Language and Communication by Jonathan Dolhenty


Language and Communication
by Jonathan Dolhenty, Ph.D.

There are thousands of languages spoken throughout the world. No one knows exactly when or how human beings began to use what today we call ordinary language, but a number of theories have been offered by early linguists.

There is the “ding-dong” theory which assumed that there was some necessary and logical connection between the sound of a word and the thing referred to. This theory has largely been discarded. Then there is the “poo-poo” theory which states that primitive languages were a result of exclamations of surprise, fear, and so forth. There was a group of linguists which put forth the “bow-wow” theory which insisted that language developed from the imitation of natural sounds.

However and whenever human beings first began to use language and how such language developed will probably never be known. We do know, however, that all languages, even so-called primitive ones, are really a very subtle and complicated instrument of human communication. We also know that there is more to language (particularly spoken language) than words, sentences, and paragraphs. Human beings use language in many ways and for many purposes.

English Grammar and Usage

Most of you have probably learned in school that a sentence is defined as a unit of language which expresses a complete thought. Additionally, you were probably taught that sentences can be divided into four categories: declarative, interrogative, imperative, and exclamatory. But it should be noted now that these four grammatical categories do not coincide with those of assertions, questions, commands, and exclamations. This brings up the difference between form and function.

A declarative sentence, for example, is a form of sentence but its function may vary depending on its purpose in a conversation. Not every declarative sentence states an assertion which may be considered true or false. It is a mistake to confuse declarative sentences with the informative function. If someone says, “I really enjoyed your lecture,” this is a declarative sentence but it need not be informative at all. It could be ceremonial or expressive, exhibiting a feeling of appreciation or a sense of good manners.

An interrogative sentence does not have to be a question asking for information. It could, for instance, be a command to hurry like in the sentence “Do you realize we’ll be late for the party?” The form of the sentence is interrogatory but the function may be imperative. Let’s look at another interrogative sentence: “Isn’t it true that the State Department was riddled with Communists after the Second World War?” This may be a question asking for information or it may not be. Such a sentence could also be an attempt to evoke a feeling of hostility in the listener or express a feeling of hostility in the speaker. Its form is interrogatory but its function may be expressive.

We run into the same situation with imperative sentences. The imperative sentence “Let us pray” may not be functioning as a command at all but is simply being used as ceremonial or expressive language. Sentences which are exclamatory may serve functions other than expressive. “Heavens to Betsy, it’s late!” may function as a command to hurry. “What a good book!” uttered by a salesman in a bookstore may function more directively than expressively.

The important point to remember is that conversations, whether spoken or written, may serve more than one function. There may be portions of the conversation which serve an informative function and are to be evaluated as true or false. There may be passages which serve the directive function and be evaluated as right or wrong, proper or improper. There may be a passage which is expressive and needs to be evaluated as sincere or insincere, valuable or otherwise.

To properly evaluate a given passage in a conversation it is important to recognize the function or functions it is intended to serve.

Logic and critical thinking are primarily concerned with matters of truth and falsehood and with correctness and incorrectness of argument. Logic is more concerned with the informative function of language. But it is important to be able to distinguish this informative function from other functions which the same passage may be serving in any given conversation. The grammatical structure (the form) may serve as a clue to the function of a particular passage in a conversation, but there is no necessary connection between function and grammatical form.

We must also be aware that a passage taken in isolation, that is, a group of words taken out of a conversation and treated independently, may cause problems in determining the function of the selected passage. This is because context is very important in determining the meaning of and the function of a given passage. What is serving an informative function in one context may be serving a directive function in another.

Again, what we are primarily concerned with in the science of logic is the informative function of language.

The Basic Functions of Language

Generally speaking, we can say that there are at least three basic uses of language that we encounter virtually every day.

Descriptive Language

Much of our speaking and writing is devoted to using language to communicate information. This is sometimes called the informative function and is usually accomplished by using what are called propositions, sentences which affirm or deny something. This use of language involves the concepts of truth and falsity. A proposition may be true or it may be untrue.

