Return to Nicholas Johnson Web Site



Reproduced from Wilbur Schramm, Mass Communications (2d ed., Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1975), pp. 301-315

[NOTE: For copyright and related information, see note below. -- N.J., December 23, 1999]

Dr. Johnson is professor of speech and psychology at the State University of Iowa. This is part of his paper, "Speech and Personality," in The Communication of Ideas, published and copyrighted 1948, by the Institute for Religious and Social Studies, of New York. The paper is here reprinted by permission of the author and the copyright holder.


Communication reduces to the event, both commonplace and awesome, of Mr. A. talking to Mr. B. And most commonplace and strange of all -- possibly the most distinctively human occurrence to be found or imagined -- is the case in which Mr. A. and Mr. B. are one and the same person: a man talking to himself.
0--> 0--> 0--> 0--> 0 ====== 0--> 0--> 0--> 0 ====

1    2    3    4    5    6   7    8    9    10 Etc.

Figure 1. Schematic stage-by-stage representation of what goes on when Mr. A talks to Mr. B -- the process of communication.

1. An event occurs (any first order fact serving as a source of sensory stimulation)

2. which stimulates Mr. A. through eyes, ears, or other sensory organs, and the resulting

3. nervous impulses travel to Mr. A's brain, and from there to his [302] muscles and glands, producing tensions, preverbal "feelings," etc.,

4. which Mr. A. then begins to translate into words, according to his accustomed verbal patterns, and out of all the words he "thinks of"

5. he "selects," or abstracts, certain ones which he arranges in some  fashion, and then

6. by means of sound waves and light waves, Mr. A. speaks to Mr. B.,

7. whose ears and eyes are stimulated by the sound waves and light waves, respectively, and the resulting

8. nervous impulses travel to Mr. B.'s brain, and from there to his  muscles and glands, producing tensions, preverbal "feelings," etc.,

9. which Mr. B. then begins to translate into words, according to his  accustomed verbal patterns, and out of all the words he "thinks of"

10. be "selects," or abstracts, certain ones, which he arranges in some  fashion and then Mr. B. speaks, or acts, accordingly, thereby stimulating Mr. A. -- or somebody else -- and so the process of communication goes on, and on -- with complications, as indicated in the accompanying text.

(Adapted from Wendell Johnson, People in Quandaries: The Semantics of Personal Adjustment (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1946), p. 472. For elaboration see accompanying outline of the process of communication, with discussion, ibid., pp. 469-81.)

The restrictions and distortions of speech with which we are concerned can be particularly well appreciated in terms of the diagram of the process of communication shown in Figure 1. The diagram provides a convenient organizing scheme for dealing in an orderly manner with an exceedingly complex pattern of events. By breaking the pattern down into a series of stages it becomes possible to examine the functions and the possible disorders at each stage, as well as the conditions importantly related to these functions and disorders.

If we begin by having a look at stage 6, as represented in the diagram, and then work back toward stage 1, perhaps we shall gain most quickly the clearest possible view of the communicative process as it is here presented. So far as spoken language is concerned, what passes in any physical sense between the speaker and the listener are sound waves and, in cases where the speaker is visible to the listener, light waves. These waves may be sufficiently mysterious, but at least they set definite limits to such mystery as there may be in the transmission of whatever the speaker has to communicate to the listener. Anything in the way of "spiritual influence," "value," or "the intangibilities of personality" that Mr. A. may succeed in conveying to Mr. B. is to be described ultimately by the physicist conversant with optics and acoustics.


Undeniable as this may be, however, our understanding of communication is to be considerably abetted if we move back a step and examine the events of stage 6 in relation to the functions and the possible disorders involved in stage 5. Limiting our considerations to speech -- rather than writing, musical performance, painting, etc. -- we see that the functions at this stage are those involved in the use of appropriate symbol systems, such as the English language, for example, including words and the forms according to which they are arranged. The chief functions involved in speech at this stage are those of phonation and articulation of sounds. Auxiliary functions include gesture, posture, facial expression, and general bodily action. It is also to be considered that the manipulation of the situation is involved -- the arrangement of background or setting for the spoken words. This may include the use of music, banners, sound effects, color, lighting, clothes, etc. Finally, the means of transmission are to be taken into account -- the  use of radio, television, motion pictures with sound, telephone, speech recordings, or face-to-face communication.

