3.1 How Words Work

Learning Objectives

  • Explain how words have different rules (semantic, syntactic, and pragmatic).
  • Describe the range of abstraction in language use from abstract to concrete.
  • Explain the differences between the denotative and connotative meanings of language.

One person might call a shopping cart a buggy, and another might call it a cart. There are several ways to say you would like a beverage, such as “liquid refresher,” “soda,” “Coke,” “pop,” “refreshment,” or “drink.” A pacifier for a baby is sometimes called a “paci,” “binkie,” “sookie,” or “mute button.” Linguist Robin Lakoff asks, “How can something that is physically just puffs of air, a mere stand-in for reality, have the power to change us and our world?” (2001, p. 20).  This question illustrates that meaning resides with people, and words do not necessarily or always represent the person’s meaning.

Words and Meaning

Words can have different rules to help us understand their meaning. There are three types of such rules: semantic, syntactic, and pragmatic (Gamble & Gamble, 2014).

Semantic Rules

Semantic rules are the “dictionary definition” of the word. However, meaning can change based on the context in which it is used. For instance, the word fly by itself does not mean anything. It makes more sense if we put the word into a context by saying things like, “There is a fly on the wall;” “I will fly to Dallas tomorrow;” or “The fly on your pants is open!” We would not be able to communicate with others if we did not have semantic rules.

An example of this is a third-grade teacher who asked about a period. One student in her class went on and on about how girls have monthly periods but did not realize that the teacher meant using periods for punctuation at the end of a sentence. Hence, semantic rules need to be understood to avoid embarrassment or misunderstandings.

Syntactic Rules

Syntactic rules govern how we help guide the words we use. Syntactic rules refer to using grammar, structure, and punctuation to help effectively convey our ideas. For instance, we can say “Where are you?” instead of “Where you are,” which conveys a different meaning and perception. The same thing can happen when you do not place a comma in the right place. Punctuation can make a big difference in how people understand a message.

A great example of syntactic rules is Yoda’s Star Wars character, who often speaks with different rules. He has said, “Named must be your fear before banishing it you can” and “Happens to every guy sometimes this does.” This example illustrates that syntactic rules can vary based on culture or background.

Pragmatic Rules

Pragmatic rules help us interpret messages by analyzing the interaction altogether. We will need to consider the words used, how they are stated, our relationship with the speaker, and our communication objectives. For instance, “I want to see you now” would mean different things if the speaker was your boss versus your friend. One could be a positive connotation, and another might be a negative one. The same holds for humour. Suppose we know the person we are speaking with understands and appreciates sarcasm. In that case, we might be more likely to engage in that behaviour and perceive it differently from someone who takes every word literally.

Most pragmatic rules are based on culture and experience. For instance, “Netflix and chill” often means two people will hook up. Imagine someone from a different country who did not know what this meant; they would be shocked if they thought they would watch Netflix with the other person and relax. Another example would be “Want to have a drink?” which usually infers an alcoholic beverage. Another way of saying this might be to say, “Would you like something to drink?” The second sentence does not imply that the drink has to contain alcohol.

It is common for people to text in capital letters when they are angry or excited. You would interpret the text differently if the text were not in capital letters. For instance, “I love you” might be perceived differently from “I LOVE YOU!!!” Thus, you should realize that pragmatic rules can impact the message when communicating with others.

Activity: Check Your Understanding

Words Create Reality

Language helps to create reality. Often, humans label their experiences. For instance, “success” has different interpretations depending on your perceptions. Success to you might mean owning a particular type of car or having a specific income. However, for someone else, success might be the freedom to do what they love or to travel to exotic places. “Success” might mean something completely different based on your background or culture.

Another example might be the word “intimacy.” Intimacy to one person might be similar to love, but to another person, it might be the psychological connection you feel with another person. Words can impact a person’s reality of what they believe and feel.

If a child complains that they do not feel loved, but their parents or guardians argue that they continuously show affection by giving hugs and doing fun shared activities, who would you believe? The child might say that they never heard their parent or guardian say the word love; hence, they do not feel love. So, when we argue that words can create a person’s reality, that is what we mean. Specific words can make a difference in how a person will receive a message. That is why some rhetoricians and politicians will spend hours looking for the right word to capture the true essence of a message. A healthcare worker might be careful to use “overweight” instead of “fat” because it sounds drastically different. Words matter, and how they are used makes a difference.

Words Reflect Attitudes

When we first meet someone, we may use positive adjectives to describe that person. However, if you have a falling out you might use negative or neutral words to describe that same person. Words can reflect attitudes. Some people can label one experience as pleasant, and others can have the opposite experience. This difference is because words reflect our attitudes about things. If a person has positive emotions toward another, they might say that the person is funny, mature, and thrifty. However, if they have negative feelings or attitudes toward that person, they might describe them as childish, old, and cheap. These words can indicate how the person perceives them.

