Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 24, Issue 3;   January 17, 2024: On Miscommunication

On Miscommunication


Some sources of confusion in communications are difficult to detect. Because they escape our notice, they are also difficult to avoid. One example: words that mean different things in different contexts. Another: multiple negations involving prefixes.
A waste container in a park

A waste container in a park. Someone is responsible for cleaning it up. Some people have been irresponsible enough to leave so much trash there.

When we communicate with each other — by voice, by text, or by image — we sometimes misunderstand what others are trying to tell us. And sometimes we mistakenly believe that others understand what we have said, when they actually have not. Some of the sources of miscommunication are the grammatical structures we use to carry our meaning. And two examples of problematic structures are homonyms and multiple negations.

Homonymic miscommunication

In human language, the meanings of some words depend on the contexts in which they appear. Such words are called homonyms. An example is the word bark, as in "tree bark" or "dog bark." Using or interpreting a homonym in one context with a meaning from another context is certain to cause trouble. In English, responsible is one such word. If responsible is used in one context, and if it's interpreted as if it were in some other context, trouble can erupt. And not just minor trouble. The trouble can be serious enough to damage projects, careers, and even the entire enterprise. [MotaWord 2023]

Suppose Cathy In exchanges in which several homonyms appear,
or more than one negation appears, one error can
build on another, deepening the miscommunication,
until toxic conflict is inevitable
has asked the question, "Who's responsible for code inspections?" And suppose Kevin wants to respond, "Les isn't responsible for code inspections." To answer in everyday speech, for brevity, Kevin might say, "Les isn't responsible." But if Maggie hasn't heard Cathy's question, Maggie might interpret Kevin's abbreviated response as, "Les is not a reliable or trustworthy individual."

This happens because in English, and particularly in business English, the word responsible plays multiple roles. In the organizational context, to be responsible for a result R can have two meanings. The first meaning is what Chockler and Halpern call all-or-nothing. [Chockler 2004] Person P is organizationally responsible for a result R if there is an agreement with management (explicit or implicit) that Person P will take appropriate steps to ensure that R comes about. In our example, Kevin is saying that, in this sense, Les is not responsible for code inspections.

The second meaning of responsible is subject to more degree-specific considerations. It relates to determining how result R was produced. If Person P took steps (or failed to take steps) that led (or would have led) to result R, then, to some degree, P is responsible for having produced (or for having failed to produce) R. It is this sense of the word responsible that Maggie is using to produce the meaning that "Les is not a reliable or trustworthy individual." With Maggie's interpretation, Kevin's innocent statement becomes a criticism — a negative assessment of Les's character. And with that interpretation we're well on the way to toxic conflict.

Miscommunication due to multiple negations involving prefixes

A multiple negation is a grammatical structure that includes more than one negation of a concept. If there are two negations, we might call it a "double negative." An example is the statement, "We don't need no stinking badges." An example of a multiple negation involving a prefix is, "Kevin is not unfamiliar with the code inspection process." The positive form of the statement would be, "Kevin is familiar with the code inspection process." In the multiple negation form of the statement, what's being negated (twice) is Kevin's familiarity with the code inspection process. It's negated once by the negation prefix "un-" in the word unfamiliar. And it's negated for a second time by the word not. So the statement is a double negation using the prefix "un-". Multiple negations of higher orders are possible, but orders higher than second order are rare.

Other prefixes of negative polarity are "ir-", "in-", and "non-". Examples: "Kevin is not irresponsible," "Kevin is not indispensible," and "Kevin is not nonbelligerent."

Even though the positive form of a multiple negation might be logically equivalent to the multiple negation form, the implications of the two statements usually differ. In this example, the implication of the multiple negation is, "Kevin is somewhat familiar with the code inspection process, but he isn't an expert." The positive form is consistent with that implication, but the negative form carries the implication more clearly.

But consider the context in which someone has just said, "Kevin is unfamiliar with the code inspection process. In that context, there is no implication — only a direct refutation.

Using multiple negations is risky because listeners or readers might make one of two kinds of errors. First, they might fail to construct the logically equivalent positive structure. The result can be that they hear or read only the negated form: "Kevin is unfamiliar with…" And second, they might fail to notice the implication: "Kevin is no expert." In either case, the speaker or writer believes that an accurate message was sent, but the recipient receives the opposite message. From that point, toxic conflict is only a few steps away.

Last words

In exchanges in which several homonyms appear, or more than one negation appears, as their number grows, the number of combinations of possible mistakes of usage and interpretation grows faster than exponentially — it grows combinatorially. One error can build on another, deepening the miscommunication, until toxic conflict is inevitable. Go to top Top  Next issue: I Don't Know Where to Begin  Next Issue

101 Tips for Managing Conflict Are you fed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you or a colleague the target of a bully? Destructive conflict can ruin organizations. But if we believe that all conflict is destructive, and that we can somehow eliminate conflict, or that conflict is an enemy of productivity, then we're in conflict with Conflict itself. Read 101 Tips for Managing Conflict to learn how to make peace with conflict and make it an organizational asset. Order Now!


Comprehensive list of all citations from all editions of Point Lookout
[MotaWord 2023]
MotaWord. "Homonyms in Legal Language: Navigating Ambiguity in Legal Terminology," MotaWord Blog,May 23, 2023. Available here. Retrieved 4 January 2024. Back
[Chockler 2004]
Hana Chockler and Joseph Y. Halpern. "Responsibility and blame: A structural-model approach," Journal of Artificial Intelligence Research 22, (2004), pp. 93-115. Available here. Retrieved 4 January 2024. Back

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