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3.1: How Words Work

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    Learning Outcomes

    1. Discover 3 different rules that govern the use of words and language.
    2. Determine the level of abstraction of a word
    3. Illustrate your ability to move from abstract to concrete terms.

    One person might call a shopping cart a buggy, and another person might call it a cart. There are several ways to refer to a carbonated beverage, such as “soda,” “Coke,” “pop,” “soft drink,” or simply “drink.” A pacifier for a baby is sometimes called a “paci,” “binkie,” “sookie,” or “mute button.”  These examples illustrate that meanings are in people, not in words, and different people -- depending on their background -- may use different words to represent the same object. 

    Words and Meaning

    Fortunately, rules exist that govern the use of words and language.  These rules help us communicate clearly and understand the meaning.  Three types of rules are particularly important: semantic, syntactic, and pragmatic.

    Semantic Rules

    Semantic rules are the dictionary meaning of the word. Although we have dictionary definitions to guide us, it is important to remember that many words in the English language have multiple definitions, and the meaning can change based on the context in which the word is used. For instance, the word fly by itself does not mean anything. It makes more sense if we put the word into a context by saying things like, “There is a fly on the wall;” “I will fly to Dallas tomorrow;” “That girl is so fly;” or “The fly on your pants is open!” We would not be able to communicate with others if we did not have semantic rules.  Think of the word "pass."  How many definitions can you think of for that one word?  

    Since many words have multiple meanings, a speaker should select words carefully and, if necessary, define words or use visual aids to clarify meaning.  A careful listener will comprehend that many words have multiple meanings and will consider the context of the communication and ask questions for clarification if needed.

    Syntactic Rules

    Syntactic rules govern how we help guide the words we use. Syntactic rules can refer to the use of grammar, structure, and punctuation to help effectively convey our ideas. For instance, we can say “Where are you” as opposed to “where you are,” which can convey a different meaning and have different perceptions. The same thing can happen when you don’t place a comma in the right place. The comma can make a big difference in how people understand a message.

    You may be familiar with the Star Wars character, Yoda, who often speaks with different rules. He has said, “Named must be your fear before banish it you can” and “Happens to every guy sometimes this does.” This example is a good reminder that syntactic rules can vary based on culture or background.

    Another example is Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\). In this case, we learn the importance that a comma can make in written language. In the first instance, “Let’s eat grandma!” is quite different than the second one, “Let’s eat, grandma!” The first implies cannibalism and the second is a family dinner. As the image says, punctuation saves lives. 

    It is important to understand and correctly apply rules governing punctuation, sentence structure, and grammar.  Failure to follow syntactic rules interferes with your ability to communicate effectively and professionally.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Commas Matter

    Pragmatic Rules

    Pragmatic rules help us interpret messages by analyzing the context of the interaction. We need to consider the words used, how they are stated, our relationship with the speaker, and the objectives of our communication. For instance, the words “I want to see you now” would mean different things if the speaker was your boss versus your lover. One could be a positive connotation, and another might be a negative one. The same holds true for humor. If we know that the other person understands and appreciates sarcasm, we might be more likely to engage in that behavior and perceive it differently from someone who takes every word literally. If we aren’t sure the person we are communicating with would appreciate our sarcastic humor and might take our joking literally, it is best to avoid sarcasm.

    Most pragmatic rules are based on culture and experience. An example would be “Want to have a drink?”, which usually implies an alcoholic beverage, whereas “Would you like something to drink?” does not imply that the drink has to contain alcohol.

    It is common for people to text in capital letters when they are angry or excited. For instance, “I love you” might be perceived differently from “I LOVE YOU!!!” Thus, when communicating with others, you should also realize that pragmatic rules can impact the message. 

    It is important to analyze the context of the communication when you are attempting to understand the meaning of a message.  It is also important to be sensitive to communicators from other cultures who may are not familiar with some of the pragmatic rules of the English language.

