In our times, “communication” is the name of a college-level course designed to prepare someone to be in advertising or (more generally) “the media.” It has to do with speechifying — debating, arguing, persuading, selling. This is both a distortion and an oversimplification of the term.
In its broadest meaning, “communication” is the transfer of information from one entity (person, group, machine, etc.) to another. For example, machines often communicate using a form of language appropriate to their functions. Just as there is such a thing as “artificial intelligence,” so also do we have “artificial language.” An example of an artificial language is “Extensible Hypertext Markup Language” or XHTML. It is a scripting language being developed as a more rigorous and powerful adaptation of HTML, in which most Web pages are written.
- Like artificial languages, natural language has rules for combining words into phrases and phrases into statements.
- Unlike artificial languages, natural language does not always follow its own rules and definitions. It creates exceptions, either to reflect the natural evolution of language through time, or to deal in a special way with special cases. These exceptions are usually called “idioms” or “figures of speech.”
An idiom is a usage of one or more words to convey a meaning not embraced by the standard definition of its elements. An example is “get cracking,” meaning to leave or to start to work. It came to America from England, where the RAF used the expression in World War II. Presumably it comes from 19th century English usage, meaning to crack a whip (as a means of starting out or beginning to work, perhaps in herding).
A figure of speech is a phrase used other than in a literal sense, to clarify or extend the meaning of its author. An example of a figure of speech is “happy as a clam.” The figure in question is a simile (any comparison, using “like” or “as”). There is no evidence that clams are particularly happy; however, it helps to know the whole expression: “happy as a clam at high tide.” As all clam diggers know, you have to wait until low tide to go clamming.
Have you thought about what a miracle it is to have human communication? Two persons who speak the same language can come to understand each other, even though they are speaking of something far away in space or time. They can pass thoughts from one to another, even though the subject may be from the distant past or the fanciful future. We humans do this by using words with agreed-upon meanings. These words must be combined according to agreed-upon principles, adding to them, in spoken English, intonation, facial expressions and gestures.
Words: Denotation and Connotation
The main difference between the everyday communication of humans and technical-scientific language is that in human speech, words take on shades of meaning. They have “connotations,” which means an extension of meaning that extends out of the domain of strict definition and logic into the realm of feeling. It is as if words had a sort of halo around them, a diffuse reflection of their core meaning and substance. These connotations are the friends and helpers of poets and writers of fiction. Technical language, on the other hand, must avoid connotations. It restricts meanings to the literal and narrow definition of terms, the “denotation” of a word or phrase.
To illustrate, Snoopy’s novels always start out, “It was a dark and stormy night …” Almost anyone will pick up that “dark and stormy night” suggests mystery, or perhaps an eerie event, or maybe something evil or threatening. That is the connotation of the phrase. Its strict denotation is, of course, that there was little or no ambient light and that some sort of precipitation had occurred or was about to take place.
Most of our informal speech and writing involves connotations, either by design, or as a natural consequence of what is being communicated. We also punctuate our speech with gestures and facial expressions, collectively called body language, to give others a clue to our meaning. Technical speech, on the other hand, must be free of connotations. As a result, it seems flat, unemotional, even dull to the untutored ear or eye. Using connotations creatively requires skill, just as it is also a skill to write technical language without confusing the reader with unintended connotations.
An educated person also needs to know enough words to be able to express herself (or himself) precisely. Imagine what life would be like if you knew only 200 words in English. You would be no more expressive and communicative than a toddler. You would be reduced to crying, screaming or giggling as a means of expressing yourself. In a different context, ask yourself how often a text message fails to communicate the author’s idea or fails to be understood at the receiving end because of the limitations of the medium.
Without a rich supply of words, you would not be able to learn more than a few basic things. College-educated American adults know, on average, about 25,000 words, though they may use far fewer. People who did not finish high school recognize between 8,000 and 10,000 words. High school graduates can, on average, handle 15,000 words, which is only about half of the vocabulary used by the professionals that decide things like college admissions and employment. How many do you know?
Grammar and Syntax for Stringing Words Together
One of the great aids to communication is syntax, the collection of rules and conventions about how words are to be combined in phrases that convey meaning. To illustrate, here is an example of bad syntax — the dangling participle: “Reading a book in bed, a mosquito landed on my arm.” Literally, the mosquito was reading a book in bed. Clarity requires instead a dependent clause: “While I was reading in bed, a mosquito landed on my arm.” Correct syntax prevents confusion in communication. It keeps language clear and logical.
Most students hate grammar, or at least consider it dull and potentially meaningless. Many of the rules of grammar can be explained only by tradition, culture, custom or historical tradition, and these are not exciting topics for many high school students. On the other hand, grammar also has a logical component. For example, it is grammatically incorrect (though perhaps politically correct) to say, “Will everyone please sit in their own chair.” It is grammatically incorrect because “everyone” is singular (in fact, “one” is as singular as can be). So “their,” which is plural, is inconsistent with the subject. Sadly, the phrase is thought to be politically correct because it avoids using a singular possessive pronoun, which unavoidably mentions a gender — “his” or “her.” Nowadays we dislike identifying things to a specific gender. Nonetheless, it does not justify a grammatical error. If the group is all female, say “in her own chair”; likewise, if everyone is male, use “his.” For mixed crowds, “his” is correct according to old rule (as “his” does not historically limit itself to males, but rather, to humans and a few animals), but if moderns do not understand this, say “his or her,” and be done with it. In any event, this grammatical point illustrates both the trouble with logic and its potential conflicts with custom, tradition or fad. In a few more years, “their” will be acceptable as a personal pronoun for both the plural and the singular. But until that time, it is important to know the difference between correct and incorrect, even if one chooses to be incorrect some of the time, just to fit in with those who do not know any better.
Rhetoric, or the Art and Craft of Articulation
Modern times have given “rhetoric” a bad name, as in the phrase “political rhetoric,” which seems to be a synonym for palaver (or “blah, blah, blah” in more modern terms). It means high-sounding, perhaps insincere and dissimulated bombast. A formal definition of “rhetoric” is: “the art of effective or persuasive speaking or writing.” Rhetoric has its roots in ancient times, and was a central part of Western thought and education from the time of Aristotle down to about the decade of the 1980’s.
“Effective” in the definition means that the author manages to use language to express accurately his or her thoughts and feelings. “Persuasive” means that the form of expression arouses thoughts and feelings in the audience or reader that match the thoughts and feelings expressed by the author.
There are formal ways to sharpen one’s rhetorical skills, that is, by taking classes or studying rhetoric independently. The most common method is by experience, a kind of on-the-job training. How is that, you ask? The skill is acquired by making an effort to write well and by forming the habit to read well-written English prose. The good examples could come from novels, or the better newspapers, or even internet sites that take care to publish only high-quality English prose. How would you learn to write, if you do not write? Or read, if you do not read?
So there it is: The challenge is to acquire the words, to understand the rules for putting them together, and to develop the skill to form them around your ideas and feelings so that you express yourself accurately. That is what this website is about. In sum: It involves mastering —
- the words (vocabulary);
- the rules for combining words (grammar and syntax); and
- the use of words and phrases to express your intent fully, without expressing by accident anything not intended (articulation and rhetoric).