Expressive Language

A second basic use of language is called the expressive function. Here we are using language to communicate feelings, emotions, and attitudes. There is no problem of truth and falsity when using language in this way. Feelings, emotions, and attitudes may be right or wrong, proper or improper, appropriate or inappropriate, but ordinarily we don’t say they are true or false.

Directive Language

Language may also be used in a directive way. Here we are using language for the purpose of causing or preventing some overt action. Ordinarily we call such sentences commands or requests and we don’t apply the concepts of truth and falsity to such sentences. Whether or not a command should be obeyed or a request granted is, of course, quite another matter and doesn’t concern us here.

Ceremonial Language

Categorizing the above three basic functions of language as informative, expressive, and directive may help us begin to understand the complexities of linguistic communication but this threefold division is really an oversimplification. Our ordinary conversations are much too diverse and complicated and these three functions are intermixed and modified in actual practice. Then there are some other ways in which we use language which do not neatly fall into one of the three categories, such as using language for a ceremonial or performance function.

Special Language Usage

We need to become aware of the ways in which we use language for certain specific purposes.

Emotive Words

We have to be careful about arguments that involve words which are not descriptive but “emotive.” Emotive words express an attitude or feeling and can have an emotional impact on readers and listeners. Some words, however, can have both a descriptive function and an emotive one. We have to be careful to differentiate between both functions.

Let’s take the word “bureaucrat.” A bureaucrat is a government functionary, a person who works in a bureau of the government. This is a “descriptive” definition. But the word “bureaucrat” can also have an “emotive” function. Many people think of a “bureaucrat” with resentment and disapproval, a person who causes them harm or difficulty.

It is important for the student of logic to realize that a word may have both a descriptive or literal meaning and an emotional meaning. In logic, we are not concerned with the emotional meaning and its impact. Many arguments go awry because these two functions are confused.

Think, for instance, of the following terms: “pervert,” “maniac,” terrorist,” “unnatural,” “abnormal,” and “antisocial.” These words have descriptive definitions. But they also have emotional import. As far as logic is concerned, we are not interested in the emotive function these words may have. As a matter of fact, most people who use these words in their everyday conversation would have a difficult time defining what they mean by them if they were challenged by a good logician. We, as good logicians, will not use these words in our arguments without clearly defining them and making sure they are descriptive, not emotive.


Poetry is very important in our lives as human beings. The language of poetry, however, carries with it some problems when it comes to logic. The poet’s language is, in a sense, descriptive. It is, however, descriptive in a special sense, an emotive sense. The poet is trying to move us emotionally or he may be trying to persuade us of something.

The poet is permitted by custom and convention to have a certain “license” with language (called poetic license, in fact) to permit poetry to draw “word pictures” that may not, in fact, represent reality as it is. Words may be used to elicit emotions or feelings. Sentences may be constructed to send us beyond what we know as reality. “Flights of fancy” are perfectly proper for the poet.

We must realize, however, that poetic language, no matter how beautiful it may be, has no place in logic. Logic is emotionless and non-feeling. Poetic language, like emotive words, has no place in propositions we use in logic.

Figures of Speech

Here we have another possible pitfall in language. We all use figures of speech in our daily conversations. We use metaphors, similes, and analogies without sometimes realizing we are doing so. In ordinary circumstances these figures of speech are perfectly all right and actually add color and interest to our speaking and writing.

The problem we can have with figures of speech occurs when we take them literally, that is, when we think the figure of speech actually represents the real thing or event. The man who “roars like a lion” is not really a lion, after all. The woman who “looks like an old crow” is not really a crow. A famous old fable may seem to represent an actual case, but it may not be true or applicable except by analogy.

Sentences which contain figures of speech are not acceptable as propositions to be used in logic. Metaphors, similes, and analogies may be good for illustrating things and events in a “poetic” sense; they are not, however, acceptable for use in propositions.

Words and Their Definitions

The importance of definitions cannot be overemphasized, particularly in analyzing and evaluating arguments in everyday contexts. We need to know the meanings of words in a sentence to determine whether or not they express a proposition and can, therefore, be logically analyzable. Also, the vagueness of everyday speech can create problems in arguments which demand accuracy of thought and expression.

