3.2 Functions of Language

Learning Objectives

  1. Identify and discuss the four main types of linguistic expressions.
  2. Discuss the power of language to express our identities, influence our thinking, create bias, affect our credibility, control others, and perform actions.
  3. Discuss some of the sources of fun within language.
  4. Explain how neologisms and slang contribute to the dynamic nature of language.
  5. Differentiate the ways in which language can separate people and bring them together.

What utterances make up our daily verbal communication? Some of our words convey meaning, some convey emotions, and some actually produce actions. Language also provides endless opportunities for fun because of its limitless, sometimes nonsensical, and always changing nature. In this section, we will learn about the five functions of language, which show us that language is expressive, language is powerful, language is fun, language is dynamic, and language is relational.

Language Is Expressive

Verbal communication helps us meet various needs through our ability to express ourselves. In terms of instrumental needs, we use verbal communication to ask questions that provide us with specific information. We also use verbal communication to describe things, people, and ideas. Verbal communication helps us inform, persuade, and entertain others. It is also through our verbal expressions that our personal relationships are formed. At its essence, language is expressive. Verbal expressions help us communicate our observations, thoughts, feelings, and needs (McKay, Davis, & Fanning, 1995).

Expressing Observations

When we express observations, we report on the sensory information we are taking or have taken in. Eyewitness testimony is a good example of communicating observations. Witnesses are not supposed to make judgments or offer conclusions; they only communicate factual knowledge as they experienced it. For example, a witness could say, “I saw a white Mitsubishi Eclipse leaving my neighbor’s house at 10:30 pm.” As we learned in chapter 2 that observation and description occur in the first step of the perception-checking process. When you are trying to make sense of an experience, expressing observations in a descriptive rather than evaluative way can lessen defensiveness, which facilitates competent communication.

Expressing Thoughts

When we express thoughts, we draw conclusions based on what we have experienced. In the perception process, this is similar to the interpretation step. We take various observations and evaluate and interpret them to assign them meaning (a conclusion). Whereas our observations are based on sensory information (what we saw, what we read, what we heard), thoughts are connected to our beliefs (what we think is true/false), attitudes (what we like and dislike), and values (what we think is right/wrong or good/bad). Jury members are expected to express thoughts based on reported observations to help reach a conclusion about someone’s guilt or innocence. A juror might express the following thought: “The neighbor who saw the car leaving the night of the crime seemed credible. And the defendant seemed to have a shady past—I think he’s trying to hide something.” Sometimes people intentionally or unintentionally express thoughts as if they were feelings. For example, when people say, “I feel like you’re too strict with your attendance policy,” they aren’t really expressing a feeling; they are expressing a judgment about the other person (a thought).

Expressing Feelings

When we express feelings, we communicate our emotions. Expressing feelings is a difficult part of verbal communication, because there are many social norms about how, why, when, where, and to whom we express our emotions. Norms for emotional expression also vary based on nationality and other cultural identities and characteristics such as age and gender. In terms of age, young children are typically freer to express positive and negative emotions in public. Gendered elements intersect with age as boys grow older and are socialized into a norm of emotional restraint. Although individual men vary in the degree to which they are emotionally expressive, there is still a prevailing social norm that encourages and even expects women to be more emotionally expressive than men.


Expressing feelings is often the most difficult form of verbal expression.

In order to verbally express our emotions, it is important that we develop an emotional vocabulary. The more specific we can be when we are verbally communicating our emotions, the less ambiguous our emotions will be for the person decoding our message. As we expand our emotional vocabulary, we are able to convey the intensity of the emotion we’re feeling whether it is mild, moderate, or intense. For example, happy is mild, delighted is moderate, and ecstatic is intense; ignored is mild, rejected is moderate, and abandoned is intense (Hargie, 2011). We will revisit emotional expression when we discuss emotional intelligence later in this book.

Expressing Needs

When we express needs, we are communicating in an instrumental way to help us get things done. Expressing needs can help us get a project done at work or help us navigate the changes of a long-term romantic partnership. Not expressing needs can lead to feelings of abandonment, frustration, or resentment. For example, if one romantic partner expresses the following thought “I think we’re moving too quickly in our relationship” but doesn’t also express a need, the other person in the relationship doesn’t have a guide for what to do in response to the expressed thought. Stating, “I need to spend some time with my hometown friends this weekend. Would you mind if I went home by myself?” would likely make the expression more effective. Be cautious of letting evaluations or judgments sneak into your expressions of need. Saying “I need you to stop suffocating me!” really expresses a thought-feeling mixture more than a need and will likely not elicit a productive response from the other.

Four Types of Verbal Expressions

Type Description Example
Observation Report of sensory experiences or memories “Pauline asked me to bring this file to you.”
Thought Conclusion about or judgment of experiences and observations “Students today have much less respect for authority.”
Feeling Communicating emotions “I feel at peace when we’re together.”
Need Stating wants or requesting help or support “I’m saving money for summer vacation. Is it OK if we skip our regular night out this week?”

