Posted by: J. Thomas Ross | August 28, 2012

Words vs. Meaning

Words can inform, entertain, enlighten, educate … and confuse.

And yet, most human communication relies on words — but not all of it.

Face-to-face communication also has a visual aspect. My granddaughter and I, for example, hold conversations all the time. I speak and she listens; she speaks and I listen. Neither of us understands what the other is saying, but we are looking at each other and smiling at each other. Our real communication is non-verbal. Through facial expressions and tone of voice, we convey our pleasure in the interaction and our approval of each other.

In most of our interactions with other people, that kind of communication is not enough. We need to express a thought, idea, opinion or some other message, and the verbal component of communication is the key to conveying our meaning. Unfortunately, we humans are not always proficient at using words to express meaning. In addition, those who receive our communications may also have problems interpreting that meaning.

Last Saturday the bank teller and I experienced a miscommunication when I went to the bank to get the cash I’ll need for the once-in-a-lifetime safari trip to Africa that I’m taking with a group of friends. The countries we’ll be visiting accept US currency, but the bills must be in good condition and printed after the year 2000. I went to the bank with a list of how many bills I wanted in each denomination and told the teller that the bills must be dated later than 2000.

After assuring me that this would be no problem, the teller started sorting through her money. And sorting. And sorting. And apparently not finding many bills that fit the criteria, which seemed odd to me. You’d think the bank would have a lot more money that was relatively new and in good condition than older money. When she asked the other teller to go through her money too, I felt a pang of panic — would I would be able to get the cash I wanted?

Then the other teller asked, “What do you want me to look for?”

My teller replied, “Bills in good condition from before 2000.”

“No!” I said and explained again — more clearly — what I had meant.

I walked out of the bank with the funds I needed … and with a topic for today’s post: in spite of the fact that we use words every day to convey ideas and express our wishes, feelings and thoughts, we are not always precise in our expression and the people who receive our communications do not always understand what we mean.

I’ve always had a knack for figuring out meaning. That knack made translations in Latin class easier for me. When a literal translation of the individual words did not make sense, I could usually figure out the actual meaning from the context. This skill also comes in handy when I meet people from other countries who have limited English vocabularies. By paying careful attention and thinking about the context, I can usually decipher the messages they want to express.

Even with this skill, I don’t always understand what people mean, and other people don’t always understand what I mean — as evidenced by the incident in the bank. Such misunderstandings are a natural and inevitable occurrence in human communication because each of us knows far more than we can convey in a few words. Thus, what may be perfectly clear to the individual communicator, may not be clear to those receiving the communication.

Misunderstandings in communication occur because:

  • words do not always express the exact meanings we have in mind
  • each of us has a different background with a different store of knowledge
  • each of us looks at things from a different perspective
  • those receiving our messages may not perceive and interpret our words as we mean them.

During a face-to-face conversation, we can generally tell whether the listener understands what we mean by the person’s facial expression, words, or reaction. This gives us the opportunity to clarify our message using different words or adding explanation until we are certain that the other person comprehends our meaning.  Clarification is also possible in forms of non-visual back-and-forth conversation — such as phone calls, email, IM, etc. In these instances, we can respond to verbal feedback and correct the misunderstanding.

Other forms of media that we use to express our ideas, thoughts, and feelings — such as television broadcasts, movies, and the written word — are less forgiving. In these venues, the words must express meaning clearly and precisely because there’s no do-over. There’s no chance to add further explanation.

As writers, whether we write fiction or non-fiction, we need to remember that our readers may not understand or may misinterpret what we write. We need to pursue clarity in our writing, even though clarity may be elusive. How often have we thought we’ve stated our ideas with precision but readers have found the meaning of our words as obscure as a fog-hazed mirror? It happens to all of us — which is why even the best writers need other eyes on their manuscripts.

This is where writers can help each other. Critique groups, manuscript swap partners, and beta readers (as well as paid editors and proofreaders) can pinpoint sentences and paragraphs which are not clear or which cause confusion for readers. If you don’t have such helpers, you should. Finding them may take time and effort, but their help is well worth the investment.

What miscommunications have you experienced? How have you handled them?


  1. Interesting post, Judy. While I’ve dedicated my adult life to clear communication, there is a certain type of dry sarcasm, always delivered with a deadpan expression, that I cannot read at all. Are they serious? Kidding? It always snaps up my attention and leaves me jittery. I don’t like losing all purchase in a conversation.


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