Symbols and Objects

It is important to distinguish between symbol and object. The object is that which the symbol marks and the object is that to which the symbol points. For instance, “dog” is a symbol whereas the class of dogs to which it points is the object. “John” is a symbol whereas the class of persons to which it points is the object. “Tornado” is a symbol whereas the class of natural events to which it points is the object.

There is also a distinction between natural symbols and conventional symbols.

A natural symbol marks and signals a meaning relationship that we find in nature, and it is a relationship over which human decisions of linguistic usage have no effect. For example, certain atmospheric conditions mean a storm is approaching. The connection between atmospheric conditions and the storm is not decided by us, for it is found in nature. The symptoms indicating an approaching storm are symbols which signal a state of affairs in the world of nature, not in the world of conventional linguistic discourse.

On the other hand, an arbitrary or conventional symbol is one that has been established through a deliberate decision or linguistic convention. The English language, for example, is a set of conventional symbols. There is no natural law which establishes the relationship between a language and the objects to which it relates. Conventional symbols are labels made by man.

We can see, then, that objects in our world do not have anything like a “natural” name. The names of the various breeds of dogs and cats, for instance, were not “discovered,” but were “invented” and “assigned” by human beings. It is a matter of usage and convention and these common uses should not be ignored if we want to communicate successfully.

This is one reason why we say that “names” of objects or “definitions” of words are not, strictly speaking, true or false. At least not in the same sense that we say a statement is true or false. What we really mean when we say a definition or meaning of a word is “false” is that it is not being used in the ordinary, common, or conventional way.

The Use-Mention Distinction

It is important to distinguish between the use of a term and the mention of a term. In the statement “Boys are strong,” the word “boys” is used in the conventional way. The object of the term “boys” is the class of all boys. In this situation, we say that we use the word “boys.”

Consider, however, the following statement: “The word ‘boys’ refers to young people of the male gender.” In this case, the object of “boys” is not the class of all boys; the object is the word “boys” itself. We are talking about the word-object. So we say that we mention the word “boys.”

Writers generally indicate when a word (or phrase) is being mentioned, rather than used, by setting such a word (or phrase) off in quotation marks or by italicizing the word (or phrase). It is more difficult to indicate the distinction when speaking.

It should be noted there is an informal logical fallacy called the Use/Mention Fallacy which refers to an argument that fallaciously persuades by confusing the mentioning of a word with the use of it. One commits this fallacy when:

  • (1) things that are true of linguistic expressions are thereby attributed to what those expressions talk about, or
  • (2) features of things in the world are thereby attributed to linguistic expressions for those things.

One example will be given to illustrate the Use/Mention Fallacy. This is a “word game” attributed to the ancient Greeks:

“You can’t say the word wagon because whatever you say must come through your mouth; but a wagon is far too big to come through your mouth.”

It should be obvious that the word “wagon” is being merely mentioned in one part of the sentence and then used in another part. The argument could be made clear by writing it this way:

“You can’t say the word ‘wagon’ because whatever you say must come through your mouth; but a wagon is far too big to come through your mouth.”

It can clearly be seen that the argument is false. We can certainly say the word “wagon” because here we are merely mentioning it and the object of the word is the word itself and not the class of actual wagons. The second time the word appears in the argument, it is being used and not merely mentioned. In this second appearance, the word indeed refers to the class of actual wagons.

The point to be made is that it is important to keep in mind that ordinary words can be used to confuse and distract. Stay alert!

Kinds of Definitions

In logic and critical thinking, definitions are used primarily to define words, not concepts or ideas. The term to be defined is called the definiendum, and that part of the total expression which clarifies the definiendum is called the definiens. For example, in the statement “A parrot is a tropical bird,” “parrot” is the definiendum and “is a tropical bird” is the definiens.

When framing a definition, it is important to indicate the context in which the definiendum is being used. There are several kinds of definitions and how a definition is classified will depend on the type of definiens provided.

Synonymous Definitions

This is a definition in which the definiens consists of only one word which, in suitable contexts, can be used interchangeably with the definiendum. For example, “hit” is synonymous with “strike” in an appropriate context. And “gang” can be synonymous with “pack” in certain contexts. And “cold” can be synonymous with “chilly” in the right context.