Language Is Powerful

Words Create Reality

Language helps to create reality. Often, humans will label their experiences. For instance, the word “success” has different interpretations depending on your perceptions. Success to you might be a certain type of car or a certain amount of income. However, for someone else, success might be the freedom to do what they
love or to travel to exotic places. Success might mean something different based on your background or your culture. Another example might be the word “
intimacy.” Intimacy to one person might be something similar to love, but to another person, it might be the psychological connection that you feel to another person.
Words can impact a person’s reality of what they believe and feel. If a child complains that they don’t feel loved, but the parents/guardians argue that they continuously show affection by giving hugs and doing fun shared activities, who would you believe? The child might say that they never heard their parents/guardians say the word love, and hence, they don’t feel love.

So, when we argue that words can create a person’s reality, that is what we mean. Specific words can make a difference in how a person will receive the message. That is why certain rhetoricians and politicians will spend hours looking for the right word to capture the true essence of a message. A personal trainer might be careful to use the word “building muscle” instead of “losing fat” to create a positive perception of the work. At Disney world, they call their employees “cast members” rather than workers, because it gives a perception that each person has a part in helping to run the show. Even on a resume, you might select words that set you apart from the other applicants. For instance, if you were a cook, you might say “culinary artist.” It gives the impression that you weren’t just cooking food, you were making masterpieces with food. Words matter, and how they are used will make a difference.

Language shapes our perceptions as well as the world around us. The following video explores how powerful language can be in shaping our thoughts.


Language and Identity

The power of language to express our identities varies depending on the origin of the label (self-chosen or other imposed) and the context. Someone may use words such as gay, a son, middle-aged, teacher, Hispanic, athlete, father, etc. to describe themselves.  People are usually comfortable with the language they use to describe their own identities but may have issues with the labels others place on them. A woman may not want to be labeled as “the boss’s wife” or a teenager may not appreciate being called “a child.” However, people may take on a label that was imposed on them, one that usually has negative connotations, and intentionally use it in ways that counter previous meanings. Some country music singers and comedians have reclaimed the label redneck, using it as an identity marker they are proud of rather than a negative term. Other examples of people reclaiming identity labels are the “black is beautiful” movement that repositioned black as a positive identity marker for African Americans and the “queer” movement of the 1980s and ’90s that reclaimed queer as a positive identity marker for some gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people. 


When we want others to associate with us or have an affiliation with us, we might change the way we speak and the words we use. All of those things can impact how other people relate to us. Researchers found that when potential romantic partners employed the same word choices regarding pronouns and prepositions, then interest also increased. At the same time, couples that used similar word choices when texting each other significantly increased their relationship duration. This study implies that we often inadvertently mimic other people’s use of language when we focus on what they say.

If you have been in a relationship for a long period, you might create special expressions or jargon with the other person, and that specialized vocabulary can create greater closeness and understanding. The same line of thinking occurs for groups. Research has shown that people who have similar speech also have more positive feelings for each other. However, speech can also work in the opposite direction when we communicate in a very different fashion. For instance, a group from another culture might speak the same dialect, even though they can speak English, in order to create distance and privacy from others.

Sexism and Racism

Before discussing the concepts of sexism and racism, we must understand the term “bias.” Bias is an attitude that is not objective or balanced. It is a prejudice in favor of or against a thing, person, or group.  Bias language is the use of words that intentionally or unintentionally offend people or express an unfair attitude concerning a person’s race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, disability, or illness. We’ll explore more on the issue of biased language later in this chapter.

Sexism or bias against others based on their sex can come across in language. Sexist language can be defined as “words, phrases, and expressions that unnecessarily differentiate between females and males or exclude, trivialize, or diminish either sex.”18 Language can impact how we feel about ourselves and others. For instance, there is a magazine called Working Mother, but there is not one called “Working Father.” Even though the reality is that many men who work also have families and are fathers, there are no words that tend to distinguish them from other working men. Whereas, women are distinguished when they both work and are mothers compared to other women who solely work and also compared to women who are solely mothers and/or wives.

Think about how language has changed over the years. We used to have occupations that were highly male-dominated in the workplace and had words to describe them. For instance, policemen, firemen, and chairmen are now police officers, firefighters, and chairpersons. The same can also be said for some female-dominated occupations. For instance, the terms stewardess, secretary, and waitress have been changed to include males and are often called flight attendants, office assistants, and servers. Sexist language will impact perceptions, and people might be swayed about a person’s capability based on word choices.

Similarly, racism is the bias people have towards others of a different race. Racist language conveys that a racial group is superior or better than another race. Some words in English have racial connotations. Aaron Smith-McLallen, Blair T. Johnson, John Dovidio, and Adam Pearson wrote:

In the United States and many other cultures, the color white often carries more positive connotations than the color black… Terms such as “Black Monday,” “Black Plague”, “black cats” and the “black market” all have negative connotations, and literature, television, and movies have traditionally portrayed heroes in white and villains in black. The empirical work of John E. Williams and others throughout the 1960s demonstrated that these positive and negative associations with the colors black and white, independent of any explicit connection to race, were evident among Black and White children as young as 3 years old … as well as adults.

Recently, the debate about whether previous President Trump’s use of the phrase “Chinese Virus” when referring to the coronavirus is racially insensitive is another example. The argument for its racial insensitivity is that the President is specifically using the term as an “other” technique to allow his followers to place blame on the Chinese people for the coronavirus. Unsurprisingly, there were numerous violent attacks against individuals of Asian descent within the United States tied to the use of the phrase “Chinese Virus.”

