How to Look at Things and Words Differently

Published on April 6th, 2013 by | Category: Writing

Before you became involved with the intellectual gymnastics of this exercise, I was trying to persuade you of the importance of trying to get into the habit of thinking about things as separate from ideas of things. It may not be immediately evident to you what this has to do with writing, but you will not have gone very much further through my writing article before you realise that clarity of thinking depends very much upon your ability to refrain from confusing things themselves with your idea of these things and indeed also with the words you use in speaking or writing about them.

In this article I shall be using a few simple diagrams in order to make these ideas clearer to you.

Here is the first one:

diagram 1

The table itself cannot of course be put into an article, but neither can our two ideas of it. Only printed words and pictures or diagrams can be put on the page. Here I have used space — the surface of the page — to indicate the separation between the actual thing and our ideas of it. Note, therefore, the interesting fact that a blank area of paper or computer screen can mean something. The different shapes of the two lines drawn round our separate ideas indicates the fact that there is a difference between them.

Where does language come into this? I began by saying I’d begin with the simple word ‘table’ and you may be beginning to think that I am taking a long time to get round to it. We are now, however, coming to the penultimate box in this little Chinese puzzle.

Your idea of this particular table came from:

I. Your previous experience of the word ‘table’, both spoken and written, linked with experience of a number of actual tables.

2. Your previous experience of actual events and actual things associated with the words ‘sitting’ and any other words which enabled you to form some kind of picture of the setting of this particular table e.g. it had to be high enough for rue to sit at.

All these, at the moment of reading the sentences, were mental events. The real table was far away. In the time between my writing about it and your reading about it, the thing might in fact have ceased to exist in the form of a table at all.

So the word ‘table’ is not stuck on to the table like a label, but, if it can be called a label at all, it is a label attached to your idea of the table. In fact, it is not quite accurate to say that ‘table’ is the name of a thing; it is rather the name of our idea of the thing. I may be getting near hair splitting here, but an addition to the diagram will clarify the point and perhaps show that here was a hair that needed to be split.

diagram 2

So you see the idea of ordinary nouns as being labels for things is a little bit too simple to fit the facts.

The matters we have considered up to now in this article are of great significance in connection with communication whether by speech or writing.

Although in this article I am concerned with the written word, it will be simpler if I first draw your attention to the significance of these matters where the spoken word is concerned.

Here an elaboration of the same diagram will be useful.

diagram 3 

This diagram shows that when I say the word ‘table’ to you I have a certain or set of ideas in my mind. The word I have spoken is the label for that idea or set of ideas. What reaches you, however, is not the idea, or ideas, but only the sound that I write as ‘table’. When that sound reaches you, your mind links it with the set of  ideas that your experience has taught you to associate with it. Any other words, or indeed circumstances, that occur along with it may to some extent influence your idea, ‘Sitting’, for example, may have influenced your idea of the height of the table.

In the diagram I have drawn a brick wall between the two minds to indicate that the ideas or meanings do not pass from one mind to another but that ONLY THE SOUNDS DO.

You put your ideas into the sounds you hear. Your ideas may be for all practical purposes the same as mine. When they are, you understand me and it is then as though your meanings came across with your words. But that is an illusion. The sooner you get rid of the illusion, the sooner your mind will be set towards clarity of communication whether in speech or writing.

One of the things that make it difficult for people to get rid of this illusion is the way we use simple words when we speak about communication. We speak about ‘conveying mean ings’, ‘putting ideas across’ and so on and don’t realise that these are metaphors.

How are these words of mine operating upon your mind? I have known people feel somewhat aggrieved to hear that when they were speaking they were sending nothing but sounds across for other people to attach meanings — their meanings — to them. The old metaphors I have just referred to may be strengthening the barriers in your mind against accepting these ideas if they are new to you.

I am very anxious, however, to get you to accept this position. You will feel freer in your speech and indeed also in your relationships with people if you do and you will be in much fuller. control of your language when you write. So, to drive the point still further home, let me adapt the diagram to the situation in which someone has said a word to you in a language you don’t know.

diagram 5

If the meaning came across with the sound what would prevent the listener hearing the meaning as well as the sound? In fact he has no idea of what meaning to attach to the sound. Two conditions have to be satisfied before he can put the right meaning into the sound: 1. He must have experienced the ‘thing’ in some way. 2. He must have experienced the word in association with the thing. In this case, if you were the listener, you could certainly have experienced the thing but it is unlikely that you would have experienced that particular combination of sounds. I have given an English transcription of them; ‘mege’ is an approximate rendering in alphabetic writing of the Punjabi word for ‘table’.