The best place to locate synonyms is, of course, a thesaurus, and you should become familiar with one if you haven’t done so. A good dictionary and a good thesaurus are musts for any Super Thinker. See the list of resources in the back of this book for suggestions.

Enumerative Definitions

This is a definition in which the definiens lists words referring to or presents actual examples of things, properties, relations, concepts, and so forth, to which the definiens can be properly applied. Enumerative definitions are divided into two classes depending on the nature of the definiens.

The first class of enumerative definitions is called the ostensive definition. This type of definition provides example of things to which the definiendum can be applied. This can be done, for instance, by pointing. A foreigner shopping in a land whose language he does not speak may have to avail himself of ostensive definitions to make himself understood. He may have to point to an object to get his message across to a store clerk. Babies seem to learn a great deal in their early stages of linguistic growth through the use of ostensive definitions. I can define the word “animal” by pointing at a dog, a cat, a cow, a horse, or any other kind of animal that is present.

Ostensive definitions have both advantages and disadvantages. They are easy to formulate, can teach concepts previously unknown, and do not depend on preexisting language. But, on the other hand, they depend on the actual presence of the definiens and they are prone to misinterpretation.

The second class of enumerative definitions is called the denotative definition. This type of definition does not require the physical presence of the definiens. It lists examples of things, or types or classes of things, to which the definiendum applies. The list constituting the definiens indicates what is called the “denotation” or extension” of the definiendum. For example, we could define the term “skyscraper” by listing the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, the Woolworth Building, The World Trade Center, and so forth.

Denotative definitions are usually easy to formulate and are generally understood. One disadvantage, however, is that many terms cannot have their extensions completely enumerated for various reasons. For instance, the extension of the term “number” is infinite and all examples of the term could never be listed. The extension of the term “star,” referring here to the heavenly body and not the Hollywood body, would also be very difficult to complete, so a partial enumeration is all that could be hoped for.

Connotative Definitions

This kind of definition pinpoints the meaning of the definiendum by listing a set of properties common to all the things to which the definiendum can be correctly applied, and common only to those things. The sum total of a definiendum’s essential properties is called the connotation of the definiendum.

For example, “television” can be defined as “an optical and electric system for continuous transmission of visual images and sound that may be instantaneously received at a distance.” In this definition, the essential attributes of “television” are listed.

You need to simply note here that an increase in the intention of a term, that is, adding additional properties, will either decrease the denotation (extension) or leave it unchanged, and a decrease in the intention of a definition, that is, eliminating some of the properties, will either increase the denotation or leave it unchanged.

Operational Definitions

These definitions are part of a theory of the meaning of scientific concepts. The view is that all physical concepts are to be defined by indication of the operations that are required to measure them. The definiens provides a test or a formal procedure which is to be followed in order to determine whether or not the definiendum applies to a certain thing.

For example, an operational definition for the term “buoyant” would be: “If you place an object in water, it does not sink to the bottom.”

Operational definitions are dependent to a large extent on the scientific concept or theory which includes them. For instance, the meaning of the term “electron” will vary depending on the specific scientific theory under discussion. The meaning of “electron” in the electromagnetic theory of Lorentz has quite a different meaning and designates quite a different scientific object from what is designated by the same word in the theory of quantum mechanics.

The same concern applies to the term “instinct,” which has both a common, conventional meaning in ordinary discourse, and a technical operational meaning in the science of psychology. When we ask the question, “Do human beings have instincts?”, it is vitally important as to whether we are using the term “instinct” with the common meaning ordinary used in non-scientific discourse, or whether we are using it with the scientific meaning that psychologists attach to it. While most people would probably say that human beings do have instincts, according to the scientific definition I learned in advanced psychology classes in college, human beings definitely do not have instincts.

Here is another question which has intrigued a great many people in the past: “If a tree falls in the forest, and no living creature is within a hundred miles, is there any sound?” Well, here again, we need to be careful how we are using the term “sound.” The ordinary person in common discourse usually uses the term “sound” to mean that which is “heard” by a sensing organism. But that is not the meaning attached to it by the physicist. “Sound,” to the physicist, refers to vibrations along the electromagnetic spectrum. Therefore, the answer to the question above would be “yes,” because there would be vibrations set off by the falling tree once it landed on the ground. To the physicist there would be a sound even if no living creatures were around to hear it.