It is important to note that many words do not imply any type of sexual or racial connotations. However, some people might use it to make judgments or expectations of others. For example, when describing a bad learning experience, the student might say “Mexican professor” or “female student” as opposed to just saying the student and professor argued. These descriptors can be problematic and sometimes not even necessary in the conversation. Using those types of words can create factors of sexism/racism. We will continue to explore biased language and communication throughout the course.

Language Affects Our Credibility

One of the goals of this chapter is to help you be more competent with your verbal communication. People make assumptions about your credibility based on how you speak and what you say. Even though we’ve learned that meaning is in people rather than words and that the rules that govern verbal communication, like rules of grammar, are arbitrary, these norms still mean something. You don’t have to be a perfect grammarian to be perceived as credible. In fact, if you followed the grammar rules for written communication to the letter you would actually sound pretty strange since our typical way of speaking isn’t as formal and structured as writing. But you still have to support your ideas and explain the conclusions you make to be seen as competent. You have to use language clearly and be accountable for what you say in order to be seen as trustworthy.

Using language effectively is contextual. Using informal language and breaking social norms wouldn’t enhance your credibility during a professional job interview, but it might with your friends at a tailgate party. Politicians know that the way they speak to the general public affects their credibility, but they also know that using words that are too scientific or academic can lead people to perceive them as eggheads, which would hurt their credibility. Politicians and many others in leadership positions need to be able to use language to put people at ease, relate to others, and still appear confident and competent.

Language Is a Means of Control

Control is a word that has negative connotations, but our use of it here can be positive, neutral, or negative. Verbal communication can be used to reward and punish. We can offer verbal communication in the form of positive reinforcement to praise someone. We can withhold verbal communication or use it in a critical, aggressive, or hurtful way as a form of negative reinforcement.

Directives are utterances that try to get another person to do something. They can range from a rather polite ask or request to a more forceful command or insist. Context informs when and how we express directives and how people respond to them. Promises are often paired with directives in order to persuade people to comply, and those promises, whether implied or stated, should be kept in order to be an ethical communicator. Keep this in mind to avoid arousing false expectations on the part of the other person (Hayakawa & Hayakawa, 1990).

Rather than verbal communication being directed at one person as a means of control, the way we talk creates overall climates of communication that may control many. Verbal communication characterized by empathy, understanding, respect, and honesty creates open climates that lead to more collaboration and more information exchange. Verbal communication that is controlling, deceitful, and vague creates a closed climate in which people are less willing to communicate and less trusting (Brown, 2006).

Language Is Performative

Some language is actually more like an action than a packet of information. Saying, “I promise,” “I guarantee,” or “I pledge,” does more than convey meaning; it communicates intent. Such utterances are called commissives, as they mean a speaker is committed to a certain course of action (Crystal, 2005). Of course, promises can be broken, and there can be consequences, but verbal communication is granted official power that can guarantee action. The two simple words I do can mean that a person has agreed to an oath before taking a witness stand or assuming the presidency. It can also mean that two people are now bound in a relationship recognized by the government and/or a religious community. These two words, if said in the right context and in front of the right person, such as a judge or a reverend, bring with them obligations that cannot be undone without additional steps and potential negative repercussions. In that sense, language is much more than “mere words.”


Judges’ words perform actions ranging from holding someone in contempt of court to sentencing someone to death.

Performative language can also be a means of control, especially in legal contexts. In some cases, the language that makes our laws is intentionally vague. In courts all over the nation, the written language intersects with spoken language as lawyers advocate for particular interpretations of the written law. The utterances of judges and juries set precedents for reasonable interpretations that will then help decide future cases. Imagine how powerful the words We the jury find the defendant… seem to the defendant awaiting his or her verdict. The sentences handed down by judges following a verdict are also performative because those words impose fines, penalties, or even death. Some language is deemed so powerful that it is regulated. Hate speech, which we will learn more about later, and slander, libel, and defamation are considered powerful enough to actually do damage to a person and have therefore been criminalized.

Language Is Fun

Word games have long been popular. Before Words with Friends, there was Apples to Apples, Boggle, Scrabble, and crossword puzzles. Writers, poets, and comedians have built careers on their ability to have fun with language and in turn share that fun with others. The fun and frivolity of language become clear as teachers get half-hearted laughs from students when they make puns, Jay Leno has a whole bit where he shows the hilarious mistakes people unintentionally make when they employ language, and people vie to construct the longest palindromic sentence (a sentence that as the same letters backward and forward).

There are more than one hundred theories of humor, but none of them quite captures the complex and often contradictory nature of what we find funny (Foot & McCreaddie, 2006). Humor is a complicated social phenomenon that is largely based on the relationship between language and meaning. Humor functions to liven up conversations, break the ice, and increase group cohesion. We also use humor to test our compatibility with others when a deep conversation about certain topics like politics or religion would be awkward. Bringing up these topics in a lighthearted way can give us indirect information about another person’s beliefs, attitudes, and values. Based on their response to the humorous message, we can either probe further or change the subject and write it off as a poor attempt at humor (Foot & McCreaddie, 2006). Using humor also draws attention to us, and the reactions that we get from others feeds into our self-concept. We also use humor to disclose information about ourselves that we might not feel comfortable revealing in a more straightforward way. Humor can also be used to express sexual interest or to cope with bad news or bad situations.