    Level of Abstraction

    Abstract words refer to intangible qualities, ideas, and concepts. These words indicate things we know only through our intellect, like "truth," "honor," "kindness," and "grace." Concrete words, on the other hand, are words that refer to tangible, qualities or characteristics, things we know through our senses. Words and phrases like "102 degrees," "obese Siamese cat," and "deep spruce green" are concrete and paint a clearer, more vivid picture for your receiver.  

    In 1941, linguist S.I. Hayakawa created what is called the abstraction ladder (Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\)). The abstraction ladder starts with the most abstract or general term at the top, with each rung on the ladder becoming more and more specific, down to the most specific term (interpersonal communication). You can see that as we move down the ladder, the topic becomes more fine-tuned and meaningful.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Abstraction Ladder

    In our daily lives, we tend to use high levels of abstraction all the time. It takes too long to say something, so people tend to be abstract. However, abstractions can create confusion.  Strive to use concrete, specific language that is more likely to be understood than general, abstract terms.

    Words and Meanings

    Words can have denotative and connotative meanings. The denotative meaning is the dictionary definition of a word. Denotative words are precise and do not imply an emotional association.  If you are new to the English language and asked an American acquaintance what a car or a phone is, you would likely be asking for the denotative meaning of those words. Words can have a connotative meaning, which is a subjective definition or an emotional association with the word. Beth Parent explains that connotative meaning goes beyond the dictionary definition of the word to what is suggested or implied. Depending on how a word has been used over time, or the context in which it is being used, the term may have a positive, negative, or neutral connotation.

    Consider the words group, clique, club, and gang. All four have basically the same denotative meaning: a gathering of people. Each of these words has a different connotative meaning, however.

    • Group has a neutral connotation. The word simply describes a cluster or gathering. It does not inspire either positive or negative feelings.         
    • Clique also means a group of people, but it carries a negative connotation. This is because "clique" is typically used in circumstances where the group is known for excluding others. 
    • Gang is defined as an organized group, but it has very negative connotations. The use of this term suggests criminal activity and/or violent behavior.
    • Club also refers to a group of people, but this word has a more positive connotation because a club is a collection of people that voluntarily                                                   come together for a shared passion or purpose

    When choosing words to use in writing or conversation, it's important to consider both types of meaning.  At times, such as during a persuasive speech, connotative words can be very helpful.  However, if you aren’t fully aware of the connotation of a word you use in speaking or writing, you may choose a word that leads to confusion or even to your receiver taking offense.

    Key Takeaways

    • Rules that govern language are important because they help up understand others and help others understand us.
    • Words have denotative and connotative meanings. Denotations are the dictionary definition, and connotations are what the words imply. 
    • Sometimes confusion occurs because people are too abstract in their language. To be clear and concise in language, you need to be descriptive and specific as possible.


    1. For each of the sentences below, determine if the bold word has a positive or negative connotation.  (Adapted from Parent, Beth.
      • How long have you been dieting? Maybe too long. You look so skinny.
      • I can tell you put a lot of work into your paper.  It is extraordinary.
      • I hope to look like my sister when I grow up. She is gorgeous.
      • I know that Eddie and I are the same age, but he is just so juvenile.
      • It's certainly unusual to use Comic Sans font on a resume.
    2. First, work alone.  For each word on the list write down the percentage of certainty from 0-100% you would feel if you were to use the word in a sentence.  For example, if I were to use the word “Probably,” I might mean there is a 90% chance that something will take place.  What level of certainly does the word represent in your mind?  After you have completed your list, compare your results with members of your class.  What does this exercise teach you about words and their meanings? (Adapted from Hamilton, Cheryl with Cordell ParkerCommunicating for Results: A Guide for Business and Professions, 4th ed. Wadsworth, 1989.)

               Word                         Percentage of Certainly

    1.      Probably                           ________

    2.      Possibly                            _________

    3.      Maybe                              _________

    4.      Definitely                         _________

    5.      Certainly                          _________

    6.      Unlikely                           _________

    3.1: How Words Work is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Lisa Coleman, Thomas King, & William Turner.