Does the term ‘inner speech’ in the diagram puzzle you at all? A substantial volume could be written about inner speech and its complexities and another volume could be compiled of questions about inner speech to which no answers are yet known. For us here in this brief survey it almost explains itself. There is inner speech even when you are speaking aloud; otherwise how would your tongue and other speech-organs know which words to say? But sometimes the sound is, as it were, switched off, as when we are thinking or reading silently.

I have now dealt briefly with this basic aspect of communication by means of speech. With writing things are substantially the same, as this diagram shows.

diagram 4

I think of the table. That means I have at least a visual image of it along no doubt with some related images, these are sets of mental events. Linked with these mental events, is another series of mental events, the word ‘table’ in inner speech. I write the letters which represent the word. You see this arrangement of letters. Knowing English, you are able to translate them as ‘table’ in inner speech and at the same time there are re-created in your mind the visual and/or other images which you have learned to associate with the word.

Some people maintain that ‘inner speech’ does not necessarily always occur in the mind of the reader. They suggest that there may be a direct association between the print and the images. That can certainly be regarded as a possibility. But certainly there must always be inner speech on the part of the writer. How otherwise would he know which words to put on the paper?

What makes communication by speech or writing possible at all, of course, is the fact that in most ordinary situations people with the same mother tongue have learned to link with particular sounds (and their written symbols) ideas that are substantially alike.

The significance of the fore-going facts for the writer can hardly be exaggerated. Written communication is effective when the reader is able to read into the writer’s words meanings that are substantially the same as those which the writer had in his mind when he wrote the words.

Consider the difference in attitude of two people with a job of writing to do.

A. has given these basic facts about communication no special thought at all. He is quite sure that his words contain the meanings he wants to express. He puts them down on paper with no doubt at all that his meanings are going across to the other mind. If misunderstanding occurs, then it’s likely to be the reader’s fault for not extracting the right meaning or for reading the wrong meaning into the words. He has the idea that ‘reading into’ is wrong and is quite unaware that ‘reading into’ is the only thing his reader can do. A. says his say and expects understanding of his meanings from the reader.

B. on the other hand is aware of the fact that when he puts something down on paper he is not putting ideas or meaning on to it; he is merely putting down symbols that stand for spoken words. He is aware that the meanings that are in his mind attached to these words stem from his own experience and no one else’s. He is also aware that it is only the print or the writing that will reach the reader and that the reader will not be extracting meaning but putting meaning in from his own experience.

Which of the two is more likely to be able to communicate more effectively? On many occasions there will not be any difference. If, for example, both are secretaries of clubs writing to let members know of a particular date, there is no reason to suppose that A’s communication will be any less effective than B’s. Where, however, some more subtle matters are being dealt with B. has a tremendous advantage, for he is aware not only of the reader’s mind but also of the fact that the reader’s interpretation of what is written depends (a) upon his past experiences of both the words and the things the words refer to, (b) upon the context in which the words are set.

Exercise 1:

Say whether the following statements are true or false in your opinion. State the reasons for your opinion. Compare your answers with those in the ‘Comment and Answers’ section.

1. A blank area of paper can mean something.

2. If misunderstanding of written work occurs, it is because the reader has extracted the wrong meaning from the print.

3. If words are to be described as labels at all, it is more accurate to say that they are labels for ideas of things rather than the things themselves.

4. Inner speech need not take place when you are writing.

5. ‘Putting ideas across’ is a metaphorical expression.

Exercise 2:

Without looking back at the page on which it appears reproduce the last diagram in this article. Then check.


Exercise 1:

1. True. Anything can be used as a sign. In the diagram illustrating the basic facts of communication the blank space between the rectangle and the curved shapes indicated separation of word from thing. The blank spaces between the words in these lines of print show the separation between words. The blank space, however, must be in a context that gives it significance.

2. In my opinion this is wrong. Misunderstanding occurs when the reader puts into the written work a meaning the writer did not intend him to put. The fault may be on the writer’s side; he may not have given the reader the clues that would enable him to put the ‘right’ meaning in.

3. True, as I have explained by a combination of printed word and diagram.

4. False. It must take place. Writing cannot take place without thinking in words. It could be argued that when you are writing you merely have a visual image of the word you are going to write, with no inner hearing of the word. But this seems to me one of those impossible things it is possible to think up.

5. Of course it is a metaphorical expression. In speech it is sound that is ‘put across’; in writing, the visual symbol is put across. When metaphors are taken literally thought becomes distorted.

Exercise 2:

You did your own checking of the diagram, I hope.

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