Telic Modes of Meaning

Finally, we shall discuss the point with which we began—the purpose a word is chosen to serve. This aspect we shall call the "telic mode" of meaning, from the Greek word telos, meaning "end," and the Latin modus, meaning "manner." Though the phrase sounds forbidding, it is a useful brief label for an obvious but important fact: that part of a word's meaning is the purpose it is expected to fulfill, and that words may serve different purposes.

To get a bit further into this matter it will help to look at a well-known diagram called the "communication triangle":

The diagram simply clarifies the fact that any act of communication involves three things: someone who communicates (for our purposes, a writer); something the communication is about (the topic); and someone to whom the communication is made (the reader). The broken lines joining these elements indicate an indirect relationship between them.

It is indirect because it must be mediated by words. Directly, each corner of the triangle connects only to words. The writer selects them, the reader interprets them, and the topic is expressed by them. Words thus occupy a central, essential, mediating position in the triangle:




In selecting his or her words, a writer may be concerned primarily with any of the three areas of the triangle: writer-topic, writer-reader, or These areas correspond to the three modes" of meaning. We shall call them respectively: "referential," "interpersonal," and "directive."

The Referential Mode

Referential meaning connects writer and topic. In this mode the writer chooses words for the exactness and economy with which they signify, or refer to, what he or she observes, knows, thinks, short, what is in his or her mind.

Most writing involves chiefly this mode of meaning. Here are three examples:





Mary [Queen of Scots] had returned to Scotland in 1561, a young widow of nineteen, after an absence of thirteen years in France. ... D. Harris Willson

The principle of verification is supposed to furnish a criterion by which it can be determined whether or not a sentence is literally mean ¡ ngful. Alfred Jules Ayer

Calculus is a lousy subject. student

In all these cases the writers select words for their referential value, to make clear what is in their minds. The historian, aiming to be factually accurate, and the philosopher, aiming to be conceptually exact, chose diction on the basis of denotation: "in 1561," "a young widow of nineteen," "verification," "criterion." The student, expressing how he feels, selects "lousy" for its connotation; and while it would be more difficult to unravel all the implications of "lousy" than to explain the meanings of "widow" or "criterion," the word is exactly right.

In each case, of course, the diction will affect readers' attitudes toward both subject and writer, and to that degree the words will operate in the interpretive and interpersonal modes. Ayer's abstract diction may well bore people uninterested in philosophy, for instance. A mathematician, depending on his sense of humor, might be amused or annoyed by the student's characterization of calculus. But although such spillover effects are very real, the fact remains that in all these examples the diction aims at referential accuracy and operates primarily in that mode of meaning.

The Interpersonal Mode

We choose words chiefly for their referential meanings. Those words, however, will also affect the link between readers and you. It follows that you should select even referential diction with an eye on the reader. You must consider what readers know and do not know, how they resemble you and how they differ, what degree of formality or informality you wish to establish with them. Such considerations may lead you, for example, to look for an easier word even though it is a bit less exact than a technical term.

But beyond showing a general concern for readers in choosing the words with which you discuss your topic, you may also wish occasionally to include words that will directly affect the attitude toward you. Now you are in the interpersonal mode of meaning.

First, certain expressions create a favorable image of yourself. Inevitably you exist in your words—whether you wish to or an unseen presence, a hidden voice of which readers are aware, sometimes dimly, sometimes with acute consciousness, and which we call the persona (see page 58). Since a persona is inevitable, you had better strive for an attractive one. Modesty, for instance, is generally a virtue in a writer. An occasional expression like I think, it seems to me, to my mind suggests to readers that here is a modest writer, undogmatic, aware of his or her fallibility. The following passages illustrate such interpersonal diction (the italics are added):

What, then, can one learn from [Samuel] Johnson in general? First, I think, the inestimable value of individuality. F. L. Lucas

Whether this slowing-down of traffic will cause a great or a small loss of national income is, / am told, a point on which expert economists are not agreed. Max Beerbohm

That this is so can hardly be proved, but it is, / should claim, a fact. J. L. Austin

Such personal disclaimers are not always a virtue. At times modesty may strike a note that is weak or false. At times a subject may demand an impersonal point of view, making the use of /, my, me impossible. Even when modesty is called for and a personal point of view is possible, a few I thinks and in my opinions go a long way. Used in every second or third sentence they may well draw too much attention and annoy the reader. Still, occasionally acknowledging your limitations is one way of creating a favorable impression upon readers.

