How to communicate better: unlocking language’s hidden meanings

academics College Linguistics

We all know that language is a powerful tool for communication. Sometimes it can be surprising how much meaning is conveyed in the shortest of sentences. Language is composed not only of the direct meaning of the words used, but also of many additional layers of meaning that arise through prior knowledge, background information, word choice, and context. These layers can allow our communication to be highly efficient and concise, but can also lead to traps, deception, or misunderstanding when used adversarially. How can we become aware of and master the hidden layers of meaning that pervade our language?

In linguistics, two such examples are presuppositions and implicatures. Being aware that they exist and learning how to counteract them can not only improve your communication with others, but also prevent you from being deceived.

Presuppositions 

A presupposition is information that is assumed or taken for granted. We use presuppositions all the time without realizing it. For the following sentence, there are three main presuppositions. (There are actually more but we will stick with these.)

1. Olivia wrote a paper.

  • A person named Olivia exists.
  • The specific paper that she wrote exists.
  • There is only one paper.

Obviously, assuming that everyone believes certain facts about the world and how it works saves a lot of time and energy. If we couldn’t rely on presuppositions, we would have to explain everything in incredible detail and communication would become painfully slow. However, sometimes presuppositions can lead to problems, such as in the following example:

2. Have you stopped studying for the exam?

  • Yes = I had been studying but now I have stopped.
  • No = I have been studying and I am continuing to study.

Regardless of whether you answer with “yes” or “no”, the wording of the question implies that at least up until now, you have been studying. In a forensic context, this can cause serious issues. For instance, if an investigator asks a suspect, “Have you stopped robbing banks?”, unless the suspect is careful, they can be trapped into admitting to robbing banks.

The best way to counteract presuppositions is to simply identify them. By recognizing them, you can ask clarification questions or reply in more depth than a simple “yes” or “no” in order to explain your position: “I have never robbed a bank in my life.”

Implicatures

The other example is an implicature, or something that is suggested or implied without being explicitly stated. Implicatures can range broadly depending on their purpose and context. For the statement below, all of the following options are possible implicatures.

3. I don’t understand this.

  1. Can you explain it to me?
  2. I’m doomed. I’ll never figure it out.
  3. I’m going to fail this class.

We use implicatures for a variety of reasons, including to communicate efficiently by expressing multiple thoughts with one sentence as well as to veil intentions by substituting a more polite expression for something negative. An example of the latter is the following:

4. Olivia: Can you dog-sit for me on Friday? // Ben: I already have plans.

  • Ben doesn’t want to dog-sit (because he is actually terrified of her dog).

In order to not hurt Olivia’s feelings and to save face, Ben says he is busy instead of the reality that he has no interest in spending time alone with her dog. Using implicatures rather than communicating explicitly can cause problems when the addresser does not interpret the appropriate implicature. For the previous example in (4), Olivia may interpret Ben’s response as he would normally be interested in helping out, but is truthfully busy on Friday. If Ben does not clarify his intended implicature, Olivia may continue to ask for his dog-sitting services.

Another problem can occur when the addressee intentionally tries to mislead the addresser.

5. Did you finish your homework? // I finished my math homework.

  • The student may not have finished his other homework, though.

By answering the general question with a specific answer, the student could be implicating that although they finished their math homework, they did not finish their science homework, for instance. If the student realizes too late how their statement might come across and, in fact, they did finish all of their homework, they can easily counteract the implicature by adding more information:

  • I finished my math homework, and my other homework as well.
  • I finished my math homework and my science homework and my history homework! That was all my homework for tonight. 

There are many other implicit linguistic phenomena, such as entailments, epistemic modals, and coherence relations, that can also leave language up to interpretation, and thus open the possibility of misinterpretation. Becoming proactively aware of these can be thought of as acquiring tools for communicating more effectively. Whether you are reading, writing, presenting, or taking an exam, you can harness the power of explicit and implicit language to better understand the world around you.

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