4.1 Defining Verbal Communication

When people ponder the word communication, they often think about the act of talking. We rely on verbal communication to exchange messages with one another and develop as individuals. The term verbal communication often evokes the idea of spoken communication, but written communication is also part of verbal communication. Reading this book, you are decoding the authors’ written verbal communication in order to learn more about communication. Let’s explore the various components of our definition of verbal communication and examine how it functions in our lives.

Verbal communication is about language, both written and spoken. In general, verbal communication refers to our use of words, while nonverbal communication refers to communication that occurs through means other than words, such as body language, gestures, and silence. Both verbal and nonverbal communication can be spoken and written. Many people mistakenly assume that verbal communication refers only to spoken communication.

However, you will learn that this is not the case. Let’s say you tell a friend a joke, and he or she laughs in response. Is the laughter verbal or nonverbal communication? Why? Because the sound of laughter would not be considered words, we would consider this vocal act as a form of nonverbal communication. For simplification, the box below highlights the kinds of communication that fall into the various categories. You can find many definitions of verbal communication in other literature, but for this text, we define verbal communication as an agreed-upon and rule-governed system of symbols used to share meaning. Let’s examine each component of this definition in detail.


A chart about communication examples. The examples of:Oral verbal communication is spoken language. Non oral verbal communication is written language and sign language. Oral Nonverbal communication is laughing, crying, coughing, etc. Non Oral Nonverbal communication is gestures, body languages, etc
Types of Verbal and Non-Verbal Communications Image by COC OER is licensed under CC BY 4.0

A System of Symbols

Symbols are arbitrary representations of thoughts, ideas, emotions, objects, or actions used to encode and decode meaning (Nelson et al.). Symbols stand for or represent something else. For example, there is nothing intrinsic about calling a cat a cat. Rather, English speakers have agreed that these symbols (words), whose components (letters) are used in a particular order each time, stand for both the actual object as well as our interpretation of that object. This idea is illustrated by C. K. Ogden and I. A. Richard’s triangle of meaning. The word cat is not the actual cat. Nor does it have any direct connection to an actual cat. Instead, it is a symbolic representation of our idea of a cat, as indicated by the line going from the word cat to the speaker’s idea of cat to the actual object.

Top, concept (four-legged animal with whiskers); at bottom left, symbol (cat, gato); right, actual object (cat photo).
Ogden and Richard’s Triangle of Meaning Image by Lumen Learning is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Symbols have three distinct qualities: they are arbitrary, ambiguous, and abstract. Notice that the picture of the cat on the right side of the triangle more closely represents a real cat than the word cat. However, we do not use pictures as language or verbal communication. Instead, we use words to represent our ideas. This example demonstrates our agreement that the word cat represents or stands for a real cat and our idea of a cat. The symbols we use are arbitrary and have no direct relationship to the objects or ideas they represent. We generally consider communication successful when we reach agreement on the meanings of the symbols we use (Duck).

Not only are symbols arbitrary, but they are also ambiguous—that is, they have several possible meanings. Imagine your friend tells you she has an apple on her desk. Is she referring to a piece of fruit or her computer? If a friend says that a person he met is sick, does he mean that person is physically ill or awesome? The meanings of symbols change over time due to changes in social norms, values, and advances in technology. You might be asking, “If symbols can have multiple meanings, then how do we communicate and understand one another?” We are able to communicate because there are a finite number of possible meanings for our symbols, a range of meanings that the members of a given language system agree upon. Without an agreed-upon system of symbols, we could share relatively little meaning with one another.

Symbols are arbitrary - they have no direct relationship to the objects or ideas they represent, ambiguous - they have several possible meanings, and abstract - they are not material or physical; they can only represent objects and ideas.
Image by H. Rayl is licensed under CC BY 4.0

A simple example of ambiguity can be represented by one of your classmates making a simple question of the teacher during a lecture including PowerPoint slides: “Could you go to the last slide, please?” The teacher is halfway through the presentation. Is the student asking if the teacher can go back to the previous slide? Or does the student really want the lecture to be over with and is insisting that the teacher jump to the final slide of the presentation? Chances are the student missed a point on the previous slide and would like to see it again to quickly take notes. However, suspense may have overtaken the student, and they may have a desire to see the final slide. Even a simple word like last can be ambiguous and open to more than one interpretation.