Level of Abstraction

When we think of language, it can be either concrete or abstract; this has the potential to affect how one comprehends the meaning of a message (Engleberg et al., 2015). Concrete words refer to tangible items — things you can count, touch, name, and identity in time.  For example, phrases such as ten thousandconcrete floorJohn Smith, and ten o’clock on January 12 are concrete. In health care, concrete language is essential to ensure accurate information is obtained and shared (Videbeck, 2011). Concrete questions such as “When was your last bowel movement?” or “When was the last time you took your blood pressure medication?” are clear for clients to answer and for healthcare providers to share accurate data.

In 1941, linguist S. I. Hayakawa created the abstraction ladder, which begins with abstract concepts at the top, while the bottom rung is very concrete. Figure 3. 1.1 illustrates this “ladder” and how you can move from abstract ideas or information through various levels of more concrete ideas to the most concrete idea (e.g., interpersonal communication). The topic becomes more fine-tuned and concrete as we move down the ladder.

In our daily lives, we use high levels of abstraction. For instance, growing up, your parents or guardians probably helped you with homework, cleaning, cooking, and transporting you from one event to another. Yet we do not typically thank them for each of these things — we might make a general comment such as a thank you rather than saying, “Thank you so much for helping me with my math homework and helping me figure out how to solve for the volume of spheres.” It takes too long to say that, so people tend to be abstract. However, abstraction can cause problems if you do not provide enough description. In a healthcare environment, it is essential to ensure we use concrete language and check for understanding to avoid misunderstandings.


Image of 6 boxes with statements that are the most abstract at the top and statements that become less abstract in boxes below. Arrowed diagram illustrating abstraction with most abstract concept ("wealth") at top through most concrete ("cow that you own and can touch = wealth) at bottom. Image description available
Figure 3.1.1. Ladder of Abstraction. Image Description (see Appendix A 3.1.1).

Activity: Check Your Understanding

Words and Meanings

Words can have denotative meanings or connotative meanings. Ogden and Richards (1923) proposed the triangle of meaning and noted that misunderstandings occur when people associate different meanings with the same message. Their model illustrates how linguistic symbols (such as words) relate to the objects they represent and that there is an indirect association between a word and the actual referent (the thing it represents). Figure 3.1.2 shows this example, in which the word “dog” conjures up different meanings. The word “dog” is a symbol, signifier, sound element, or other linguistic symbol representing an underlying concept or meaning. When we hear the word “dog,” it is what we call the “signified,” or the meaning or idea expressed when someone hears the word. In this case, maybe you have a dog, and you see that dog as your best friend, or you visualize a Jack Russel Terrier or a dachshund. The meaning we attach to the symbol is separate from the physical entity. In this case, a real dog is a referent or the physical thing a word or phrase denotes or represents.


Triangle with symbol (dog) at the bottom left; thought (I want to get a dog) at top; referent (real world object, e.g. Jack Russel Terrier) at bottom right
Figure 3.1.2. The triangle of meaning: symbol -thought – referent (real-world object)

Words can have a denotative meaning, which is the dictionary definition. These are words that most people are familiar with, and they can all agree on the understanding of the word. If you asked a person what a car or a phone is, they would most likely know what you are talking about when you use those words.

Words can have a connotative meaning, a subjective definition of the word. The word might mean something different from what you meant. For example, you may hear someone referring to their baby. You could safely assume that the person is referring to their infant, but they could just as easily be referring to a significant other or their pet.

Activity: Check Your Understanding

Key Takeaways

  • Sometimes confusion occurs because people are too abstract in their language. To be clear and concise in language, you must be as descriptive and specific as possible.
  • The triangle of meaning is a model of communication that indicates the relationship between thought, symbol, and referent and highlights the indirect relationship between the symbol and the referent. The model explains how for any given symbol, there can be many different referents, which can lead to misunderstanding.
  • Denotation refers to the agreed or dictionary definition of a word. Connotation refers to definitions based on emotion- or experience-based associations people have with a word.


  1. Apply the triangle of meaning to a recent message exchange within a personal and professional context in which differing referents led to misunderstanding. What could you have done to help prevent or correct the misunderstanding?
  2. Think of some words that have strong connotations for you. How does your connotation differ from the denotation? How might your connotation differ from another person’s?


Engleberg, I. N., Wynn, D. R., & Roberts, M. (2015). Think: Interpersonal communication (1st Canadian Ed.). Pearson Canada.

Gamble, T. K., & Gamble, M. W. (2014). Interpersonal communication: Building connections together. SAGE.

Hayakawa, S. I. (1941). Language in thought and action. Harcourt, Brace.

Lakoff, R. T. (2001). The language war. University of California Press.

Ogden, C. K., & Richards, I. A. (1923). The meaning of meaning: A study of the influence of language upon thought and of the science of symbolism. Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner.

Image Attributions

Figure 3.1.1. Hayakawa, S. I. (1941, p. 85) in Communication in the real world.

Figure 2.1.2. Ogden & RIchards (1923) in Communication in the real world

Attribution Statement

Content adapted, with editorial changes, from:​

Wrench, J. S., Punyanunt-Carter, N., & Thweatt, K. S. (n.d.). Interpersonal communication: A mindful approach to relationships. Milne Library Publishing.

Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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Professional Communication Skills for Health Studies Copyright © 2023 by Chute, A., Johnston, S., & Pawliuk, B. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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