We first start to develop an understanding of humor as children when we realize that the words we use for objects are really arbitrary and can be manipulated. This manipulation creates a distortion or incongruous moment in the reality that we had previously known. Some humor scholars believe that this early word play—for example, calling a horse a turtle and a turtle a horse—leads us to appreciate language-based humor like puns and riddles (Foot & McCreaddie, 2006). It is in the process of encoding and decoding that humor emerges. People use encoding to decide how and when to use humor, and people use decoding to make sense of humorous communication. Things can go wrong in both of those processes. I’m sure we can all relate to the experience of witnessing a poorly timed or executed joke (a problem with encoding) and of not getting a joke (a problem with decoding).


Comedians make a living by making language fun, but humor is contextual and not always easy to pull off.

Language is Dynamic

As we already learned, language is essentially limitless and ever changing. We may create a one-of-a-kind sentence combining words in new ways and never know it. Aside from the endless structural possibilities, words change meaning, and new words are created daily.


Neologisms are newly coined or used words. Newly coined words are those that were just brought into linguistic existence. Newly used words make their way into languages in several ways, including borrowing and changing structure. Taking is actually a more fitting descriptor than borrowing since we take words but don’t really give them back. In any case, borrowing is the primary means through which languages expand. English is a good case in point, as most of its vocabulary is borrowed and doesn’t reflect the language’s Germanic origins. English has been called the “vacuum cleaner of languages” (Crystal, 2005). We have borrowed many words, like chic from French, karaoke from Japanese, and caravan from Arabic.

Structural changes also lead to new words. Compound words are neologisms that are created by joining two already known words. Keyboard, newspaper, and giftcard are all compound words that were formed when new things were created or conceived. We also create new words by adding something, subtracting something, or blending them together. For example, we can add affixes, meaning a prefix or a suffix, to a word. Affixing usually alters the original meaning but doesn’t completely change it. Ex-husband and kitchenette are examples of such changes (Crystal, 2005). New words are also formed when clipping a word like examination, which creates a new word, exam, that retains the same meaning. And last, we can form new words by blending old ones together. Words like breakfast and lunch blend letters and meaning to form a new word—brunch.

Existing words also change in their use and meaning. The digital age has given rise to some interesting changes in word usage. Before Facebook, the word friend had many meanings, but it was mostly used as a noun referring to a companion. The sentence, I’ll friend you, wouldn’t have made sense to many people just a few years ago because friend wasn’t used as a verb. Google went from being a proper noun referring to the company to a more general verb that refers to searching for something on the Internet (perhaps not even using the Google search engine). Meanings can expand or contract without changing from a noun to a verb. Gay, an adjective for feeling happy, expanded to include gay as an adjective describing a person’s sexual orientation. Perhaps because of the confusion that this caused, the meaning of gay has contracted again, as the earlier meaning is now considered archaic, meaning it is no longer in common usage.

The American Dialect Society names an overall “Word of the Year” each year and selects winners in several more specific categories. The winning words are usually new words or words that recently took on new meaning.

“All of the Words of the Year 1990 to Present,” American Dialect Society, http://www.americandialect.org/woty/all-of-the-words-of-the- year-1990-to-present


Slang is a great example of the dynamic nature of language. Slang refers to new or adapted words that are specific to a group, context, and/or time period; regarded as less formal; and representative of people’s creative play with language. Research has shown that only about 10 percent of the slang terms that emerge over a fifteen-year period survive. Many more take their place though, as new slang words are created using inversion, reduction, or old-fashioned creativity (Allan & Burridge, 2006). Inversion is a form of word play that produces slang words like sick, wicked, and bad that refer to the opposite of their typical meaning. Reduction creates slang words such as pic, sec, and later from picture, second, and see you later. New slang words often represent what is edgy, current, or simply relevant to the daily lives of a group of people. Many creative examples of slang refer to illegal or socially taboo topics like sex, drinking, and drugs. It makes sense that developing an alternative way to identify drugs or talk about taboo topics could make life easier for the people who partake in such activities. Slang allows people who are “in the know” to break the code and presents a linguistic barrier for unwanted outsiders. Taking a moment to think about the amount of slang that refers to being intoxicated on drugs or alcohol or engaging in sexual activity should generate a lengthy list.

It’s difficult for some to identify the slang they use at any given moment because it is worked into everyday language patterns and becomes very natural. Just as we learned here, new words can create a lot of buzz and become a part of common usage very quickly. The same can happen with new slang terms. Most slang words also disappear quickly, and their alternative meaning fades into obscurity. For example, you don’t hear anyone using the word macaroni to refer to something cool or fashionable. But that’s exactly what the common slang meaning of the word was at the time the song “Yankee Doodle” was written. Yankee Doodle isn’t saying the feather he sticks in his cap is a small, curved pasta shell; he is saying it’s cool or stylish.


