An expression is appropriate to given communication situations when it is likely that its recipients will. Not misunderstand the assertion it makes due to emotive or obscure language or direct language misuse

This principle is applicable to deciding the suitability of usage to a communication situation. It includes cases of misuse or incorrect usage of terms or grammar. Standards of correct usage in any Ianguage and particularly in English as a world language are not easily determined except in cases of obvious infringements of basic rules and terminologies. Rather than refer to 'correct usage', therefore, a general standard of appropriateness is chosen, referring to the users, their purposes of communication and the situation involved. There are sound reasons for avoiding any set standards of correctness in regarding language from the viewpoint of semantics, as follows:-

Firstly, there are no universally-accepted rules of correct usage for all the possible terms of any language or for all the meanings each of them may have for varied times, places or persons. Neither are there indisputable standards of correct grammatical construction of sentences. Even though there are general rules of grammar that do apply, they will hardly ever cover all the possible cases and exceptions that occur. Neither dictionaries of usage nor books of grammatical rules can set final or unchanging standards to which all users of any particular language must conform because languages develop and grow as people change the ways of using them.

Secondly, therefore, the use of words in a language changes both through time and locally. New terms or words come in, others go out. Terms already in use tend to accumulate new meanings or special nuances of usage. Slang is often a good example of this. Yesterday's slang is frequently today's currently accepted usage. Much the same can occur in the case of dialects.

Third, and what is perhaps more difficult to appreciate for those who have not thought quite a lot about the nature of meaning, a great many of the most commonly-used words and sentences in any language can have many more meanings than any dictionary could list. 'Wittgenstein went so far as to claim that there are 'countless kinds' of sentences. He provided a number of convincing examples of the great flexibility of usage of sentences and of general words like 'game' and 'tool'. [Ludwig Wittgenstein, "Philosophical Investigations" Oxford 1958. Part 1 §25 ff.]

The many meanings that a current, common word may have arise from, the many different types of circumstance in which it may be used. For example, the word 'game' has many distinct meanings such as, 'hunted animals', 'tests', 'tricks', 'being of willing spirit', 'to play games of chance for money', 'lame' or 'crippled', 'leisurable diversion', 'a contest played according to any sort of rules', 'a single round of certain contests of skill or luck', yet each of these different meanings can also be given many sub-meanings according to the way it is used. It may be meant literally or figuratively (as in poetry or the theatre etc.), in a game of pretending or as part of a 'punch-line' in a joke. In each case the same term tends to convey some fresh nuance of meaning, according to the purposes and all the other circumstances involved.

We conclude that there are not any exhaustive standards of the 'correct' usage of words. Even quite common expressions - however standardised they may be - can contain words with many potential shades of meaning, depending upon the complex of situations in which they are used or interpreted.

So as to bring some system into the analysis of expressions' appropriateness, further well-defined terms are required.

A communication situation, in which an assertion is expressed, is to mean the sum of circumstances that may affect the procedure of conveying an assertion to anyone

All possible circumstances cannot be listed, yet certain stable factors will usually be present. The following diagram helps to clarify a fairly typical and straightforward communication situation:-

A COMMUNICATION SITUATION includes the following:-

The diagram is fairly self-explanatory. It applies both to spoken and written communications as well as those made through broadcasting, recording, printing or other media which separate the communicator and recipient. Where the communicator and recipient are in a face-to-face situation, however, the possibility of 'feedback' occurs in that the participants can check the assertions they understand by questioning whether their interpretations are correct or by requesting alternative versions of the origin expression (E0). Even so, of course, the assertions cannot be checked without obtaining new terms or expressions, themselves requiring interpretation.

In formulating an assertion, the efficient communicator chooses the expression to be used with a number of factors in mind. The verbal context must be considered so that the expression will not conflict with whatever else is said or written. The exact assertion one is likely to derive from any isolated expression will often depend upon what comes before and after. So consistency in use of terms, sticking to one's own definitions and coherence of meaning on the whole must be aimed at if the communication is to be maximally effective.

A second factor to consider is the intelligibility of what is being expressed within a wider frame of reference, involving the purpose in making the assertions.

