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The Slippery Slope of Meaning
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What something “means” is rarely absolute. Maybe never, even in math. It’s all about ‘perspective.’ The obvious example is politics, but I’ve had enough of those lately.

I was confronted recently with an example that’s much more mundane in some ways and of some significance in another. Prepositions. I grew up in the UK where the grammatically correct way of expressing difference is “A is different from B.” When I got to Canada, I heard that, too, but I also heard some of the American way of speaking, namely “A is different than B.” I knew that if I wrote that on a paper in my Scottish school, I’d be marked down for “incorrect” grammar.

When I came to the U.S., I was already indoctrinated into the “different than” expression, so wasn’t surprised, but I met a few Aussies and discovered that, to them, “A is different to B.” I’d be marked down for that in either the U.S. or the UK.

All of this may seem irrelevant to the world at large, but I think it’s a great example of how small differences can throw us entirely off track and off meaning. When I used to teach ESL students, they’d often be puzzled and stumped by prepositions. In some of their languages, e.g., Russian, there are no prepositions, which is problem one. But, once the concept of prepositions has been conveyed, they are at sea when it comes to choosing one. And who can blame them? I used to tell them that they had to be schizophrenic, even multiple-personalities and flexible. Use the one you think belongs to that country. It’s called “usage” and there are many more complex usage convolutions than the preposition that follows the word “different.”

Add to that the question of how much communication is verbal and how much nonverbal, and the situation slips farther. There have been a number of studies on this subject and, for a long time, “experts” generally agreed that 70% to 93% of all communication was nonverbal. One of the most well-known research projects on nonverbal communication was led by Dr. Mehrabian in the 1960s. He suggested only 7% was verbal. This is now debunked by Philip Yaffe in his article The 7% Rule: Fact, Fiction, or Misunderstanding (see

Nonverbal communication is made up of a number of factors, such as speaker’s body language, and the tone and music of the speaker’s voice. Body language changes from culture to culture and that includes cultures where the predominant language is English. As for tone, some languages’ meanings are more tonal than not, certainly more tonal than English. Say something in the wrong tone and the meaning of the word is entirely different. I’ve had that idea reinforced more than once. I sometimes tried to learn a word or two in my ESL students’ language. Mispronouncing a word one day by a difference in tone, I said a “bad word” that make my students burst into laughter. They never told me what the word meant — refused in fact. The slippery slope of meaning descended even further. Then there’s tone and music. As a child in Scotland, I heard sentences told in a tone and music that went “up” at the end, almost like a question. And in acting class, when exploring how to speak different accents, intonation was a key factor in making an “accent” by a character from a different country sound “real.”

If we add up usage, body language, tone, music, and other factors, it’s a miracle we communicate at all. And what we convey (I won’t say speak) is easily subject to misinterpretation, and can cause misunderstandings that result in anything from laughter to war.

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