The Uses of Definitions

We have discussed above some of the different kinds of definitions there are and some of the different methods by which a word can be defined. It is also important to be aware of some of the uses to which definitions can be put. Some of these will be briefly discussed below.

Reportive or Lexical Definitions

These definitions are used to report the meaning of a term as it is used and understood by a particular group of people. When someone states that a certain definition is “false,” it is usually to a lexical definition he is referring. While, strictly speaking, definitions are neither true nor false in themselves, there is a sense in which they are true or false if we are speaking of the way in which a particular group of people use a specific word. In this case, a lexical definition is reporting a definition or meaning that a word already has and, in this sense, the definition can be said to be true or false.

Therefore, the statement that “The word ‘mountain’ means a large mass of earth or rock rising to a considerable height above the surrounding country,” is true. It is true because it is a true report of how English-speaking people use the word “mountain.” Of course, we could redefine the word “mountain” and if the new meaning was accepted by everyone, then the above definition for “mountain” may not then be true.

When you use an ordinary dictionary to get at the meaning of a word, you are receiving, for the most part, a reportive or lexical definition in common use. Some dictionaries, of course, give more than the commonly-accepted definition, and may also provide technical definitions which differ from those used in ordinary discourse. These may be limited reportive definitions, that is, the meaning may be limited to a certain context such as science, philosophy, or law. Two such examples are theoretical definitions and legal definitions.

It is in connection with theoretical definitions that most “disputing over definitions” occurs. A theoretical definition defines a word in terms of the meaning which it carries in a particular scientific or philosophical theory. Since some words have both ordinary and theoretical lexical definitions, it is easy to see how disputes over definitions can occur. The examples given above in the discussion of operational definitions (the meaning of “sound” and “instinct”) illustrates the problem. “Sound” and “instinct” have both ordinary and theoretical lexical definitions and one must specify which meaning is being used in a particular discussion.

One of the most serious debates in the history of philosophy has been over the status of “ideas.” Students of philosophy attempting to compare Plato’s notion of “idea” with Aristotle’s notion of “idea” have usually indulged in a wasteful argument because they have not understood the meaning of “idea” in each philosopher’s technical theory. For those of you familiar with the problem or who have studied philosophy, let me briefly outline it for you.

The term “idea” means something different in Plato’s theory from what it means in Aristotle’s theory and, unless the meaning of the term within each theory is understood and clarified, useless argumentation occurs. An Aristotelian “idea” is really a Platonic “sensible” given an immortal persistence, whereas a Platonic “idea” is not even in part a “sensible.” “Ideas” and “sensibles” are totally different things. For Plato, “sensibles” are nominalistic and purely transitory. This is why Plato says that the sense world is a world of “becoming” and not a world of “being.” For Aristotle, on the other hand, the sense world is a world of “being” and the process of “becoming” is explained through the use of Aristotelian “forms.”

A legal definition is one that is specified in laws as formulated by a legislative, judicial, or executive body. It serves a limited reportive function when it is used in reference to a definition which is generally accepted within an existing legal system. Again, the difference between an ordinary lexical definition and a legal definition may give rise to verbal disputes, unless which meaning is being used is made clear.

Consider, for a moment, the term “statutory rape.” Ordinarily, we think of rape as an act committed through force, against the will of the victim, without the victim’s consent, and associated with some degree of physical violence. But, legally, this may not be so.

Sexual activity with someone under the designated age of consent constitutes “rape” in many jurisdictions even though no force is used and no violence is present and the “victim” may have consented to the activity. This is “rape as defined by statute” or statutory rape. And, furthermore, what is considered statutory rape in one jurisdiction may not be considered rape at all in another jurisdiction. It may depend on the defined “age of consent,” which may differ from place to place.

Another example of a legal definition is the definition of “family” by the U.S. Census Bureau, a definition which differs from the ordinary meaning most people attach to the term. The term “blindness” may have a specific legal definition for purposes of receiving public assistance and this definition may differ from the common meaning attached to it by ordinary people.

