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Techniques > Use of language > Modifying meaning > Distortions

Words | Phrases | Assumptions | See also


Chomsky (1955, 1975) described how, when intent is converted into words, there is often a distortion of meaning. Words are individual chunks with broadly shared definitions that provide common ways to signify meaning and hence communicate with one another. 'There's many a slip 'twixt cup and lip', as they say, and what comes out is often a long way from what we really mean.

Distortion is often very much an unconscious process, and may be connected with a limited skill with words. Although the focus here is on distortion of spoken or written words, further distortion also happens in the inference of meaning by the reader or listener. This also is a function of language skill. Thus two people with limited ability with language (and we all have our limitations in this area) can very easily misunderstand one another.

Distorting words

Words often get distorted through incorrect use or use for particular effect. This usage may then become accepted jargon and even fall into everyday language where the distortion is unrealized and accepted as normal.

That's a fabulous car. (though not found in any fables)

She's really magic! (nice, but not a witch)


A Malapropism is where a word is used improperly. Mrs Malaprop was a character in Sheridan's 1775 comedy 'The Rivals' novel who regularly used the wrong word, often to comic effect. Malapropisms, although often minor. are surprisingly common, especially when people are not in full command of the language.

I need an aspidistra for my headache. (it should be 'aspirin' not 'aspidistra')

She is very ambiguous. (perhaps meaning 'ambitious')


A Spoonerism occurs where the initial letters of two words are exchanged. It is named after the Reverend William Archibald Spooner (1844–1930), Warden of New College, Oxford, who fell into this trap remarkably often.

Search every crook and nanny! (Should be 'Search every nook and cranny').

The weight of rage increase is significant. (Should be 'rate of wage').

Distorting phrases

The most common form of distortion occurs where the words selected express the meaning reasonably well, but are easily misunderstood.

I ran back in time to get there.

It's difficult, but easy.


It is quite easy to come up with phrases that make sense on one level, but in other ways are nonsense. Such phrases may be deliberately used to cause confusion and hence give opportunity to change minds.

I wondered how you won't be getting there yesterday.

I caught the train of thought to town.

Internal conflict

Internal conflict within the phrase or sentence can be used for deliberate effect, either with humor or for challenging thinking.

I don't want to take you home lost!

I know it's difficult, but it is easy, really.


Internal conflict within the phrase or sentence can be used for deliberate effect, either with humor or challenging thinking.

I live in a great house. (a big house or a wonderful house?)

Rich men and women get on well together. (are the women rich?)


Whenever you make some kind of assumption, you are making a guess at the truth, and when something is not true then it is, by definition, a distortion.

Cause and effect

One form of assumption is to link cause and effect:

You made me do that!

I'd help, but I'm cross.


Another form of assumption is to guess what other people are thinking or feeling. This also includes assumptions about their general abilities.

I know you won't like this.

You're an expert -- how do you do this?


Any form of prediction or forecasting of the future is an assumption and hence is a likely distortion:

It's going to a lovely Summer.

Business is going to get better, I know.

See also

Translating intent into action

Chomsky N. (1955). The Logical Structure of Linguistic Theory. Manuscript, Harvard University. Published, with an introduction by the author, New York: Plenum Press, 1973

Chomsky N. (1975). Reflections on Language. New York: Pantheon

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