Language, Meaning, and Communication

The Role of Language in Constructing Arguments

Format
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Cline, Austin. "Language, Meaning, and Communication." ThoughtCo, Feb. 11, 2017, thoughtco.com/language-meaning-and-communication-249756. Cline, Austin. (2017, February 11). Language, Meaning, and Communication. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/language-meaning-and-communication-249756 Cline, Austin. "Language, Meaning, and Communication." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/language-meaning-and-communication-249756 (accessed October 19, 2017).
Coworkers discussing a project at conference table
Gary Burchell/Taxi/Getty Images

Although it might sound trivial or even irrelevant to bring up such basic matters as language, meaning, and communication, these are the most fundamental components of arguments — even more fundamental than propositions, inferences, and conclusions. We cannot make sense of an argument without being able to make sense of the language, meaning, and purpose of what is being communicated in the first place.

Language is a subtle and complex instrument used to communicate an incredible number of different things, but for our purposes here we can reduce the universe of communication to four basic categories: information, direction, emotion, and ceremony. The first two are often treated together because they express cognitive meaning while the latter two commonly express emotional meaning.

Information

The communication of information may be the most frequently thought use of language, but it probably isn’t as dominant as most believe it to be. The basic means of conveying information is through statements or propositions (a proposition is any declaration that asserts some matter of fact, as opposed to an opinion or value) — the building blocks of arguments. Some of the “information” here might not be true because not all arguments are valid; however, for the purposes of studying logic, the information being conveyed in a statement may be either false or true.

The informative content of a statement may be direct or indirect. Most statements in arguments will probably be direct — something basic like “all men are mortal.” Indirect information may also be communicated if you read between the lines. Poetry, for example, conveys information indirectly through techniques such as metaphors.

Direction

Communicating direction occurs when we use language to cause or prevent an action. The simplest examples would be when we yell “Stop!” or “Come here!” Unlike the communication of information, commands can’t be true or false. On the other hand, the reasons for giving commands may be true or false and hence be amenable to logical critique.

Feelings and Emotions

Finally, language may be used to communicate feelings and emotions. Such expressions may or may not be intended to evoke reactions in others, but when emotional language occurs in an argument, the purpose is to evoke similar feelings in others to sway them to agreeing with the argument’s conclusion(s).

Ceremony

I indicated above that the ceremonial use of language is used to communicate emotional meaning, but that isn’t entirely accurate. The problem with ceremonial language is that it can involve all three other categories at some level and can be very difficult to interpret properly. A priest using ritual phrases may be communicating information about the religious ritual, invoking predicted emotional reactions in religious adherents, and directing them to begin the next stage of the ritual — all at once and with the same half dozen words.

Ceremonial language cannot be understood literally, but neither can the literal meanings be ignored.

In ordinary discourse, we don’t encounter all four categories of communication in their “pure” form. Normally, people’s communication makes use of all sorts of strategies at once. This is also true of arguments, where propositions that are intended to convey information may be phrased in a manner designed to evoke emotion, and the entire thing leads to a directive — some order that is supposed to follow from accepting the argument in question.

Separation

Being able to separate emotional and informational language is a key component of understanding and evaluating an argument. It isn’t unusual for the lack of substantive reasons for accepting the truth of a conclusion to be masked by the use of emotional terminology — sometimes deliberately, sometimes not.

Deliberate Use

The deliberate use of emotional language can be seen in many political speeches and commercial advertisements — these are carefully constructed to get people to share an emotional reaction to something. In casual conversation, emotional language is likely less deliberate because the expression of emotion is a natural aspect of how we communicate with one another. Almost no one constructs normal arguments in a purely logical form. There is nothing inherently wrong with that, but it complicates the analysis of an argument.

Meaning and Impact

Regardless of the motive, extracting the emotional language to leave just the raw propositions and inferences is important to ensure that you evaluate the right things.

Sometimes we have to be careful because even a single word can have a literal meaning which is entirely neutral and fair, but which also carries the emotional impact that affects how a person will react.

Consider, for example, the terms “bureaucrat” and “public servant” — both can be used to describe the same position, and both have neutral meanings in their most literal sense.

The first, however, will often arouse resentment while the latter sounds far more honorable and positive. Only the term “government official” can sound truly neutral and be lacking in either positive or negative impact (for the time being, at least).

Conclusion

If you want to argue well and do a good job at evaluating the arguments of others, you need to learn how to use language well. The better you are at structuring your thoughts and ideas, the better you will be able to understand them. That, in turn, will enable you to express them in a variety of ways (helping others understand you) as well as allow you to be able to identify flaws which need to be fixed. This is where skills with logic and critical reasoning come in — but notice that skills with language come first.