Colloquialisms are the use of informal words in communication. Colloquialism varies from region to region. Examples might be “wanna” instead of “want to” or “gonna” instead of “going to.” It shows us how society uses language in their everyday lives. Here’s a short list of some common colloquialisms you may have heard:

  • Bamboozle – to deceive
  • Be blue – to be sad
  • Beat around the bush – to avoid a specific topic
  • Buzz off – go away
  • Fell through the cracks – to be neglected
  • Go bananas, or go nuts – go insane or be very angry
  • Gobsmacked – shocked
  • Gonna – going to
  • Hit a writer’s block – unable to write
  • Hit the hay – to go to sleep
  • Pop into my head – to have a new thought
  • Sticktoitiveness – to be persistent
  • Threw me for a loop – to be surprised
  • Throw someone under the bus – to throw the blame on another person
  • Wanna – want to
  • Y’all – you all
  • Yinz – you all


Idioms are expressions or figures of speech whose meaning cannot be understood by looking at the individual words and interpreting them literally. Idioms can help amplify messages. Idioms can be used to provide artistic expression. For instance, “knowledge is power!”

Idioms can be hard to grasp for non-native speakers. As such, many instructors in the English as a Second Language world spend a good deal of time trying to explain idioms to non-native speakers. Table 4.4.2 presents a wide array of different idioms.