The possible disorders affecting these functions fall generally into the following categories: speech and voice defects; anxiety tension reactions, such as are involved in stage fright or feelings of inferiority, which noticeably affect speech; paralyses, diseases, or characteristics of physical appearance which interfere with expressive bodily action, or which tend to call forth unfavorable reactions on the part of listeners; lack of skill in the use of background or staging techniques, together with defects, such as radio static, in the means and conditions of transmission.


Certain other disorders of speech, which are more significant from a communicative standpoint than the ones we have discussed, are far less commonly known. In fact, until the recent development of semantics and general semantics many of these disorders were for practical purposes unrecognized; some had not even been named. The more important ones are to be most meaningfully discussed in relation to stage 4 of our diagram. This is the stage of preliminary verbal formulation, the stage at which the preverbal tensions resulting from a sensory stimulation are transformed into words. How vacuously we take speech for granted is to be sensed from a moment


of intensive contemplation of this amazing transformation of nonverbal goings on within the nervous system, and throughout the organism, into the curiously codified motor responses that we so glibly refer to as "spoken words"!

One can at least be appropriately humble in recognizing the fact that no one understands very well just how this fateful transformation is brought about. But humility need not be carried to the point of swooning. The fact that does appear to be clear enough, although it is widely disregarded, is that what we verbalize is not -- as the "practical minded" seem chronically to take for granted -- anything that can be called "external reality." To say, for example, "The room is hot," is not, by any stretch of imagination, to make a statement about the room, as such, "in and of itself." As our diagram indicates, at least four discernible stages are passed through before we utter a statement at all. To stick with our homely example, there is first of all some source of sensory stimulation in what we call "the room" -- some sort of "energy radiations" (stage 1) which play upon the sensory end organs in our skin. The effect of these "energy radiations" is that activity is aroused in the nerve endings, with consequent nervous currents which travel into the spinal cord and brain. This we represent in our diagram as stage 2. The resulting "disturbance" (stage 3), which we call "preverbal tensions," is determined in part by the character of the sensory nerve impulses coming into the nervous system and in part by the condition existing in the nervous system at the moment of their arrival. Moreover, the incoming impulses are relayed out to muscles and glands where the resulting activities give rise to proprioceptive stimulation, with subsequent incoming nerve impulses which complicate and intensify the effects of the original sensory stimulation. It is this whole complex process which we represent in our diagram as the preverbal tensions at stage 3. And it is these preverbal tensions that we verbalize.

The crucial significance of this fact is that basically we always talk about ourselves. Our statements are the verbalizations of our preverbal tensions. It is these organismic tensions -- not the external reality of rooms, chairs, people, sound waves, light waves, and pressures -- that  we transform into words. What we talk about, then, is a joint product of reality (regarded as a source of sensory stimulation) and of the conditions existing within our nervous systems at


the time of stimulation. This joint product is represented as stage 3 in our diagram. The preliminary verbalizations of it are represented as stage 4.

The basic function occurring in stage 4 is that of symbolic formulation. This function is affected in a determinative way by thestructure of the speaker's available symbolic systems. In the case of speech, the symbolic system is the speaker's acquired language, or languages -- his vocabulary and the rules according to which he uses it, the information it represents, the flexibility or rigidity with which he operates with it, and the insight and ingenuity with which he abstracts, from all the verbal formulations possible to him, those few statements which he actually utters.

The disorders to be considered in relation to stage 4 are to be identified accordingly. They fall roughly into three main categories. They are, first, deficiencies in vocabulary and grammatical form.