In general communication is intended to serve some practical purpose sooner or later. In so doing one takes account of the sort of public (the likely or intended recipients of the communication) so as to choose terms and the level of language complexity or precision suitable to their understanding. Where the purposes are informational and educational, the materials will be organised in a pedagogical fashion with step-by-step explanations, examples to illustrate the more abstract expressions and so on. The pace of a text, the ways in which a reader's interest can be motivated and held, the choice of terminologies and examples can all affect the way in which a public is likely to interpret or misinterpret the chief assertions one would convey. As an example, the present text could be considered. The wider, practical frame of reference taken into account here includes the use of the book to introduce semantics to students who have a good grasp of English so that they may study it without accompanying instruction and with no previous knowledge of the subject. Yet it is also designed as the basis of a lecture course leading to a final examination. These purposes are influenced by other attendant circumstances, such as the places of likely use (from high school to university), the traditions and requirements of institutions that may use it, the standards of knowledge and academic thoroughness that prevail in the field of philosophy and many other considerations too detailed to list. All of these factors are reviewed again and again while composing the text. Some such factors are always involved in any type of communication.

In interpreting an expression, from the point of view of the recipient, similar considerations will usually be made. The wider frame of reference, the purposes of the communication and the verbal context will not be without influence on the interpretations, provided one is aware of these factors. However, because reading is an ingrained habit from childhood, it is easy to pass over sentences quickly without penetrating their depth of intended meaning. This applies particularly when reading and translating foreign or ancient texts and where the society, conditions and purposes surrounding the text are only sketchily known to us. A translator of a foreign text who relied only on a dictionary of usages and grammars would hardly be very accurate for it is the 'feel' of the senses of words as they are spoken or otherwise used in the living language of the country of origin that counts in achieving authentic fluency. The feel for a language implies an exact understanding of inappropriate and inappropriate usage and of the nuances of meaning as used by native speakers of the language, of course. This is often very hard to achieve for a non-native who has not lived in the language milieu in question in the language-formative years of youth.

Altogether, these questions highlight the fact that words do not have fixed meanings so much as they have uses. Or rather, the stock of accumulated previous uses that cone to be established as the meanings of the words represent only one pole of the sphere of communication. At the other pole is the subjective individual interpreter who makes sense of a text by intuition, thought associations and by other means than the approved dictionary definitions. This seems to be increasingly true of the English language, whose international variants are considerable both in dialects throughout the English-speaking world and in its many specialised forms (political, scientific, technical, legal, philosophical, etc.). In short, then, the above asserts that:-

Interpretations must usually strike a balance between the stock of attributed meanings of words on the one hand and the nuances lent by the particular communication situation on the other hand.

An 'appropriate' expression is therefore one which takes reasonable account of both poles of the sphere of communication so that the choice of terms and expressions are optimally suited to ensuring that the overall principle is followed (i.e. so the recipient will interpret the intended assertion correctly).

It will always be a matter of personal judgement as to which conventions anyone wishes to conform to or ignore. Sometimes a language convention may be unacceptable on political, ethical or religious grounds and the communicator will have to consider how to avoid the 'holy cows' of language and find neutral enough alternatives to avoid shocking the recipients and thus having a negatively-emotive effect. In some circles many words are unutterable, being regarded as blasphemous or not to be used in polite society and the likes. Word taboos can be quite peculiar depending upon the culture involved, particularity in tribal and ancient religiously-oriented societies where words are themselves invested with magical properties. Language of the esoteric 'in-circle' sort found within the same society also involves verbal taboos, such as the upper-class prejudice against the commoners' slang and the layman's ridicule of 'posh talk'. Unfortunately also in academic circles some words may be unmentionable for political reasons, one example being the word 'imperialism' in the 1950's during the Macarthyite period in the U.S.A. and Europe. The word could seldom be used without disgrace even in 'learned' circles, unless by disowning it as a 'Red' propaganda swearword. (Note: the colourful counter-taboo word 'Red' with its aggressive and bloody associations).

When considering how people will interpret spoken language, one also takes account of how speech emphasis on words or syllables, tones of voice and the intonation of a sentence affects the meaning. This is mostly lost in texts, as well as all bodily gestures, facial expressions, and other activities accompanying speech. Meaning can depend heavily upon such non-verbal factors and can become obscured when speech is recorded or broadcast.

