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Definitions of Communication

Three Simple Definitions

One Simple Process?

Information and Meaning



I am greatly indebted to my honorary editor, my wife Suzanne Norris, both for rescuing me from the worst examples of my habitual assault upon the English language and for providing a critical appraisal of the text. Various errors may well have survived. If so, they simply reflect my recidivist tendencies. Therefore, if you cannot understand a passage in the text, blame me; but if you can understand it, thank Suzanne – as I have been doing, with good reason, for nearly thirty years.


This book describes some of the ways people communicate with each other, but it neither aims nor claims to cover more than a fraction of the whole field of communication. Indeed, communication is such a very large topic, and this is such a very small book, that the ideas which I have included really only provide a brief introduction to a few of its many aspects.

Nevertheless, I have found all the ideas discussed in these pages both interesting and helpful, which is why they are included. I hope they will at least be of some use to some readers. I also hope that they will encourage curiosity about the wider field of communication – a field which is oceanic, incompletely understood and constantly evolving.

In case it is not already obvious from the above, this little book is not written for experts. For those who are interested but not expert, I hope it will be very rewarding. Even for those who are expert but still interested, a quick browse may be worthwhile. However, if you are an expert and you are not interested in reviewing what you already know, then you have wasted quite enough time already – these notes are not for you.

Incidentally, because of the significance of emotions to many aspects of communication, this book contains a number of references to my earlier book, "Wanterfall", which outlined my ideas about the understanding and resolution of human emotions. Although it may seem a little repetitive, I have given a reference in a footnote on each occasion, in the interests of easy access, rather than putting it at the end of the book.

Definitions of Communication

There are various definitions of communication, and in a moment I will give you three of them. They are not all the same, but they mostly only differ in fairly minor ways. The word itself is derived from the Latin verb communicare, which means "to share" or "to make common". That derivation provides one half of the English meaning of communication.

The other half of the meaning of communication has to do with information and meaning. These are related, but not identical, concepts. However, in simple definitions like the three shown below, information is far more likely to be mentioned, than meaning. Why is that?

It is difficult to do justice to the interaction between information and meaning in a brief definition, or indeed, in any brief fashion. This matter will be addressed in various chapters and appendices. For now, though, I will simply say that, while information always means something, it rarely, if ever, means exactly the same thing to different people.

Three Simple Definitions

         Communication is the sharing of information

         Communication is the giving and receiving of messages

         Communication is the transfer of information from one or more people to one or more other people

The first of these three definitions is the simplest, and also the broadest. Because of those qualities, it is also a little nonspecific. The second definition reminds us that information, here called a message, must be received, as well as sent, to complete the process. For example, a message launched in a bottle might achieve communication, but it also might not.

None of the above definitions requires information to flow in more than one direction (though the first two do rather imply this). Two-way communication is certainly more common, and is often preferable, but a one-way delivery of information, such as advice or instructions, still constitutes communication.

The last definition above only applies to communication between people. Animals, plants and machines are also capable of various sorts of communication, but they are not included in this definition. (They are not included in this book, either – though machines do get a brief mention in Appendix 4.)

This last definition is perfectly satisfactory for our purposes, though, as this is a book about communication between people. That implies at least two people – one at each "end" of the process. It can, of course, involve many more than two people.

One Simple Process?

How does communication actually occur? If it can be simply defined, as we have seen above, can it be just as simply achieved? It seems to me that the process by which communication occurs is very simple in concept, but can become extremely complex if it is inspected closely.

The simple version goes something like this. The sender, who has a message, somehow puts it in a form which can be sent, and somehow sends it in the direction of the receiver. The receiver then somehow receives it, somehow gets it into their brain, and somehow attributes meaning to it. This version includes a great deal of "somehow", but no "how" at all!

The complex version of the communication process is either utterly fascinating, or incredibly boring, depending on your point of view. Many thousands of pages have been written about it, and agreement between the authors of those pages is far from complete. I have included a little bit about the details of the process in Appendix 1, for any interested readers.

However, not everything about the process involved in sending and receiving messages has been banished to Appendix 1. Some of its practical aspects will be discussed in the next chapter. Before that, though, I will make a first tentative step towards redeeming my promise to say more about the related concepts of information and meaning.

Information and Meaning

Whether writing about communication, or simply chatting over lunch, the word meaning is quite often encountered. Because it is a common word that we all use frequently, it is easy to forget something very important about it. While always present within an individual mind, meaning is never fully transferable. I am commenting on this complex matter early in the book, because everything said later, in every chapter, is subject to this limitation – a limitation inherent in all communication.

The meaning attributed to any message by the receiver can never be exactly the same as the meaning intended by the sender, because they are different people, with different sense organs and different cognitive function. There are also many other factors which influence the degree to which the receiver's meaning differs from the sender's meaning.

In the case of a word or phrase, the surrounding words or phrases usually provide useful clues. Language features (such as formal, informal and idiomatic language) and sentence structure (sometimes called syntactical grammar) also provide extra information. In the case of speech, factors such as timing, stress and intonation are very significant.

The overall structure and organisation of the communication (sometimes called textual grammar) must also be considered, as should the individual characteristics of the sender and the receiver. Any concurrent messages, especially non-verbal ones, will also exert an influence, as will other factors such as the pre-existing knowledge of each communicator and the relationship between the communicators.

The method by which a message is delivered, and the form in which it arrives, will inevitably have an impact on the receiver. The purpose of the communication and the audience to which it is directed are also very relevant. The overall situation in which the communication occurs, and the local – and more distant – events surrounding it, also play their part.

These various things which influence the meaning attributed to an instance of communication are often referred to as the context of that communication. However, context is not always applied in such a broad way. Sometimes it is used to refer to particular aspects of the influences surrounding a message.

Do the preceding paragraphs mean that communication is doomed to constant failure? There is more than one answer to that question. One could argue that the transfer of a representation of some information to the mind of the receiver is all that can be expected of the communication process. From that viewpoint, the process might be considered successful, even if the meaning attributed is not the meaning intended.

However, that view of communication will not satisfy everybody. Many will wish to share their intended meanings as closely as possible with their target audiences, no matter how small or large those audiences may be. In order to do that, communication must become an art as well as a science.

There will be examples of ways in which meaning can be influenced in most of the chapters in this book. In addition, in Appendix 1, information and meaning will be addressed at a little more length. This will still not be sufficient to scratch the metaphorical surfaces of these elusive concepts, but I hope it will at least give an idea of their nature and significance.


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