1.6: Principles of Verbal Communication

Learning Objectives

  1. Identify the principles of verbal communication
  2. Define the basic aspects that govern the use of words.

Verbal communication is based on several basic principles. In this section, you’ll examine each principle and explore how it influences everyday communication. Whether it’s a simple conversation with a coworker or a formal sales presentation to a board of directors, these principles apply to all contexts of communication.

Language Has Rules

Language is a system of symbols, words, and/or gestures used to communicate meaning. The words themselves have meaning within their specific context or language community. Words only carry meaning if you know the understood meaning and have a grasp of their context to interpret them correctly.

There are three types of rules that govern or control your use of words.

  • Syntactic Rules – govern the order of words in a sentence.
  • Semantic Rules – govern the meaning of words and how to interpret them (Martinich, 1996).
  • Contextual Rules – govern meaning and word choice according to context and social custom.

Consider the example of a traffic light as follows:

image of a traffic light with green on the bottom, yellow at the centre, and red at the top


Semantics : Green means Go, and Red means Stop

Syntax: Green is on the bottom, yellow in the middle, and red on top.


Even when you follow these linguistic rules, miscommunication is possible. Your cultural context or community may hold different meanings for the words used – different from the meanings that the source communicator intended. Words attempt to represent the ideas you want to communicate, but they are sometimes limited by factors beyond your control. Words often require you to negotiate meaning, or to explain what you mean in more than one way, in order to create a common vocabulary. You may need to state a word, define it, and provide an example in order to come to an understanding with your audience about the meaning of your message.

Words have two types of meanings: denotative and connotative.

image of a dictionary page showing the word dictionary


Denotative: The common meaning, often found in the dictionary.

Example: “home” = your place of residence


image of a circular table with 7 people seated around it. Each person has an icon over their head representing diversity of thoughts.

Meaning that is not found in the dictionary but in the community of users itself. It can involve an emotional association with a word, positive or negative, and can be individual or collective, but is not universal.

Example: “home” generally carries positive connotations (we associate it with family, emotional support, feeling nourished and protected, etc.)

With a common vocabulary in both denotative and connotative terms, effective communication becomes a more distinct possibility. But what if you have to transfer meaning from one vocabulary to another? That is essentially what you are doing when you translate a message. For example, HSBC Bank was forced to rebrand its entire global private banking operations after bringing a U.S. campaign overseas. In 2009, the worldwide bank spent millions of dollars to scrap its 5-year-old “Assume Nothing” campaign. Problems arose when the message was brought overseas, where it was translated in many countries as “Do Nothing.” In the end, the bank spent $10 million to change its tagline to “The world’s private bank,” which has a much friendlier translation.


ExerciseRead the following article for a few more examples of organizational messaging challenges: Lost in Translation: 10 International Marketing Fails by Skye Schooley from Business News Daily (2019).

Language is Abstract

Some words are more directly related to a concept or idea than others. If you were asked to go and take a picture of a book, it might seem like a simple task. If you were asked to go and take a picture of “work,” you’d be puzzled — work is an abstract word that was developed to refer to any number of possibilities (writing a book, repairing an air conditioner, fertilizing an organic garden, etc.). You could take a picture of any of those things, but you would be challenged to take a picture of “work.”

ExerciseConsider the example of a cow. If you were in a barn with this cow, you would actually be experiencing stimuli that would be coming in through your senses. You would hear the cow, likely smell the cow, and be able to touch the cow. You would perceive the actual ‘thing,’ which is the ‘cow’ in front of you. This would be considered concrete, it would be unmediated, meaning it was actually the moment of experience. As represented in the image below, the ladder of abstraction begins to move away from experience to language and description.

The ladder of abstraction is a model used to illustrate how language can range from concrete to abstract. If you 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, potentially leading to misunderstanding. However, this process of abstracting, of leaving things out, may allow you to communicate more effectively — it may serve as a shorthand that keeps you from having to use an unmanageable list of words, each referring to one specific thing, when you want to express a certain idea (Hayakawa & Hayakawa, 1990, pp. 85-86)

image of a ladder with the title ladder of abstraction
A ladder depicting increasing abstraction of observation and language.  (Hayakawa & Hayakawa, 1990, pp. 85-86).

As you move up a level on the ladder of abstraction, you might give your experience a name — you are looking at ‘Bessie.’ So now, instead of the direct experience with the ‘thing’ in front of you, you have given the thing a name, which takes you one step away from the direct experience toward the use of a more abstract symbol. Now you can talk and think about Bessie even when you 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 you go 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 you go up the ladder and how with each step you lose more of the characteristics of the original concrete experience. The more abstractthe words you use, the more careful you would have to be to provide enough context and enough connections with other ideas expressed in order to make sure that your message can be decoded.

Language Organizes and Classifies Reality

Humans use language to create and express some sense of order in their world. You often group words that represent concepts by their physical proximity or their similarity to one another. For example, in biology, animals with similar traits are classified together. An ostrich may be said to be related to an emu and a nandu, but you wouldn’t group an ostrich with an elephant or a salamander. Your ability to organize is useful, but artificial and a matter of convention. The systems of organization you use are not part of the natural world but an expression of your views about the natural world.

What is a doctor? A nurse? A teacher? If a male came to your mind in the case of the word ‘doctor’ and a female came to mind in reference to ‘nurse’ or ‘teacher’, then your habits of mind include a gender bias. In many cultures, there was a time where gender stereotypes were more than just a stereotypes — they were the general rule, the social custom, the norm. But now, in many places in the world, this is no longer true. More and more men are training to serve as nurses. In 2019, for example, data from the Canadian Medical Association (CMA) indicated that 43% of practising physicians in Canada were women (Canadian Medical Association, 2019).

We use systems of classification to navigate the world. Imagine how confusing life would be if we had no categories such as male/female, young/old, tall/short, doctor/nurse/teacher. While these categories are mentally useful, they can become problematic when used to uphold biases and ingrained assumptions that are no longer valid. Biases can make us assume that certain elements are related when they have no relationship at all. As a result, our thinking may become limited and our grasp of reality impaired. It is often easier to spot these biases in others, but it is important, as effective communicators, to become aware of them in ourselves. Holding biases unconsciously would limit our thinking, our grasp of reality, and our ability to communicate successfully.


Canadian Medical Association. (2019). Quick facts on Canada’s physicians. https://www.cma.ca/quick-facts-canadas-physicians

Hayakawa, S. I., & Hayakawa, A.R. (1990). Language in thought and action (5th ed.). Harcourt Brace.

Martinich, A. P. (Ed.). (1996). The philosophy of language (3rd ed.). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.


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1.6: Principles of Verbal Communication Copyright © 2021 by Melissa Ashman; Arley Cruthers; eCampusOntario; Ontario Business Faculty; and University of Minnesota is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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