ish About. I’ll meet you at 4ish.
a basket case A wreck. He was a basket case after he was thrown off the basketball team.
a breath of fresh air Refreshing/fun. She’s a breath of fresh air.
a change of heart Change my mind. I’ve had a change of heart.
a blessing in disguise Something bad that turns out good. Losing his job turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
a dead end That’s a dead end job–time to find a new one.
a gut feeling Feeling in my stomach. I have a gut feeling that everything is going to turn out all right.
a matter of opinion It’s a matter of opinion whether eating fried tarantulas is a gourmet treat.
a piece of cake That test was a snap–it was a piece of cake. (easy).
a ripoff You spent $500 for a watermelon! What a ripoff! You were cheated.
a pain in the neck A pest. His little brother is a real pain in the neck.
be in hot water Be in trouble. If you tell your boss off, you’ll really be in hot water.
in the same boat We’re in the same situation. We’re all in the same boat–so be cool.
on the same wavelength We have the same ideas and opinions. We’re on the same wavelength.
be on the ball Very sharp. Very smart. He’s really on the ball.
it’s only a matter of time Very soon. It’s only a matter of time until his boss realizes that he is the one stealing money from the till.
be that as it may As things stand. Be that as it may, I think you should reconsider your decision to move to Antarctica.
up in arms Really angry. His father was up in arms when he learned that he had crashed his new car.
up in the air Not sure. Plans are up in the air–we haven’t decided what to do yet.
bend over backwards Go out of your way. She really bent over backwards to make my stay enjoyable.
Big deal! Not important (sarcastic). Losing an old sock is not a big deal.
cost an arm and a leg Very expensive. His new Ferrari cost an arm and a leg.
cross your fingers For good luck. Cross your fingers that I pass the English exam with flying colors.
draw a blank I can’t remember. I drew a blank when I tried to remember his brother’s name.
Easier said than done More difficult than it seems.
Am fed up with Sick and tired of something. I’m fed up with whining friends who have everything!
from scratch Make from basic ingredients. Her carrot cake was made from scratch.
for the time being For now. For the time being, everything is fine at work.
get cold feet Feel too scared to do something. John wanted to ask Maria out but he got cold feet and decided not to.
get out of the wrong side of the bed In a bad mood. He must have gotten up out of the wrong side of the bed today.
get the picture Understand. Do you get the picture?
get your act together Get organized/stop wasting time. You better get your act together or you’re going to fail all your classes.
give it a shot Try. Why not try bungee jumping. Give it a shot.
give him a piece of your mind Get angry and tell someone off. If I were you I would give him a piece of your mind.
give him the cold shoulder Ignore someone. Brett walked right past me without saying a word. He gave me the cold shoulder.
go all out Do your utmost for someone or something. His parents went all out for his graduation party.
go downhill Get worse. After he got divorced, everything went downhill.
go up in smoke Evaporate/disappear. His dreams of being a professional athlete went up in smoke when he broke his leg.
have a chip on your shoulder I think you are great. He has such a chip on his shoulder that he hardly ever relates to anyone.
had it up to here Can’t take any more. I’ve had it up to here with noisy students!
mixed feelings Positive and negative feelings together. I have very mixed feelings about her marrying a fisherman.
second thoughts Thinking again about a decision. I’m having second thoughts about trekking in Greenland this summer.
throw a fit Get really angry. His mother threw a fit when she heard that he lost her iPhone.
I’m all ears To listen intently. Tell me about your wedding plans–I’m all ears.
in the bag Certain. His new job is in the bag. He signed the contract.
in the middle of nowhere Way out in the country. Their ski chalet is in the middle of nowhere.
Just my luck! Bad luck. Just my luck to lose the winning lottery ticket.
keep an eye on Watch carefully. Will you keep an eye on my nephew while I walk the dog?
bear in mind Keep it in mind. Bear in mind, learning a new language isn’t as easy as it seems.
learn by heart Memorize. You have to learn irregular verbs by heart.
let the cat out of the bag Spill the beans. Tell a secret. Don’t let the cat out of the bag. Keep his surprise birthday party a secret.
make my day Make my day great. The guy I have a crush on finally called me. He made my day.
miss the point Don’t understand the basic meaning. You are missing the point entirely.
no way Impossible. You got all A’s on your exams and you never studied. No way!
don’t have a clue I have no idea. I don’t have a clue what the professor was talking about.
don’t have the faintest idea Don’t understand. I don’t have the faintest idea of what that article was talking about.
off the top of my head Without thinking. Off the top of my head, I think it’s worth $6 million.
on the dot Ontime. He arrived at 6 o’clock on the dot.
out of sight, out of mind You forget someone you don’t see anymore.
out of the blue Suddenly. Guess who called me out of the blue?
play it by ear Make no plans–do things spontaneously. Let’s just play it by ear tonight and see what comes up.
pull someone’s leg Kid someone. Stop pulling my leg. I know you are kidding!
red tape Bureaucracy. It’s almost impossible to set up a business in Greece because there is so much red tape.
read between the lines Understand what is not stated. If you read between the lines, you’ll realize that he is trying to dump you.
safe and sound Fine. The Boy Scouts returned safe and sound from their camping adventure in Yellowstone National Park.
see eye to eye Agree. He doesn’t see eye to eye with his parents at all.
sour grapes Pretend to not want something that you are desperate for. It’s just sour grapes that he is criticizing George’s villa in Italy.
slipped my mind Forgot. I meant to call you last night, but it slipped my mind.
small talk Chitchat. It’s important to be able to make small talk when you meet new people for the first time.
talk shop Talk about work. What a boring evening! Everyone talked shop- and they’re all dog walkers!
the icing on the cake Something that makes a good thing great. And the icing on the cake was that the movie for which he earned $12 million, also won the Oscar for best picture.
the last straw The thing that ruins everything. When my boss asked me to cancel my wedding to complete a project–I said that’s the last straw and I quit!
time flies Time goes fast. Time flies when you are having fun.
you can say that again You agree emphatically. Kanye West is a great singer. You can say that again!
you name it Everything you can think of. This camp has every activity you can think it–like swimming, canoeing, basketball and you name it.
wouldn’t be caught dead Not even dead would I do something. I wouldn’t be caught dead wearing that dress to the ball.
she’s a doll Someone really great. Thanks for helping me out. You’re a doll.
full of beans Lively–usually for a child. Little children are usually full of beans.
full of baloney Not true. She’s full of baloney–she doesn’t know what she is talking about.
like two peas in a pod Very similar. His two brothers are like peas in a pod.
a piece of cake Very easy. My math test was so easy–a real piece of cake.
sounds fishy Suspicious. Doubling your money in an hour sounds fishy to me.
a frog in my throat I can’t speak clearly. Ahem! Sorry I had a frog in my throat.
smell a rat Something is suspicious. The policeman didn’t believe the witness–in fact, he smelled a rat.
go to the dogs Go downhill. Everything is going to the dogs in our town since the new mayor took office.
cat got your tongue Silent for no reason. What’s the matter? Cat got your tongue?
for the birds Awful. How was the new Batman movie? Oh, it was for the birds.
pay through the nose Pay lots of money. They paid through the nose to hold their wedding at Buckingham Palace.
tongue in cheek Being ironic. I meant that tongue in cheek. I was kidding.
all thumbs Clumsy. He couldn’t put that simple table together–he’s just all thumbs.
get off my back Leave me alone. Bug off! Get off my back!
drive me up a wall Drive me crazy. Rude people drive me up a wall.
spill the beans Tell a secret. Hey, don’t spill the beans. It’s a secret.
hit the ceiling Blow up. His dad hit the ceiling when he saw his dreadful report card.
go fly a kite Get lost! Oh, leave me alone! Go fly a kite!
dressed to kill Dressed in fancy clothes. Cinderella was dressed to kill when she arrived at the ball.
in stitches Laughing a lot. We were all in stitches when we heard the latest joke.
feel like a million dollars Feel great. I just slept for 15 hours–I feel like a million dollars.
at the end of my rope Can’t stand it anymore. The mother of four little children is at the end of her rope.
my head is killing me Something hurts. My head is killing me–I should take an aspirin.
that’s out of the question Impossible. Me? Stand up and sing and dance in front of the whole school–out of the question!
I’m beat Very tired.
It’ll knock your socks off! Thrills you. You’ll love this summer’s action movie. It’ll knock your socks off.
beats me Don’t know. What’s the capital of Outer Mongolia? Beats me!
hands down No comparison. Hands down Mykonos is the world’s most beautiful island.
goody-goody Behaves perfectly. I can’t stand Matilda–she’s such a goody-goody and no fun at all.
pain in the neck A big problem. Washing dishes is a pain in the neck.
like pulling teeth Very difficult. Trying to get 2-year-olds to cooperate is like pulling teeth.
for crying out loud Oh no! For crying out loud–let me finish this book–will you?
I’m at my wit’s end I’m desperate. I’m at my wit’s end trying to deal with two impossible bosses.
like beating a dead horse A waste of time. Trying to get my father to ever change his mind is like beating a dead horse.
out of this world Fantastic! My vacation to Hawaii was out of this world!
cost an arm and a leg Very expensive. A Rolls Royce costs an arm and a leg.
go figure Try to guess why. Our English teacher gives us five tests a week and this week– no tests at all. Go figure.
in the nick of time Just in time. The hero arrived in the nick of time to save the desperate damsel.
I’m up to my eyeballs in Very busy. I’m up to my eyeballs in work this week.
I had a blast/a ball A great time. I had a blast/ball at Sandy’s slumber party.
win-win situation Both sides win. Selling their old stock of iPhones 10s was a win-win situation. They got rid of the useless phones, and we bought them really cheaply.
I’m swamped Very busy. Let’s get together next week–this week I’m swamped.
It’s a steal Fantastic bargain. Getting a new computer for $300 dollars is a steal.
the sticks Way out in the country. Who would want to live in the sticks–what would you do for excitement?
break the ice Start a conversation. Talking about the weather is a good way to break the ice when you meet someone new.
give me a break Leave me alone! Come on! Give me a break! I’ve been working all day longand I just want to play a little bit of Angry Birds…
like talking to the wall A waste of time. Dealing with many teenagers is like talking to a wall–they won’t even respond to your questions.
see eye to eye Agree. I hardly ever see eye to eye with my parents.
It’s about time It’s time. It’s about time you started your homework–it’s midnight!
pays peanuts Pays hardly anything. This job pays peanuts–$1 an hour!
sleep like a log Sleep soundly. Last night I slept like a log and didn’t hear the thunderstorm at all.
ace Do great. I aced the math test. I got 100%.
easy as pie Super easy. The English test was as easy as pie.
blabbermouth Someone who tells secrets. Don’t tell Sophie your secrets or the whole town will know them.
don’t bug me Don’t bother me. Don’t bug me–I’m busy.
by the skin of my teeth Barely manage something. I passed the geography test by the skin of my teeth.
can’t make head nor tail of I can’t understand. I can’t make head nor tail of this math chapter.
cool as a cucumber Very calm. The policeman was cool as a cucumber when he persuaded the man not to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge.