The verbal symbols we use are also abstract, meaning that words are not material or physical. A certain level of abstraction is inherent in the fact that symbols can only represent objects and ideas. This abstraction allows us to use a phrase like the public in a broad way to mean all the people in the United States rather than having to distinguish among all the diverse groups that make up the US population. Similarly, in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter book series, wizards and witches call the nonmagical population on earth “muggles” rather than having to define all the separate cultures of muggles. Abstraction is helpful when you want to communicate complex concepts in a simple way. However, the more abstract the language, the greater potential there is for confusion.

Rule Governed

Verbal communication is rule governed. We must follow agreed-upon rules to make sense of the symbols we share. Let’s take another look at our example of the word cat. What would happen if there were no rules for using the symbols (letters) that make up this word? If placing these symbols in the proper order was not important, then cta, tac, tca, act, or atc could all mean cat. Even worse, what if you could use any three letters to refer to cat? Or still worse, what if there were no rules and anything could represent cat? Clearly, it’s important that we have rules to govern our verbal communication. There are four general rules for verbal communication, involving the sounds, meaning, arrangement, and use of symbols.

Phonology is the study of speech sounds. The pronunciation of the word cat comes from the rules governing how letters sound, especially in relation to one another. The context in which words are spoken may provide answers for how they should be pronounced. When we don’t follow phonological rules, confusion results. One way to understand and apply phonological rules is to use syntactic and pragmatic rules to clarify phonological rules. Semantic rules help us understand the difference in meaning between the word cat and the word dog. Instead of each of these words meaning any four-legged domestic pet, we use each word to specify which four-legged domestic pet we are talking about. You’ve probably used these words to say things like I’m a cat person or I’m a dog person. Each of these statements provides insight into what the sender is trying to communicate.

We attach meanings to words; meanings are not inherent in words themselves. As you’ve been reading, words (symbols) are arbitrary and attain meaning only when people give them meaning. We can always look to a dictionary to find a standardized definition of a word, its denotative meaning, but words do not always follow standard, agreed-upon definitions when used in various contexts. For example, think of the word sick. The denotative definition of the word is ill or unwell. However, connotative meanings, the meanings we assign based on our experiences and beliefs, are quite varied. Sick can have a connotative meaning that describes something as good or awesome as opposed to its literal meaning of illness, which usually has a negative association. The denotative and connotative definitions of sick are in total contrast to one another, which can cause confusion. Think about an instance when a student is asked by their parent about a friend at school. The student replies that the friend is sick. The parent then asks about the new teacher at school and the student describes the teacher as sick as well. The parent must now ask for clarification, as they do not know if the teacher is in bad health or is an excellent teacher and if the friend of their child is ill or awesome.

Syntactics is the study of language structure and symbolic arrangement. Syntactics focuses on the rules we use to combine words into meaningful sentences and statements. We speak and write according to agreed-upon syntactic rules to keep meaning coherent and understandable. Think about this sentence: “The pink and purple elephant flapped its wings and flew out the window.” While the content of this sentence is fictitious and unreal, you can understand and visualize it because it follows syntactic rules for language structure.

Pragmatics is the study of how people actually use verbal communication. For example, as a student, you probably speak more formally to your professors than to your peers. It’s likely that you make different word choices when you speak to your parents than you do when you speak to your friends. Think of the words bowel movements, poop, crap, and shit. While all of these words have essentially the same denotative meaning, people make choices based on context and audience to choose the most appropriate word for the situation. These differences illustrate the pragmatics of our verbal communication. Even though you use agreed-upon symbolic systems and follow phonological, syntactic, and semantic rules, you apply these rules differently in different contexts. Each communication context has different rules for appropriate communication. We are trained from a young age to communicate appropriately in different social contexts.

It is only through an agreed-upon and rule-governed system of symbols that we can exchange verbal communication in an effective manner. Without agreement, rules, and symbols, verbal communication would not work. The reality is that after we learn language in school, we don’t spend much time consciously thinking about all of these rules; we simply use them. However, rules keep our verbal communication structured in ways that make it useful for us to communicate more effectively.


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Fundamentals of Communication Copyright © 2022 by LOUIS: The Louisiana Library Network is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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