Rhetorical precision suggests that words reflect meaning, much like illustrations, symbols, and numbers. Challenging the fixed meaning of words, our languages reflect dynamic qualities and change constantly. For example, today there are more than one million words in the English language. Additionally, each word represents multiple meanings. Therefore, clear communications can be seen as an oxymoron.
Rhetorical Precision — What is an Occurrence?
Was the situation on 9/11 involving New York’s World Trade Center destruction one “occurrence” or two “occurrences”? Reportedly, the World Trade Center was insured $3.5 billion per “occurrence”. A solid example of rhetorical precision, what is an “occurrence”? Be reminded that $3.5 billion was at risk since the property was insured per occurrence.
By 2005, insurance settlements totaled $4.6 billion, a far cry from what the owners originally wanted ($7 billion). However, clearly much more than what many pundits thought they would recover ($3.55 billion).
“‘Occurrence’ shall mean all losses or damages that are attributable directly or indirectly to one cause or to one series of similar causes. All such losses will be added together and the total amount of such losses will be treated as one occurrence irrespective of the period of time or area over which such losses occur.”
Many of use would argue that for most people insurance policies do not represent clear communications. Another compelling discussion on this topic and rhetorical precision may be found in “The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature” by Steven Pinker.
Clear Communications Rely on Language Both as an Instrument and an Environment:
Therefore, do not forget in your project, meetings, and workshops to provide a cultural glossary. Similarly, enforce rhetorical precision and ensure consensual definitions and clear communications among your meeting participants. Yet always keep in mind the dynamic nature of language:
- Some words do not survive
- Others mutate into existence (eg, Google, when used as a verb)
Unlike French or Italian, English is not a fixed or static language. The meanings of English words “are not established, approved, and firmly set by some official committee charged with preserving its dignity and integrity.” The “capacity for foxy and relentlessly slippery flexibility” best characterizes the English language.
Clear communications ???
“Enron’s document-management policy simply meant shredding. France’s proposed solidarity contribution on airline tickets is a tax. The IMF’s relational capitalism is corruption. The British solicitor-general’s evidentiary deficiency was no evidence, and George Bush’s reputational problem just means he was mistrusted.”
— Economist, (Blog, July 7, 2010)
Hence, the English language in particular represents a mashing of words from most major languages, for example:
|National Origin||Term||Original Meaning|
|Greek||Criterion||Means of judgement|
|Latin||Fact||An act or feat|
|Malaysian||Amok||Rushing in a frenzy|
|Gaelic||Trousers||Pattern of drawers|
|North America||Herstory||Female perspective|
|Mayan||Hurricane||Mayan god, Huracan|
A Rich Heritage Challenges Clear Communications
The English language is particularly rich because it has been provided with a heritage of diversity—a basis in many languages. Most noteworthy, three languages in particular contribute numerous synonyms, or words that means something similar. Unfortunately, a synonym does not imply pure equivocation. Hence, group consensus may be challenged by the similar, yet different meaning of terms borrowed from Anglo-Saxon, French, and Latin/ Greek origins as shown in the following chart.
Dictionaries Alone Do Not Ensure Clear Communications
Dictionaries alone are insufficient because they provide a description of what something has meant and not a prescription of what it should mean. There are eight parts of speech in the English language (not true for all languages). The parts of speech explain the position of a word, but not how it is being used. Consequently, the only way to distinguish among the various meanings of words is from looking at the usage, or context. In language, the context is provided by grammar.
Single terms, without comprehensive context, challenge people. Since the buildings were insured per “occurrence”, the word “occurrence” added nearly $5.0 billion of risk for the insurance companies of the World Trade Center Towers. Similarly, even the term “country” is a surprisingly difficult term to get everyone’s agreement.
US Homeland Security offers 251 choices for the “country where you live”, a number not agreed to by other countries. The Sovereign Military Order of Malta, for example, has only two buildings in Rome but has diplomatic relations with over 100 countries. The Vatican is only four hectares in the middle of Italy’s capital and is but is only an observer at the United Nations. Israel joined the world body in 1949, but 19 of the 192 United Nations members do not accept the Jewish state’s existence. In like manner, your organization may have similar cultural differences when defining common terms like “customer.”
Grammar Does Not Ensure Clear Communications
Oddly enough, context alone does not ensure consensual meaning. Because, the English language includes contronyms, or words that mean the opposite of themselves, in context. For example, “to bolt” can mean to fix securely or to run away; or, “to clip” that can mean to fasten or to detach, etc.
Context and standards help dictate common usage and enable us to arrive at a framework where all the participants share common meaning. Therefore, a prepared facilitator will determine many of the common usage definitions, before the meeting begins.
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- Limitations and Dangers of the use of the English Language in Aviation Communications (emspilot.wordpress.com)
- Rhetorical Devices: Anadiplosis (mannerofspeaking.org)