A cliché is an idea or expression that has been so overused that it has lost its original meaning.28 Clichés are common and can often be heard. For instance, “light as a feather” or “happily ever after” are common clichés. They are important because they express ideas and thoughts that are popular in everyday use. They are prevalent in advertisements, television, and literature.


Euphemisms also make language unclear. People use euphemisms as a means of saying something more politely or less bluntly. For instance, instead of telling your parents/guardians that you failed a test, you might say that you did sub-optimal. People use euphemisms because it sounds better, and it seems like a better way to express how they feel. People use euphemisms all the time. For instance, instead of saying this person died, they might say the person passed away. Instead of saying that someone farted, you might say someone passed gas.

Relative Language

Relative language depends on the person communicating. People’s backgrounds vary. Hence, their perspectives will vary. I know a college professor that complains about her salary. However, other college professors would love to have a salary like hers. In other words, our language is based on our perception of our experiences. For instance, if someone asked you what would be your ideal salary, would it be based on your previous salary? Your parents? Your friends? Language is relative because of that reason. If I said, “Let’s go eat at an expensive restaurant,” what would be expensive for you? For some person, it would be $50, for another, $20, for someone else it might be $10, and yet there might be someone who would say $5 is expensive!


“Getting Plugged In”

Is “Textese” Hurting Our Verbal Communication?

Textese, also called text-message-ese and txt talk, among other things, has been called a “new dialect” of English that mixes letters and numbers, abbreviates words, and drops vowels and punctuation to create concise words and statements. Although this “dialect” has primarily been relegated to the screens of smartphones and other text-capable devices, it has slowly been creeping into our spoken language (Huang, 2011). Some critics say textese is “destroying” language by “pillaging punctuation” and “savaging our sentences” (Humphrys, 2007). A relatively straightforward tks for “thanks” or u for “you” has now given way to textese sentences like IMHO U R GR8. If you translated that into “In my humble opinion, you are great,” then you are fluent in textese. Although teachers and parents seem convinced that this type of communicating will eventually turn our language into emoticons and abbreviations, some scholars aren’t. David Crystal, a well-known language expert, says that such changes to the English language aren’t new and that texting can actually have positive effects. He points out that Shakespeare also abbreviated many words, played with the rules of language, and made up several thousand words, and he is not considered an abuser of language. He also cites research that found, using experimental data, that children who texted more scored higher on reading and vocabulary tests. Crystal points out that in order to play with language, you must first have some understanding of the rules of language (Huang, 2011).

  1. What effects, if any, do you think textese has had on your non-text-message communication?
  2. Overall do you think textese and other forms of computer-mediated communication have affected our communication? Try to identify one potential positive and negative influence that textese has had on our verbal communication.

Language Is Relational

We use verbal communication to initiate, maintain, and terminate our interpersonal relationships. The first few exchanges with a potential romantic partner or friend help us size the other person up and figure out if we want to pursue a relationship or not. We then use verbal communication to remind others how we feel about them and to check in with them—engaging in relationship maintenance through language use. When negative feelings arrive and persist, or for many other reasons, we often use verbal communication to end a relationship.

Language Can Bring Us Together

Interpersonally, verbal communication is key to bringing people together and maintaining relationships. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, our use of words like I, you, we, our, and us affect our relationships. “We language” includes the words we, our, and us and can be used to promote a feeling of inclusiveness. “I language” can be useful when expressing thoughts, needs, and feelings because it leads us to “own” our expressions and avoid the tendency to mistakenly attribute the cause of our thoughts, needs, and feelings to others. Communicating emotions using “I language” may also facilitate emotion sharing by not making our conversational partner feel at fault or defensive. For example, instead of saying, “You’re making me crazy!” you could say, “I’m starting to feel really anxious because we can’t make a decision about this.” Conversely, “you language” can lead people to become defensive and feel attacked, which could be divisive and result in feelings of interpersonal separation.


