Did You Mean What You Meant?

   By Bill Hoth, Ed.D.   

Dr. Hoth is retired as professor of English Education from Wayne State University. He taught a course in critical thinking and worked with government agencies and corporations to improve their communications. He presented a talk by this title at the O4R summer meeting in Eugene.


Broadly speaking, the topic here is human communication, and not communications-and certainly not anonymous communication (as seen in the Eugene Weekly), which is an oxymoron. Communication here defined is a process in which a reader and a writer or a speaker and a listener share meanings. Communication occurs when the meaning in one's consciousness calls up a fairly comparable meaning in the other person. Or, in plainer talk: when one easily gets the drift of what the other person means.

Most of the time language works and meant meanings are conveyed and received, but not always. Let's examine some communication "hazards" in three categories: 1) big words for little ideas; 2) what did you mean? and 3) nice try!

Big words-Little ideas
We all know about the inflated language of government, commonly called gobbledegook. Lists have been compiled of all the Latin-derived words like incrementalism, feasibility, confrontational, etc. which have many syllables and when used uncritically, have very little meaning. An antidote to such usage is this poem written by Arthur Kidder, a New York Times editor, to his son:

Big Words and Little Words
Never fear big long words.
They mean little things.
When you know what you're talking about,
Use little words.
They mean big things
Like love and hate, war
Home, good and evil.
When you don't know what you're talking about,
Use big words.
That often fools little people.

In general, big words are abstract rather than specific. They inflate a common activity with "sound and fury." They are sometimes used to keep from sounding ordinary.

As to sound, Lewis Lampham, editor of Harpers, has many examples. Words are used simply for sound by fawning bureaucrats, diplomats, government aides, and advertisers. Language is used to impress, to create the right image. The verbal and the visual is the language of modern advertising. (See Lewis Lampham's Lampham's Rules of Influence, Random House, 1999.)

What did you mean?
This second category includes those words that might mean something different to the reader other than what the writer intended. Such variability leads easily to confusion, not communication. Some examples:

  • Women's excess clothing (seen on an advertising sign)
  • Gender matters (a headline in Eugene Weekly, May 27, 1999)
  • Congestion (a common Oregon road sign)
  • State Farm Sells Life (an advertisement)
  • Or consider this meaningless message from an ad campaign:
  • If you asked us, it just tastes better!
  • Or the vague, but commonly used:
  • in a timely manner and
  • appropriate and reasonable.
  • And the current, maddening telephone message,
  • "Your call is important to us,"-when the more honest message would be, "We're saving money by being automated and realize that you don't like waiting."

  • Sometimes headlines are ambivalent because of the deletion of "the's," "a's" or "an's." The Columbia Journalism Review prints such examples in their column "The lower case." The outcome can be quite humorous. Consider these examples:

  • Slaying victim's car is spotted
  • Gary Coleman makes a fine court appearance
  • Clinton takes credit for drop in unwed birth rate.

  • Nice try
    This category includes all usages where the intent is allegedly courteous but is actually impersonal and often anonymous, or nearly so. Among the most irritating are:

  • Have a nice day
  • Your call is important to us

    Avoid the hazards
    What are the antidotes to these hazards to communication? 1) Keep the listener in mind. Ask yourself how might she or he interpret your words. 2) Examine your intent. If you wish to deceive, entrap, persuade, or manipulate by appealing to nonrational drives, then propaganda is your tool. But if you are interested in a meaningful exchange, open to rational inquiry, then prefer the small words when there's a choice, be as specific as possible, and guard against private understandings based on personal interests.

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     2000 Oregonians for Rationality