While a quite limited store of words, arranged in relatively simple sentences, might well serve for most purposes of common conversation and small talk, nevertheless present-day communal living and technological specialization require very considerable language skills of any citizen who presumes to maintain an intelligent grasp of the wide range of affairs by which his life is affected. Much can be done, of course, to simplify the discussion of even relatively complex social and scientific matters, as has been demonstrated by Rudolf Flesch in his provocative book, The Art of Plain Talk, and by I. A. Richards and C. K. Ogden in their publication concerning Basic English (for an unusually practical presentation see I. A. Richards' twenty-five-cent Pocket Book of Basic English). What these inventive students of language recommend as techniques of simplification, however, demand, for their adroit application, a degree of linguistic skill that is not to be come by without effort. The language skill of a school child who describes a movie, using short simple sentences and a limited vocabulary, is definitely to be contrasted with that of a university professor who manages to discuss psychoanalysis or atomic fission in equally short and simple sentences and with an equally limited vocabulary. In the case of the school child there is to be observed a deficiency, perhaps even a very grave deficiency, of language development, while in the simplified speech of the professor there is to be noted a linguistic subtlety and sophistication rarely achieved. It is probably as difficult for a highly trained


scientific specialist to explain his work to a second grader as it is for the second grader to explain the scientist's work to the kid in the next seat.

Vocabulary deficiency, that is to say, works both ways; a vocabulary may be too limited or too elaborate for specific purposes of communication. One's vocabulary can be lacking in complexity or in simplicity. The language used in the present discussion, for example, is probably lacking more in simplicity than in complexity, generally speaking.

The basic point to be emphasized in this connection is that the language, or languages, available to us are such that they tend to make for oversimplification and overgeneralization. Reality -- that is, the sources of sensory stimulation -- is, so far as we know, decidedly process-like, highly dynamic, ever changing. Our language, on the other hand, is by comparison quite static and relatively inflexible. The six hundred thousand or so words in the English language must serve to symbolize millions -- indeed, billions -- of individual facts, experiences, and relationships. Moreover, the average individual does not use or readily understand as many as ten per cent of the six hundred thousand words making up the English language, In a study by one of the writer's students (Helen Fairbanks, The Quantitative Differentiation of Samples of Spoken Language, Psychological Monographs 56, 1944, pp. 19-28), a total of thirty thousand words was obtained from a group of superior university freshmen, and the same size of speech sample was obtained from a group of mental hospital patients diagnosed as schizophrenic. Each individual talked, interpreting fables, until he had produced a sample of three thousand words. For the freshmen just forty-six different words made up half of the thirty thousand words in the total sample. For the schizophrenic patients the comparable figure was thirty-three words. (In fact, one word, the one most frequently used by the schizophrenic patients, which was the word I, made up over eight per cent of their entire thirty thousand words.)

Thus the magnitude of the discrepancy between reality and language, with respect to variability, is by no means adequately indicated by reference to the six hundred thousand words which make tip the approximate total for the English language. The discrepancy is more meaningfully indicated by reference to the few hundred -- at best, the few thousand -- words which make up the practical daily use vocabulary of an ordinary person. In this general sense, we all


suffer from vocabulary deficiency. The basic fact is that, at best, there are far more things to speak about than there are words with which to speak about them.

We have already noted that what a speaker has to verbalize is an organismic condition (stage 3) which is a joint product of the sensory stimulation arising from reality and the state of his organism at the moment of stimulation. We have now to add that what a speaker has to communicate (stage 5) is a joint product of this organismic condition (stage 3) and the language structure of the speaker, together with his habits of employing it (stage 4). What a speaker eventually says can hardly be anything but a far cry from the supposedly relevant first order facts (stage 1). And what the listener makes of what the speaker says is something else again! Anyone able to read a headline or twist a radio knob knows that there is no dearth of misunderstanding in the world -- and anyone with even an elementary knowledge of the process of communication can only wonder that there is not more misunderstanding and confusion than there seem to be.