Verbal communication brings people together and helps maintain satisfying relationships.

Aside from the specific words that we use, the frequency of communication impacts relationships. Of course, the content of what is said is important, but research shows that romantic partners who communicate frequently with each other and with mutual friends and family members experience less stress and uncertainty in their relationship and are more likely to stay together (McCornack, 2007). When frequent communication combines with supportive messages, which are messages communicated in an open, honest, and nonconfrontational way, people are sure to come together.

Moving from the interpersonal to the sociocultural level, we can see that speaking the same language can bring people together. When a person is surrounded by people who do not speak his or her native language, it can be very comforting to run into another person who speaks the same language. Even if the two people are strangers, the ease of linguistic compatibility is comforting and can quickly facilitate a social bond. We’ve already learned that language helps shape our social reality, so a common language leads to some similar perspectives. Of course, there are individual differences within a language community, but the power of shared language to unite people has led to universal language movements that advocate for one global language.

Language Can Separate Us

Whether it’s criticism, teasing, or language differences, verbal communication can also lead to feelings of separation. Language differences alone do not present insurmountable barriers. We can learn other languages with time and effort, there are other people who can translate and serve as bridges across languages, and we can also communicate quite a lot nonverbally in the absence of linguistic compatibility. People who speak the same language can intentionally use language to separate. The words us and them can be a powerful start to separation. Think of how language played a role in segregation in the United States as the notion of “separate but equal” was upheld by the Supreme Court and how apartheid affected South Africa as limits, based on finances and education, were placed on the black majority’s rights to vote. Symbols, both words and images, were a very important part of Hitler’s rise to power in the 1930s and ’40s in Europe. Various combinations of colored stars, triangles, letters, and other symbols were sewn onto the clothing or uniforms of people persecuted by the Nazis in order to classify them. People were labeled and reduced to certain characteristics rather than seen as complete humans, which facilitated the Nazis’ oppression, violence, and killing (Holocaust and Human Rights Education Center, 2012).

At the interpersonal level, unsupportive messages can make others respond defensively, which can lead to feelings of separation and actual separation or dissolution of a relationship. It’s impossible to be supportive in our communication all the time, but consistently unsupportive messages can hurt others’ self-esteem, escalate conflict, and lead to defensiveness. People who regularly use unsupportive messages may create a toxic win/lose climate in a relationship. Six verbal tactics that can lead to feelings of defensiveness and separation are global labels, sarcasm, dragging up the past, negative comparisons, judgmental “you” messages, and threats (McKay, Davis & Fanning, 1995).

Common Types of Unsupportive Messages

  1. Global labels. “You’re a liar.” Labeling someone irresponsible, untrustworthy, selfish, or lazy calls his or her whole identity as a person into question. Such sweeping judgments and generalizations are sure to only escalate a negative situation.
  2. Sarcasm. “No, you didn’t miss anything in class on Wednesday. We just sat there and looked at each other.” Even though sarcasm is often disguised as humor, it usually represents passive-aggressive behavior through which a person indirectly communicates negative feelings.
  3. Dragging up the past. “I should have known not to trust you when you never paid me back that $100 I let you borrow.” Bringing up negative past experiences is a tactic used by people when they don’t want to discuss a current situation. Sometimes people have built up negative feelings that are suddenly let out by a seemingly small thing at the moment.
  4. Negative comparisons. “Jade graduated from college without any credit card debt. I guess you’re just not as responsible as her.” Holding a person up to the supposed standards or characteristics of another person can lead to feelings of inferiority and resentment. Parents and teachers may unfairly compare children to their siblings.
  5. Judgmental “you” messages. “You’re never going to be able to hold down a job.” Accusatory messages are usually generalized overstatements about another person that goes beyond labeling but still do not describe specific behavior in a productive way.
  6. Threats. “If you don’t stop texting back and forth with your ex, both of you are going to regret it.” Threatening someone with violence or some other negative consequence usually signals the end of productive communication. Aside from the potential legal consequences, threats usually overcompensate for a person’s insecurity.


Key Takeaways

  • Language helps us express observations (reports on sensory information), thoughts (conclusions and judgments based on observations or ideas), feelings, and needs.
  • Language is powerful in that it expresses our identities through labels used by and on us, affects our credibility based on how we support our ideas, serves as a means of control, and performs actions when spoken by certain people in certain contexts.
  • The productivity and limitlessness of language creates the possibility for countless word games and humorous uses of language.
  • Language is dynamic, meaning it is always changing through the addition of neologisms, new words or old words with new meaning, and the creation of slang.
  • Language is relational and can be used to bring people together through a shared reality but can separate people through unsupportive and divisive messages.


  1. Based on what you are doing and how you are feeling at this moment, write one of each of the four types of expressions—an observation, a thought, a feeling, and a need.
  2. Getting integrated: A key function of verbal communication is expressing our identities. Identify labels or other words that are important for your identity in each of the following contexts: academic, professional, personal, and civic. (Examples include honors student for academic, trainee for professional, girlfriend for personal, and independent for civic.)
  3. Review the types of unsupportive messages discussed earlier. Which of them do you think has the potential to separate people the most? Why? Which one do you have the most difficulty avoiding (directing toward others)? Why?


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