A practical summary

The foregoing explanations can be summarised as a list of questions as to basic information to take into account when interpreting any expression. Such information is also relevant to judging the appropriateness of an expression.
1) Who was the originator of the expression? (name, profession, title, personality, etc.)
2) What is the verbal context, if any? (Overview of text content as to the relevant frame of reference)
5) What is the communication situation under consideration? (Circumstances under which conveyed)
4) What were the (likely) purposes of the communication? (why recorded?)
5) Who are/were the recipients? (Those for whom it was intended, also those for whom not intended)
6) What state of affairs does it refer to, if any? (What location in space/time? Past, present (date, time) or else predicted future etc.

The above information is often intuitively-evident to the interpreter and requires no research. In other connections this sort of information may be wrongly assumed by the interpreter or may require considerable investigation. To exemplify this, the above questions are applied to an expression.
Eg. Quote "Do we think there is such a thing as absolute justice, or not?" To the questions above the answers may respectively be as follows:-
1) Originator Plato (ca 500-450 B.C.) supposedly reporting Socrates' words on the day before his death by hemlock.
2) Context In Phaedo, quoted by Plato's 'mouthpiece' Socrates as an introduction to a philosophical discussion on the origins of knowledge.
3) Communicational situation Written in ancient Greek. Probably Plato's 18th dialogue written when a mature thinker many years after Socrates' death. Little is known about the situation in which this was written. The quote occurs here as an example to explain semantic factors.
4) Likely purposes To educate students of Plato's Academy to the philosophy developed from Socrates by Plato. Further to influence political debate in an attempt to change society towards his ideal republic,
5) Recipients Students of the Academy, the Greek intelligentsia. Subsequently to the world at large through history until the present day.
6) State of affairs Being a question the quote does not refer to any specific state of affairs, yet attempts to start a debate on whether in general there exists an ideal form of justice independently of whoever cay know this ideal form.

Judging the appropriateness of an expression

In situations where language is to be used seriously to convey assertions as exactly and unconfusingly as possible, such as in scientific, philosophical and political debate, certain norms can be generally prescribed, as to what is an inappropriate term or expression:-

Norm 1 - Emotive terms and expressions should be eliminated in favour of cognitively-significant terms and expressions

An emotive expression or term is one which tends to persuade in an irrational way rather than by conveying clear or cognitive meaning in an attempt to prove a point by rational arguments or reasons. Emotive language involves words that affect the recipient, or are likely so to do, by appealing to feelings and thus evoke strong positive or negative associations. Such language is not conducive to efficient communication.

Eg.) E0 "They are a load of pigheaded Commies."
This is certainly an emotively-loaded expression. She term 'a load of' is frivolous, 'pig-headed' gives an irrational association and 'Commies' is an anti-communist slogan abbreviation. A more neutral expression could be substituted as:-

E1 "They are a collection of obstinate communists."
Yet this is also denigration, if less emotively tendentious. Obstinacy is often applied to opponents to describe what may be firmness. 'A collection of suggests an odd assortment not much better than 'a load of Communists' can be a derogatory term in many circles, but its normal usage is to designate one of a particular political range of opinions. A more neutral expression would be:-

E2 "They are a number of determined supporters of communism." Even this would be emotive in effect in strongly anti-communist circles. Yet there are probably very few terms that cannot ever sway anyone's feelings at all. Since Marxian communism is a cognitive doctrine as well as an emotive one it may not be possible to find any appropriate term to characterise it correctly without taking sides. 'Communism' is a highly ambiguous term which almost invariably tends to cloud the issue when used in general communication situations. In such cases a term should be avoided completely in the interests of cognitive clarity.

Norm 2 - Terms and expressions of obscure usage should be eliminated in favour of straightforward terms and expressions which are equally efficient

The tendency towards use of unnecessarily intellectual jargon, affected or 'theatrical' metaphors and very uncommon or impressive words often obscures the assertions one would convey (if any 1). This norm basically aims at the commonsensical use of ordinary language wherever it is adequate, rather than specialised language and the coinage of superfluous technical terms. It ought to apply to any use of words other than for their own sake, thus probably making communication more efficient both in the sciences and the arts generally.

Eg.) E0 "The obtuse verbalisations of the learned ignorami of the distant shores of Academia are too, too, arty-ficial or, as ordinary folk say, high-falutin' poppycock and balderdash",
In more straightforward language this might be intended, to convey:-

E1 "The awkward use of words by poor academicians is too unnatural."