We have so far considered only a part of the difficulty, however. A second considerable source of communicative inefficiency is sheer ignorance. The number of factual subjects which the average person is able to discuss in detail and with a thorough grasp of important relationships and implications has never been determined with statistical refinement, but it is doubtless lower than any college president would find to be gratifying. The "Quiz Kids" provide a thin ray of hope, but even that is dusted up a bit by the fact that we are seldom given an opportunity to find out whether they are thinkers or mere collectors of odds and ends of information. At best, of course, only a small portion of the little information most of us have is first hand; most by far of what we know we have gained verbally, and most of this has come to us in the form of relatively high order generalization rather than detailed descriptive report. Thus, we are not only drastically limited by our common verbal means of symbolizing fact and experience, but we are also appallingly limited in our reliable knowledge of fact and experience. There is almost always a significant degree of probability that discourse involving two or more individuals will result in misunderstanding, confusion, and the intensification of conflict. There is considerable hope of decreas-


ing this probability, however, so long as the obstacles to communication are clearly recognized so that allowance can be made for them in a forthright, impersonal, and even good-humored manner. On the other hand, a naive confidence in the constructive possibilities of discussion, an uncritical faith in the power of words, can be disastrously misleading and socially as well as individually disruptive. It obscures both the sources of misunderstanding and the possibilities of agreement and cooperative action.


A third large category of disorders affecting communication adversely are those due mainly to the generally pre-scientific orientation so common in our culture. It is this particular class of disorders that general semantics serves to highlight effectively. The disorders constitute violations of fundamental semantic principles. One is handicapped in discussing them briefly, however, because the principles themselves can hardly be presented in a few pages, and the particular frame of reference which they represent, so far from being generally familiar, constitutes in certain respects a major break from our traditional orientation. While a general suggestion of the relevant disorders can be given in the present discussion, any serious reader will insist upon a fuller knowledge of them and of general semantics itself than can possibly be provided in this chapter.


The most pervasive of these disorders is that which Korzybski first described systematically as undue identification. He gave this term a special meaning, which can best be approximated, perhaps, for our present purposes, by saying that undue identification involves a factually unwarranted degree of categorical thinking. Differences among individuals, and differences within given individuals from time to time, are relatively disregarded, because broad group trends and characteristics, and the general tendencies of individuals, are overemphasized. For example, no particular attention is paid to an individual Charles Brown, because be is evaluated by a process of identifying him with -- of regarding him as identical with -- all other "Negroes." The supposed attributes of the category "Negro" are taken as the basis of evaluation of each and every individual Negro. One who is grossly addicted to identification, therefore, thinks in terms of verbal fictions, or high order abstractions, rather


than the extensional, or factual, sources of data and experience. Statements involving undue identifications constitute, therefore, overgeneralizations. It is to be emphasized, however, that generalization, as such, is not being indicted; it is unwarranted generalization, untested and uncorrected, to which reference is being made.

Class names -- categorical nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs -- play a crucial role in the process of identification. The unreflective use of such class words makes automatically for identification, for overgeneralization and the relative disregard of individual differences and specific data. Discussions carried on in terms of such words as "Democrats" and "Republicans," "Communists" and "capitalists," "the Russian," "the Englishman," "the underprivileged," "the consumer," etc., tend, unless conducted with extraordinary semantic consciousness and care in qualification, to degenerate into almost meaningless manipulation of vacuous verbal forms.

Class names serve to lump together as identical indefinite numbers of different individuals. What this amounts to is the identification of -- the  failure to differentiate -- high order abstractions and lower order abstractions. The principles of general semantics are principles of abstracting. In terms of our diagram (Figure 1), we abstract from the sources of sensory stimulation (stage 1) only so much as our sensory end organs and their functional connections within the nervous system are able to abstract. What we call an object, therefore, an orange, for example, as perceived by us, is a joint product of whatever the orange may be, independently of our perceptions of it, and whatever perceptions of it we are able to make. What appears to be the most reasonable assumption is that we leave out an indefinite number of details which we might be able to abstract if only we possessed different sensory and perceptive apparatus.

