Semantic Barriers

Recognizing Semantic Barriers to Overcome Them

Semantic barriers refer to the obstacles caused in encodingOpens in new window and decodingOpens in new window process due to problems with the interpretation of meanings.

The absence of clarity and precision in the subject matter of communication tend to distort the semantic aspect of the message—resulting in poorly expressed message.

Selection of inappropriate words, improper sentence formation, imprecise and ambiguous sentences can prove to be damaging to effective communication.

If the receiver is not able to comprehend the message that the sender intends to convey, it results into language barrier in the communication processOpens in new window.

WordsOpens in new window are said to have no meaning but they represent an associated arbitrary meaning. A word may have a variety of meaningsOpens in new window and the meaning attributed by the senderOpens in new window may not be the same as that attributed by the receiverOpens in new window.

Similarly, a word can have different meanings to different people at different occasions. Sometimes, the sender and the receiver may use different words to communicate the same meaning.

Semantic barriers—lack of clarity and precision—can prove to be damaging and complicate the sharing of meaning.

The common causes are:

  1. use of ambiguous words,
  2. connotative wordsOpens in new window,
  3. bypassingOpens in new window,
  4. implication and inference,
  5. poor grammar, sentence structure, punctuation and spelling,
  6. roundabout style,
  7. lack of common language and
  8. abstract words.

We'll spend the remainder of the entry examining them one after the other.

1.   Ambiguous words

Words with ambiguous meanings are chiefly useful to enable the sophist to mislead his hearers. But it is an obstacle to effective communication or even to clear thinking.

If we do not consider how another person may interpret our words, we are prone to create a semantic barrier.

In Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, Humpty Dumpty explains how it is easy to create one:

“I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,’” Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t—till I tell you.”
I meant, “There’s a nice knock-down argument for you!”

“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument,’” Alice objected.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

In the real world, we cannot make words mean whatever we want them to, if we aim to be understood.

2.   Denotative vs Connotative Meaning

Words have both denotative and connotative meanings. A word’s denotative meaning is its standard dictionary definition.

It is the general or objective meaning that members of a particular language community attribute to the word.

The more denotations a word has, the greater the possibility for confusion when the word is used.

A run in baseball is different from a run in a stocking, which is different from a 10K run.

When another person does not understand the denotative meanings of our words, we have a potential semantic barrier.

Connotative meaning, in contrast, is much more subjective, personal, and contextual by nature.

Unlike denotative meaning, it is influenced by an individual’s personal experience with a word and its referent.

Thus, if the person you are speaking with does not share the connotative meaning you have for a word, it becomes even more likely that a semantic barrier will occur.

Important Hint! 

To get the meaning of a word, consider the context, the sender and his/her background. What does the sender intend the word to convey? If you use any such specific word in your message, consider your receiver and his chances of misinterpreting the term.

3.   Bypassing

A damaging barrier to clear communication involves words. Some people including you and I had at some point in time attached a little bundle of meanings to every word, and these meanings are not always similar.

Bypassing occurs when people miss each other with their meanings.

For example, your boss asks you to help with a large customer mailing.

When you arrive to do your share, you learn that you are expected to do the whole mailing yourself. You and your boss attached different meanings to the word help.

BypassingOpens in new window can lead to major miscommunication because people assume that meanings are contained in words. Actually, meanings are in people.

4.   Implication and Inference

  • An implication is a meaning given through connotation rather than through specific details.
  • An inference is a conclusion drawn from connotation rather than from specific details.

Although inferences and implications need not occur as a set, a speaker who implies something can cause a receiver to infer a meaning different from what was intended.

For example, a person who says that his work is undervalued may mean to suggest that he doesn’t get enough positive feedback from his supervisor.

Without specific detail, however, the receiver of the message might infer that the speaker believes his salary isn’t high enough.

Important Hint! 

To avoid the communication problems of implication and inference, senders should always use specific language, and receivers should ask questions to clarify meaning.

5.   Poor Grammar, Sentence Structure, Punctuation and Spelling

Incorrect grammar and poor sentence structure and spelling could hinder the receiver’s understanding of a spoken or written message.

As the number of errors increases, readers often stop reading for content and begin editing.

Punctuation is equally essential for effective communication as faulty and improper punctuation can change the intended meaning of the sentence. For example, an absent or a misplaced ‘comma’ could prove to be misleading to a reader.

Note the following examples:

    Wrong sentence structure:
  • In the late 1950s, Rahul’s mother returned to Delhi, she then pulled him out of school with the intent to make him a farmer.
  • Correct Sentence Structure:
  • In the late 1950s, Rahul’s mother returned to Delhi, and pulled him out of school with the intent to encourage him to be a farmer.

The errors suggest that the person who sent the message either does not know the basics of the language or was too careless to correct the problems.

6.   Roundabout Style

Roundabout way of conversation consists of avoiding single and straight forward talk and putting the same thing in a roundabout or indirect style with, long phrases or sentences, thus lacking clarity and precision.

Roundabout style merely yields to confusion, and ultimately leads to communication barrier.

Roundabout style is full of verbose expression, addition of meaningless padding to simple messages, by which the speaker uses complex and long-winded sentences to impress the listener.

If we avoid this pompous sort of style, liveliness and simplicity of expression can be brought into written as well as oral communication.

For example, instead of saying “contrary to law” we can say illegal (However, to say “contrary to the spirit of law” is not the same thing as ‘illegal’).

7.   Lack of Common Language

LanguageOpens in new window makes use of oral or written signs to convey certain meanings from one person to another.

As you might already know, every human language has its own vocal sign system and its own grammatical structures.

If the sender and the receiver speak in a different language, their ignorance of each other’s language or the lack of common language will be a barrier to communication between them.

It is almost impossible for them to communicate with each other unless they know some common language that is properly understood by both of them.

For example, a Hindi speaking boy and a Tamil speaking boy will not be able to communicate without a good knowledge of each other’s language. If both of them know a common language, say English, their knowledge of English words, phrases, clauses and sentence-structure would be adequate to express their thoughts and feelings.

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8.   Concrete vs Abstract Words

Words can be loosely classified as concrete and abstract.

Concrete words are signs which name a thing, or a class of things.

Examples of concrete words are “father”, “sailor”, “radio”, “church”, and “pencil”, to name but a few. In each instance the referent is the thing which is being named.

Abstract words, in contrast, is not that straightforward in terms their referent. Abstract words are the names for qualities and attributes. Such words as “love”, “humanity”, “justice”, “pleasure”, “clever”, and “worship” do not denote an actual object.

Generally, abstract words have feelings, emotions, attitudes and ideas as their referents. Since the referent is a concept rather than a thing, words such as “democracy”, “ethics”, “honest”, “crowd”, or “freedom” are likely to be different for different people.

When you use abstract words in your message, it is always good to define the term so your receiver will understand the sense you intend to convey.