Understanding Semantic Compatibility in Communication

Larry Percy, HBM CREAMER
[ to cite ]:
Larry Percy (1987) ,"Understanding Semantic Compatibility in Communication", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 14, eds. Melanie Wallendorf and Paul Anderson, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 565.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 14, 1987      Page 565


Larry Percy, HBM CREAMER

In communication, how someone receives a message is dependent upon many things beyond the simple meaning of the verbal stimuli employed. A great teal of meaning is implied by the semantic relationship between the words employed; and without a firm grasp of what these interrelationships are, there is a very real danger of miscommunication. Semantic incompatibility is latent in many cases where on the surface there appears to be no problem at all. For example, when consumers describe a product with a set of attributes, the natural tendency is to assume they are semantically compatible in describing that product. This may not always be the case.

In trying to communicate, whether in marketing communication, instructions on how to do something, health or nutritional information, whatever, concern is always focused upon "what to say." Beyond this obvious point, however, if one is to be an effective communicator, one must also be concerned with the semantic properties of the message beyond their simple verbal meaning. Language can be subtle at times in its effects. Weinar and Mehrabian (1968) have pointed out that the words of communication transmit information that is complementary, supplementary, or redundant to the information transmitted in other components in the communication. Changes in the form of referent, for example GM vs. General Motors Corporation, are the kinds of variations that receivers of a message respond to as much as they respond to other nonverbal components in communication. As Weiner and Mehrabian go on to point out, careful consideration will show that what appears to be the same thing (i.e. the same content) said with different words, can be a basis for inferring quite different feelings or attributes from the message. It is this critical point that we are concerned with in this paper.

No one doubts the importance of the words chosen in verbal communication in determining just how effective that communication is likely to be. and while attention may be paid to insuring that descriptions or attributes within a target message reflect those things most likely to be meaningful to the target receiver, very little, if any, consideration seems to go into possible interactions among those descriptions or attributes. One hopes that there will be a positive, additive relationship among multiple descriptive elements in a communication, but it simply isn't always the case. To the extent that there are incongruities between these verbal elements in a communication. potential dissonance or confusion may result.

As an example, suppose one were to describe a new convenience food product in advertising as "quick, easy, and convenient," under the impression that these three attributes all belong to basically the same semantic factor, and could be counted upon to be additive (if not redundant) in underscoring the convenience aspect or nature of the product. However, a factor analysis of a number of attributes associated with meals and meal preparation, including these three, suggests that they to not belong to the same semantic factor; at least not when applied to foot. "Easy," when used in discussing the preparation of a meal or a food product tends to be thought of as meaning "no attention required." "Quick," on the other hand, is wholly related to considerations of time. "Convenient?" Well, the word convenient in this category factored with "quick," not "easy." This suggests that semantically it is seen as more compatible with "quick" than "easy," even though one may have thought their meanings all but identical. "Quick and convenient" represents a single attribute; "easy and convenient" two attributes, and both must be applicable for believable communication.

Semantic Incompatibility

It is not unusual in semantics to remark that one word may have different meanings or that different words may have the same meaning (although when you stop to think about it, no two words are likely to have exactly the same meaning). Of course, we know these words as synonyms and homonyms; and there has certainly been a great deal written about their strong effects in language. For example, when subjects are asked to recall lists of words that contain synonyms, it is not unusual for them to substitute another synonym for that word in playback. With homonyms, the problem is that when receivers hear or see words with diverse or multiple meanings, they are quite likely to be immediately reminded of the several meanings of the word. Associated problems with synonyms and homonyms in advertising have been discussed by Percy (1982).

While it is obvious that different words may have different meanings, as PaLmer (1976) points out, their simple meanings are in an of themselves not of much interest. Only when these different meanings are in some way related does one become concerned with their probable impact upon comprehension in communication.

Often we cannot be sure how compatible a set of descriptors or attributes might be. When we deal with semantic components such as these in language, frequently there is no natural ordering of their meaning. This can be especially true of attributes elicited from consumers as co on to a particular product or service. In effect, these attributes are or could be synonyms within the cognitive domain of that particular product: different words that mean the same thing - viz. the stimulus product. They may not, of course, be synonymous at all; but under certain circumstances they could be. It becomes essential to understand the extent to which any set of commonly elicited attributes or descriptions are in fact seen as compatible or incompatible in the sense of a synonymic usage. There are, of course, a number of analytic techniques available that help delineate this distinction.


Palmer, F.R. (1976), Semantics: A New Outline. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Percy, L. (1982), "Psycholinguistic Guidelines for Advertising Copy." Mitchell, A. (et.) Advances in Consumer Research: Vol. IX. Ann Arbor: Association for Consumer Research.

Wienar, M. and Mehrabian, A. (1968), Language Within Language: Immediacy, a Channel in Verbal Communication. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.