Going another step, any description we might make of this orange "manufactured by our nervous system" can be no more than an abstract of somewhat higher order. No matter how thorough we make it, our description can never be complete. Some details will be disregarded or left out of account. We seldom deal, however, with thorough descriptions. The statements we make about even first order experiences are usually partial to an extreme degree, mere summaries, often nothing but a word or two, or just names. A child experiences a complex experience of observation, for example, and we help him to verbalize it by saying, "That? Oh, that's


a steamshovel." There should be no difficulty in noting in such an instance the process of abstracting. It is a process of leaving out details -- of ignoring the unique in favor of the general, of putting the individual fact under the blurring dim light of the undifferentiating category, of identification.

One may speak of levels of abstraction: the levels, for example, of first order fact or direct experience (the non-verbal orange as seen, felt, or tasted), of naming or description, of inference from description, and of inference of higher order from inference of lower order practically without end. And the level of first order is made up of events which we cannot completely observe or experience, but about which we can imagine or infer as elaborately as we are able in such terms as electrons, protons, hereditary predispositions, immunities, and other hypothetical constructs.

Now, identification, as general semanticists use the term, refers most fundamentally to a failure to differentiate the levels of abstraction. Thus one may exhibit identification by reacting to a name as though it were an object --  as in the word magic of certain primitive peoples, or in the reactions made by some persons in our own culture to such words as syphilis, labor union, or expert. Or, one may exhibit identification by reacting to the object, to what one sees or smells, for example, as though it were the event -- as in the behavior of persons with food dislikes, many of whom have never eaten the foods in question, having always responded to the food, as seen, as though it were the food, as digested. Again, one may show identification by reacting to a high order verbal abstract, such as the present discussion, as though it were a highly detailed descriptive report. Having read the present chapter, for example, some readers might announce to their friends that they "know all about" general semantics, and even proceed to pass quite conclusive judgments one way or another concerning it.

The more highly conscious one is of the identifying tendencies of our language processes, the more effectively one may take them into account and even counteract them. Language necessarily involves varying degrees of identification, and for purposes of essential and fruitful generalization identification is indispensable. Precisely because it is both unavoidable and necessary, there is constant need for awareness of it. That is to say, since abstracting is a process of leaving out details, adequate abstracting, and so effective communication, necessitate an awareness of the details left


out -- and of those left in -- in any act of observation or of verbal statement. This awareness is for practical purposes our only effective safeguard against undue and maladjustive identifications.


Another basic aspect of the abstracting process, which can be misused with unfortunate effects, is that of projection. Since all we have to verbalize (stages 4 and 5) is an internal condition (stage 8), we are able to have any knowledge of, or to communicate anything about, reality (stage 1) only by projecting our internal condition "into" the external events. That is, if Mr. A. is to speak about an orange as a public event, so that Mr. B. might share his experience of it, or check his statements about it, be must project the orange as he experiences it, as "manufactured by his nervous system," into the orange as an object independent of himself. He must, in other words, speak about the orange (stage 3) "as if" it were outside himself (stage 1). If Mr. A. says, "There is an orange on the table," he is projecting, since all lie has to verbalize is a condition inside his own nervous system. But if Mr. B. replies, "Yes, I see the orange," Mr. A.'s projection is thereby, to that extent, justified. If, however, Mr. A. says, "There is a green lizard on the wall," and Mr. B. replies, "I don't see a green lizard," we might, with sufficient evidence, conclude that Mr. A. is exhibiting the sort of illegitimate projection that we call hallucination.

There is nothing abnormal about projection, as such. In fact, it is like identification, unavoidable and necessary. It is an integral aspect of the process of abstracting. What is essential, for purposes of effective abstracting and communication, is that there be adequate consciousness of projection. We may, for practical emphasis, speak of consciousness of projection as "to-me-ness." That is to say, Mr. A. exhibits consciousness of his own projecting when be says, "It seems to me that there is a green lizard on the wall," or, "This orange tastes sour to me. How does it taste to you?" In this way he indicates an awareness that what he reports is a personal experience, not a universal truth -- a personal experience, or evaluation, which depends for its reliability as a social fact on the degree to which others concur in it. Lack of "to-me-ness" is to be observed particularly in language that is highly "is-y" -- in such statements as "This orange is sour," as though the sourness were in the orange rather than a quality of the experience of tasting the orange. To someone


else the orange might taste sweet. Statements like "John is stupid," "Mary is beautiful," "Taxes are high," suggest, at least, a lack of consciousness of projection on the part of the speaker.