A more serious example:-
Eg) EO "On the fundament of macro-prognoses for the ongoing devolution parameters of peripheral communities, our technocrats have optimalised their manifest economic functions in a paradigm for fiscal stimulation."
This typically intellectual-political jargon tends to hide the assertion in unnecessary trendy terms, for whatever obscure reasons. The meaning, insofar as it is even clear to the communicator, is concealed from those who are not fully acquainted with the terminology of social planners. Perhaps the obscurity of the expression is so great that no clear expression can be substituted. The following is but a suggestion:
E1 "Using general statistics on present trends towards the growth of snail communities, our economic planners have made a theory about how to improve their finances."

Unpleasant decisions and policies are frequently packaged for the general public in obscure language, not least in legal, military, political and governmental jargon. This sort of misuse of language has bee called 'muddying the issue' or 'obscuram per obscuritas' but, in view of the norm itself, it is simply termed 'obscure usage' here.

Norm 3 - Direct misuse of words, grammar, punctuation, and syntax should be corrected where there are clearly accepted, standards
This norm chiefly applies to inaccuracies of expression due to insufficient conversance with the particular language (the English language in this case) or to slips of the tongue or pen and printers' errors.
Eg) E0 Those who require the rationing of food may receive it."
If this expression were intended to convey:-
E1 "Those v/ho require the food ration may receive it," then the use of the verbal noun 'rationing,' is incorrect English. 'Rationing' in the above context would also mean 'the practice of rationing' and not the actual ration anyone receives.
Eg) EO "Always I am making clear in good English, isn't it?" This expression misuses the continuous present tense, places the adverb 'always' awkwardly, leaves out the reflexive 'myself' and uses an inappropriate question suffix 'isn't it?'. Corrected it may instead read:-
E1 "I always make myself clear in good English, don't I?''

Norm 4 - Expressions liable to misinterpretation because of awkwardness or inconciseness should be substituted by more straightforward ones
See 'The Principle of Conciseness', which explains this requirement in detail.


The following exercises are elementary in nature, intended as a practical test of one's understanding of the principles so far discussed. The manner in which examples were discussed in the foregoing indicate possible approaches in formulating answers. Answers should include grounds for one's views, whether theoretical or general, practical grounds based on one's own experience of language use. Use of a dictionary is advisable.

l) Point out in what the expressions below May be considered emotive, taking account of the communication situations indicated in each case:-
a) Consider the following exchange of views between two students of political history;
1st student: Anarchism was a grass-root movement for the liberation of commoners from powerful and oppressive social institutions.
2'nd student: Anarchism was a dreamer's philosophy, a childish romantic revolt against any form of social organisation.
1'st student: No. Only against organisations that suppress natural inclinations and human rights, such as the war machine and the State as the guarantor of the property of the rich.
b) The following exchange took place in the British Parliament (18/1/1983) between Mr. George Foulkes and Mrs. Thatcher concerning the Franks' report on the Falklands War:-
Mr. Foulkes: … when the Franks' committee was set up, some of us predicted that since she had power to suggest the members of the committee, to determine its terms of reference and to manipulate its publication, it would be an establishment cover-up and a whitewash. Since she is one of the few people who have had the privilege of reading the whole report, will she say if our predictions and fears have been confirmed and whether her hopes have been realised?
Mrs. Thatcher: I deeply resent what Mr. Foulkes has said as a criticism and a slur on Lord Frank and on the whole committee. The arrangements about the membership of the committee were agreed in full and proper consultation across all parties of this House. The terms of reference were debated in this House and fully approved.

2) Discuss whether the expression below is appropriate to a communication situation where a national broadcasting network reporter refers to the disarmament struggle between the U.S.A. and U.S.S.R. in 1983. "President Reagan still offers the zero-option plan requiring that the deployment in Europe by N.A.T.O. of theatre nuclear weapons would take place unless the U.S.A. destroys all its SS-20 multi-warhead missiles in the European theatre.

3) Consider the following passage from the viewpoint of an editor of a serious but critical journal of health. State in what you regard the language usage inappropriate, giving reasons. Suggest an alternative form for the expression so as to convey what you regard as its cognitive content as accurately and appropriately as possible.
EO "Modern institutionalised and technocratised medicine in the 'West increasingly puts the interests of its own practitioners plus the research and medical supply industry before that of its patients, it having become infiltrated by large business and .the old system's established interests whose Mafia-like concern is for 'protection' of: the drug and appliance trade, regardless of the health or the pockets of its clients."