Stipulative Definitions

A stipulative definition is that which is given to a brand-new term when it is first introduced, or a word which has a generally accepted meaning but is used in a new sense.

Anyone who “coins” a new word or introduces a new symbol has complete freedom to stipulate what meaning is to be given to it. The assignment of meanings is a matter of choice and, therefore, stipulative definitions cannot be “true” or “false” in any sense. Of course, a stipulative definition can be judged as being good or not so good, depending on whether or not it achieves the purpose for which it was introduced.

An interesting characteristic about stipulative definitions is that, once the term and definition become absorbed into general usage, that is, they become part of ordinary, common discourse, they cease to be stipulative and become reportive or lexical definitions.

Stipulative definitions are an important part of science and philosophy. There are many advantages to introducing a new and technical symbol defined to mean what would otherwise require a long sequence of familiar words for its expression. This helps to economize space and time. Also, the emotive suggestions of familiar words are often disturbing to a scientist or philosopher interested only in their literal or informative meanings. Stipulative definitions may help to keep terms free from emotional overtones, bias, and prejudices.

Precising Definitions

Neither stipulative nor lexical definitions can serve to reduce the vagueness of a term. A vague term is one for which borderline cases may arise, such that it cannot be determined whether the term should be applied to them or not.

Precising definitions are used to eliminate ambiguity or vagueness. Any of the kinds of definition previously discussed &emdash; synonymous, enumerative, etc. &emdash; can be used as a precising definition.

If a term is vague or its meaning may be misunderstood, it is always useful to present a precising definition to help others grasp what is being proposed. For example, we might want to say: “In this discussion (or argument), the term ‘poor’ will refer only to those with incomes under $20,000 per year.”

Persuasive Definitions

The purpose of a persuasive definition is to influence attitudes. Their function is expressive and usually reflect the beliefs or persuasive intent of the speaker or writer. Persuasive definitions are usually intended to affect someone’s evaluation of the definiendum, usually in hopes of affecting other people’s behavior in some way.

Consider, for example, the following definitions for “pot smokers”:

  • “Pot smokers” are “dropouts, malcontents, emotionally insecure persons, and the dregs of society.”
  • “Pot smokers” are “enlightened experimenters, victims of a puritanical and hypocritical society, who have challenged age-old patterns of behavior.


Under the heading “Defining Abortion a Tricky Business” appeared the following story:

Amidst the emotional debate on the abortion issue at the State Legislature, humor still lives. Anonymous legislative staffers this week drafted and circulated to legislators a proposed “general response to constituent letters on abortion.” It goes like this:

Dear Sir:

You ask me how I stand on abortion. Let me answer forthrightly and without equivocation.

If by abortion you mean the murdering of defenseless human beings; the denial of rights to the youngest of our citizens; the promotion of promiscuity among our shiftless and valueless youth and the rejection of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness&emdash;then, Sir, be assured that I shall never waver in my opposition, so help me God.

But, Sir, if by abortion you mean the granting of equal rights to all our citizens regardless of race, color, or sex; the elimination of evil and vile institutions preying upon desperate and hopeless women; a chance to all our youth to be wanted and loved; and, above all, that God-given right for all citizens to act in accordance with the dictates of their own conscience&emdash;then, Sir, let me promise you as a patriot and a humanist that I shall never be persuaded to forego my pursuit of these most basic human rights.

Thank you for asking my position on this most crucial issue and let me again assure you of the steadfastness of my stand.

Mahalo and Aloha Nui.


(from: “Thanks and Love,” The Honolulu Advertiser, February 14, 1970)

The Moral Liberal recommends: Great Books of the Western World

The late Dr. Jonathan Dolhenty was the Founder and President of The Center for Applied Philosophy and the Radical Academy, and is Honorary Philosophy Editor at The Moral Liberal. The Moral Liberal has adopted these projects beginning with a republishing and preserving of all of Dr. Dolhenty’s work.

Copyright ©1992 -2011 The Radical Academy. Copyright renewed in 2011 -2013 © The Radical Academy (a project of The Moral Liberal).


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