So long as the listener is aware of the speaker's projection, the listener, at least, can allow for it and respond accordingly. This is exemplified by a competent psychiatrist's manner of responding to the deluded statements of a patient who is indulging to an extreme degree in unconscious projection. The psychiatrist at least does not argue with the patient, and thereby sets us all an object lesson of great promise. He may go further, of course, and does whenever possible, to help the patient become sufficiently aware of. his projecting to recapture a useful degree of self-critical ability. Participants in discussion groups and forums might well study closely the psychiatrist's techniques in bringing about such a beneficent transformation. If, in our schools, we ever get around to doing something systematically about teaching pupils how to listen, it would appear that one of the things most worth doing would be that of giving them a psychiatric attitude toward speakers who are relatively lackIng in "to-me-ness.".

Just so, in the teaching of speech, from the preschool ages on through graduate school and beyond, doubtless much can be done to improve communication by training speakers in consciousness of projection. This would amount to training speakers to listen effectively to themselves, out of due deference to the fact that every speaker is, as a rule, his own most affected listener. Such training would also involve attention to developing the speaker's skill in allowing  for the lack, in those listeners in whom there is a notable lack, of awareness of the role of projection in verbal expression.

Unconscious projection would appear to be a mechanism fundamental in the development of delusional states, hysterical paralysis, fatigue and other symptoms, as well as prejudices of various kinds. It goes without saying that such reaction tendencies militate pervasively against effective communication. They limit the possibilities of adequate abstracting, and they make for systematic distortion of the verbal formulation of experience.


Undue identification and unconscious projection give rise to a considerable variety of disorders of abstracting and symbolic expression. One of the more common of these is to be seen as an ex-


cessive tendency to formulate issues and situations in a two valued, either-orish manner; people are evaluated as good or bad, policies as right or wrong, organizations as American or un-American, etc. With such an orientation, there are only two sides to any question, and one of them is to be rejected. This is the formula of conflict: The number of choices is reduced to two, and a choice is insisted upon. A two valued scheme of classification automatically enforces a vicious sorting of people into Jews and non-Jews, Americans and aliens, acceptable and nonacceptable. Identification without due regard to individual differences, together with unconscious projection of the resulting categorical evaluations, more or less inevitably results in an unrelenting either-orishness, conducive to conflict, prejudice, confusion, and injustice. It appears to be essentially futile to attempt to counteract specific prejudices, delusions, or fixed attitudes of any sort, so long as the underlying two valued orientation, arising out of relatively unconscious identification and projection, is left unexamined and undisturbed.


Further analysis of the semantic disorders operating particularly, though not exclusively at stage 4 of the communicative process, as diagrammed, would extend this discussion unduly. The more fundamental mechanisms of misevaluation have been indicated, unconscious identification and projection, and excessive either-orishness. The specific effects of these mechanisms are too numerous and varied to be catalogued readily and briefly. The effects are to be observed in an impressive variety of distortions and frustrations of the symbolic functions involved in speech and in interpretations of the spoken word. The consequences for personality development and for interpersonal relationships are disintegrative in varying forms and degrees.

At stage 3 of the process of communication the basic functions are those of the transmission of nerve currents from the sensory end organs (eye, ear, etc.) to the spinal, thalamic, and cortical levels of the central nervous system, and the relaying of these nerve currents out to muscles and glands, with consequent bodily changes from which further afferent nerve impulses arise to travel back to the central nervous system, elaborating and complicating the bodily condition later to be verbalized in stages 4 and 5.

