract. As we follow a concept up the ladder of abstraction, more and more of the “essence” of the original object is lost or left out, which leaves more room for interpretation, which can lead to misunderstanding. This process of abstracting, of leaving things out, allows us to communicate more effectively because it serves as a shorthand that keeps us from having a completely unmanageable language filled with millions of words—each referring to one specific thing (Hayakawa & Hayakawa, 1990). But it requires us to use context and often other words to generate shared meaning. Some words are more directly related to a concept or idea than others. If I asked you to go take a picture of a book, you could do that. If I asked you to go and take a picture of “work,” you couldn’t because work is an abstract word that was developed to refer to any number of possibilities from the act of writing a book, to repairing an air conditioner, to fertilizing an organic garden. You could take a picture of any of those things, but you can’t take a picture of “work.”

    3.3.0.jpg

    Figure 3.2 Ladder of Abstraction. Source: Adapted from S. I. Hayakawa and Alan R. Hayakawa, Language in Thought and Action, 5th ed. (San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace, 1990), 85.

    You can see the semanticist S. I. Hayakawa’s classic example of the abstraction ladder with “Bessie the cow” in Figure 3.2 (Hayakawa & Hayakawa, 1990). At the lowest level, we have something that is very concrete. At this level we are actually in the moment of experiencing the stimuli that is coming in through our senses. We perceive the actual “thing,” which is the “cow” in front of us (either in person or as an image). This is concrete, because it is unmediated, meaning it is actually the moment of experience. As we move up a level, we give the experience a name—we are looking at “Bessie.” So now, instead of the direct experience with the “thing” in front of us, we have given the thing a name, which takes us one step away from the direct experience to the use of a more abstract symbol. Now we can talk and think about Bessie even when we aren’t directly experiencing her. At the next level, the word cow now lumps Bessie in with other bovine creatures that share similar characteristics. As we go on up the ladder, cow becomes livestock, livestock becomes an asset, and then an asset becomes wealth. Note that it becomes increasingly difficult to define the meaning of the symbol as we go up the ladder and how with each step we lose more of the characteristics of the original concrete experience.

    When shared referents are important, we should try to use language that is lower on the ladder of abstraction. Being intentionally concrete is useful when giving directions, for example, and can help prevent misunderstanding. We sometimes intentionally use abstract language. Since abstract language is often unclear or vague, we can use it as a means of testing out a potential topic (like asking a favor), offering negative feedback indirectly (to avoid hurting someone’s feelings or to hint), or avoiding the specifics of a topic.

    Definitions and Clarity

    Knowing more about the role that abstraction plays in the generation of meaning can help us better describe and define the words we use. As we learned earlier, denotative definitions are those found in the dictionary—the official or agreed-on definition. Since definitions are composed of other words, people who compile dictionaries take for granted that there is a certain amount of familiarity with the words they use to define another word—otherwise we would just be going in circles. One challenge we face when defining words is our tendency to go up the ladder of abstraction rather than down (Hayakawa & Hayakawa, 1990). For example, if I asked you to define the word blue, you’d likely say it’s a color. If I asked you what a color is, you’d tell me it’s a tint or characteristic of the appearance of a particular thing. To define more clearly, by going down the ladder of abstraction, you could say, “It’s the color of Frank Sinatra’s eyes,” or “It’s what the sky looks like on a clear day.” People often come to understanding more quickly when a definition is descriptive and/or ties into their personal experiences. Definitions aren’t useless, but they are usually best when paired with examples. You’ll notice that I include many key terms and definitions in this book, but knowing some of the challenges of generating meaning through language, I also include many examples and narratives that come from real life. Jargon refers to specialized words used by a certain group or profession. Since jargon is specialized, it is often difficult to relate to a diverse audience and should therefore be limited when speaking to people from outside the group—or at least be clearly defined when it is used.

    Creating Whole Messages

    Earlier we learned about the four types of expressions, which are observations, thoughts, feelings, and needs. Whole messages include all the relevant types of expressions needed to most effectively communicate in a given situation, including what you see, what you think, what you feel, and what you need (McKay, Davis, & Fanning, 1995). Partial messages are missing a relevant type of expression and can lead to misunderstanding and conflict. Whole messages help keep lines of communication open, which can help build solid relationships. On the other hand, people can often figure out a message is partial even if they can’t readily identify what is left out. For example, if Roscoe says to Rachel, “I don’t trust Bob anymore,” Rachel may be turned off or angered by Roscoe’s conclusion (an expression of thought) about their mutual friend. However, if Roscoe recounted his observation of Bob’s behavior, how that behavior made him feel, and what he needs from Rachel in this situation, she will be better able to respond.

    While partial messages lack relevant expressions needed to clearly communicate, contaminated messages include mixed or misleading expressions (McKay, Davis, & Fanning, 1995). For example, if Alyssa says to her college-aged daughter, “It looks like you wasted another semester,” she has contaminated observations, feelings, and thoughts. Although the message appears to be an observation, there are underlying messages that are better brought to the surface. To decontaminate her message, and make it more whole and less alienating, Alyssa could more clearly express herself by saying, “Your dad and I talked, and he said you told him you failed your sociology class and are thinking about changing your major” (observation). “I think you’re hurting your chances of graduating on time and getting started on your career” (thought). “I feel anxious because you and I are both taking out loans to pay for your education” (feeling).

    Messages in which needs are contaminated with observations or feelings can be confusing. For example, if Shea says to Duste, “You’re so lucky that you don’t have to worry about losing your scholarship over this stupid biology final,” it seems like he’s expressing an observation, but it’s really a thought, with an underlying feeling and need. To make the message more whole, Shea could bring the need and feeling to the surface: “I noticed you did really well on the last exam in our biology class” (observation). “I’m really stressed about the exam next week and the possibility of losing my scholarship if I fail it” (feeling). “Would you be willing to put together a study group with me?” (need). More clarity in language is important, but as we already know, communication isn’t just about exchanging information—the words we use also influence our emotions and relationships.