Beyond suggesting a diffident, nonassertive persona, you can also use words in the interpersonal mode which graciously acknowledge your readers' presence. Without being insincere or obsequious you can draw readers into your exposition so that they seem to share more directly in your ideas and feelings. The judicious use of we, our, us, for instance, implies a common ground of knowledge and values, subtly flattering to readers (again, in the examples that follow italics are added):

Let us define a plot. E. M. Forster

No doubt, if one has more than one self (like most of us), it had better be one's better self that one tries to become. F. L. Lucas

When we look more closely at this craft of philosophic expression, we find to our relief that it is less exacting than the art of the true man of letters. Brand Blanshard

Any words, then, that refer to the writer in the role of writer or to the reader in the role of reader operate in the interpersonal mode of meaning. To the degree that such words create an attractive image of the former and graciously acknowledge the latter, they will add to the effectiveness of any piece of writing. In exposition, however, such diction, while important, necessarily remains infrequent.

The Directive Mode of Meaning

The last of the three modes of meaning relates to the reader-topic side of the communication triangle. Here you select words primarily for their value in assisting readers to understand or feel about the topic. Understanding and feeling are quite different responses: the a function of intelligence, the other of emotion. Words concerned with facilitating understanding we shall call constructive diction; word intended to evoke emotion, emotive diction.

Constructive diction includes the various connectives and signposts which clarify the organization of a composition and the flow of its ideas: however, even so, on the other hand, for example, in the next chapter, and so on. While such words and phrases indicate real connections within the topic, their essential function is to help readers follow the construction of thought.

How much constructive diction you include in a composition depends both upon the amount of help you think readers need and upon your own preferences for spelling out logical relationships or leaving them implicit. You can overuse such diction, boring or even annoying readers with too many howevers and there/ores. Most people, however, are more likely to err on the other side, giving readers too little help.

The other kind of interpretive diction aims at feeling. In emotive diction, connotations play a major role, especially those carrying strong negative or positive charges. Examples abound in advertising copy. The word Brut on a man's cologne tells us nothing referential, nothing about the product. Brut aims at our emotions. Cleverly combining strong macho connotations with others of sophistication and elegance, the name is intended to overcome masculine resistance to toiletries as "sissy" (or perhaps to appeal to women, who buy most of these products for their men).3

Emotionally loaded diction is also the stock-in-trade of the political propagandist. The Marxist who writes of "the bourgeois lust for personal liberty" uses bourgeois (a leftist sneer word for all things pertaining to capitalism) and lust for their capacity to arouse disapproval in a socialist audience. Similarly the conservative who complains of "pinko liberals in Washington" employs rightist sneer words. Diction may also

3. The sophistication and elegance derive from the French word brut—meaning "dry, unsweet"—which appears on fine champagne labels. The macho connotation follows from the fact that brut is pronounced "brute."

be loaded positively, calling forth feelings of affection and approval: "grass-roots Americanism," "old-fashioned flavor," "an ancient and glorious tradition."

There is nothing wrong in trying to arouse the emotions of readers. It is the purpose for which the emotion is evoked that may be reprehensible, or admirable. The devil's advocate uses loaded diction, and so do the angels.

Many words operate in both the referential and directive modes simultaneously. In fact, it is not always easy to know which mode is paramount in particular cases. Both Marxist and conservative, for example, may believe that bourgeois and pinko really denote facts. Still, most of us feel that such words are largely empty of reference and have their meaning chiefly in their emotive force. On the other hand, some words work effectively in both modes, like those italicized in the following passage (the author is describing some fellow passengers on a bus tour of Sicily):

Immediately next to me was an aggrieved French couple with a small child who looked around with a rat-like malevolence. He had the same face as his father. They looked like very cheap microscopes. Lawrence Durrell

Rat-like and cheap microscopes have genuine reference; they would help an illustrator drawing a picture of this father and son. At the same time the words arouse the emotional response that Durrell wants in the reader.

Project Management Made Easy

Project Management Made Easy

What you need to know about… Project Management Made Easy! Project management consists of more than just a large building project and can encompass small projects as well. No matter what the size of your project, you need to have some sort of project management. How you manage your project has everything to do with its outcome.

Get My Free Ebook

Post a comment