Impaired transmission of nerve currents, the main disorder in-


volved in stage 3, may manifest itself as failure of response, or as incoordination of response, to stimuli. The impaired transmission may be due to physical or semantic factors. That is, it may be due to damage to nerve tracts resulting from infections, tumors, inherited defects, etc. Or, it may be due to acquired or learned semantic blockages, as seen in inattentiveness, disinterest, aversion to colors, etc.; undelayed preverbal reactions of rejection, or overreactions of uncritical acceptance; fear responses, reactions of self-defensiveness, "bristling," etc.; fainting in response to certain odors, or in response to certain situations such as large crowds or small enclosures. Such reactions would appear to be dependent upon the characteristic identifications and projections discussed in relation to stage 4, but they are here identified with stage 3 because they are to be observed chiefly as highly conditioned organismic, preverbal responses to sensory stimulation. Perhaps they can best be characterized in a general sense as undelayed overreactions.

With respect to stage 2, the main function is sensory stimulation, and the chief disorder is that of sensory deficiency or defect, such as impaired vision, or blindness, and impaired bearing acuity, or deafness. Aside from the commonly recognized physical causes of such sensory defects, there are to be duly considered also the semantogenic (roughly psychological) factors responsible for hysterical or psychoneurotic blindness or deafness, for example. The mechanisms described in connection with stage 4 appear to have pervasive effects throughout the abstracting and communicative process.

It remains to be said of stage 1, the sources of sensory stimulation, that these sources play a less determinative role in most communication than might be commonly assumed. As we have noted, we do not verbalize in any direct or complete sense the "facts" of so-called reality. A relatively elaborate series of evaluative and transformative processes intervene between the sources of sensory stimulation (stage 1) and overt expression (stage 5). Nevertheless, it is the responsibility of the speaker to see to it that his statements mirror, as reliably as these intervening processes will allow, the facts to which his statements presumably refer. And reliability, in this case, is to be gauged in terms of the agreement among speakers: and their listeners as to the factual dependability of given statements. Our common world of agreed-upon facts is a kind of average of the abstracting, evaluating, and reporting in which we all share. Public


opinion, that fateful product of general communication, can be no more reliable than the common consciousness of abstracting, of identification and projection, will permit it to be. A population ignorant of the abstracting processes involved in communication can, with little difficulty, be led off in the fruitless or disastrous pursuit of red herrings and verbal mirages. Delusion can be made epidemic, as has been often and unfortunately demonstrated. Fifty million Frenchmen can be wrong -- and never suspect it.

Copyright and Related Information

While I believe the reader should feel safely law abiding in reading this paper, saving a copy to disk, and printing out one copy for his or her personal use, any uses beyond that -- especially, of course, any involving multiple copies or the receipt of payment -- require the permission of the copyright owner.

If there is anyone who believes her/himself to hold a copyright interest in this publication that precludes its reproduction here please advise me by e-mail at and I will be happy to respond in reasonable fashion. Meanwhile, I am operating on the assumptions that (1) to the extent Wendell Johnson held copyright interest in this paper (and the book and papers from which it is drawn), those rights probably now belong to me anyway (he died in 1965), (2) this use is totally non-commercial and does not involve any transfer of money, (3) is of such a small portion of the book that it cannot reasonably be thought to have any adverse impact on the market for the Schramm book in which it appeared (if, indeed, there is still a market for that book), (4) the use is primarily for educational purposes, and (5) may fall within the doctrine of fair use anyway.

Every effort has been made to make this an accurate version of the hard copy. Pagination has been included for the benefit of any scholars, or others, who might wish to quote passages and cite to specific pages. The first paragraph, beginning "Dr. Johnson is professor of speech and psychology . . ." is not mine; it is contained in the original.

I am indebted to Carmen Clark, a student and teacher of general semantics, for reminding me of this paper. In an effort to bring some basic understanding of general semantics to the law students in my classes, during perhaps a mere one-hour discussion,  I was searching for a single reading that would be both inclusive and short. That her suggestion happens also to be a paper written a half-century ago by my father, Wendell Johnson (and at the kitchen table where I am now sitting, no less), is but a pleasant, if unplanned, coincidence.

If you would like to know more about general semantics, the Wendell Johnson Memorial Web Page contains some other excerpts from his writing, and links to numerous general semantics organizations, such as the International Society for General Semantics.

-- Nicholas Johnson, Iowa City, Iowa, December 23, 1999