Cues and Conventions

Whenever we communicate, we tend to follow certain rules and patterns. Different aspects of language (spoken, written, or visual) can convey different meanings when they adhere to various cues and conventions. Not sure what these are? Let's explore some definitions and examples in more detail below.

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Table of contents

    Cues and Conventions Definition

    Cues and conventions in the English language refer to the rules and patterns we follow to ensure our language makes sense, and the purpose/intentions of our communication are clear. If the English language had no structure or established ways, it would be much harder to communicate with each other meaningfully! Cues and conventions are in place to help us make sense of our language and communicate effectively.

    Cues and Conventions Example

    The different types of cues and conventions in the English language include:

    These terms are a little scary, so let's take a look at an overview of each.

    Pragmatic Cues and Conventions

    Pragmatics is concerned with the meaning of language in a social context. It considers the constant negotiations between listeners and speakers when they communicate and how meaning is constructed in different contexts.

    Pragmatic cues and conventions include elements such as:

    • Purpose - the main message.

    Having a purpose allows you to explore your intentions and gives more structure to your language as it gives you a reason to communicate in the first place!

    For example, if the purpose of communication is to order someone to do something, you'd know to use imperative sentences.

    • Audience - who is being addressed?

    Knowing how to address an audience or listener adds structure and meaning to any communication as it helps you to determine what information to share.

    For example, if you are addressing someone you don't know well, you would likely not overshare or add unnecessary information.

    • Point of view - e.g., first, second, third person.

    Having a particular point of view adds a certain meaning to language and determines how your share information.

    For example, if you speak in the first person, you will be able to recount your personal experiences and will have more freedom to express things from your own point of view. Because of this, first-person is often biased.

    • Register - is the language formal or informal?

    Different language registers can add a different meaning to language when we communicate.

    For example, an informal register often uses language that is more personal (including slang words) and is reserved for casual settings, such as chatting with friends/family.

    • Culture, context, and background

    Someone's culture/context/background can add a deeper level of meaning to language, as this all goes beyond the 'literal' meaning. We all experience the world in different ways and therefore apply different connotative (associated) meanings to language. Sometimes, we can only fully understand the meaning of something if we know its context.

    For example, the word 'blue' may either have positive or negative connotations depending on the person!

    • Tone and pitch of voice

    We can change the tone and pitch of our voice to express different emotions.

    For example, a stern, straight tone of voice could express seriousness. If we raise the pitch of our voice, this may be because we are excited or surprised.

    • Non-verbals, such as facial expressions and hand gestures

    Alongside verbal communication, non-verbals can also be used to create meaning and convey emotions.

    For example, if someone rolls their eyes, it often conveys a feeling of disapproval or disbelief. Or, if someone gives a thumbs up, this is a sign of approval.

    Textual Cues and Conventions

    Textual cues and conventions refer to the elements of a written text. In particular,

    • The structure of a text, including the way the text is organized (e.g., are there paragraphs, line breaks, or headings?)

    • The form and type of text, including physical appearance (e.g., an essay, a poem, an article)

    The structure and form of a text are important as they can add another level of meaning (besides the written words themselves) and all have different purposes.

    For example, a newspaper article sticks to a strict structure in order to effectively convey important information to the reader in a clear and concise way. The structure often;

    • Begins with a headline (in a larger font) and a hook (catchy statement) to grab the attention of the reader.
    • Has an Introductory paragraph that includes the most important information (such as who, what, where, when, and why).
    • Has the less crucial information is in the following paragraphs.

    Syntactical Cues and Conventions

    Syntax refers to the arrangement of words and phrases to create meaningful sentences. Syntactical cues and conventions consider the following elements:

    • Sentence structure and word order - e.g., subject, verb, object.

    • Types of clauses - e.g., main vs. subordinate.

    • Punctuation - what types of punctuation are there, when are they used, and what effect do they have?

    • Type of sentence - e.g., simple, compound, complex.

    • The function of a sentence - e.g., imperative, declarative, interrogative, exclamative.

    Syntax can add meaning to our words in several ways. For example, consider how you might read something written in all capital letters compared to the same sentence written in lowercase letters. Now consider the impact of a word-one sentence.

    Semantic Cues and Conventions

    Semantics is the study of the meaning of words in the English language. Semantic cues and conventions deal with the following elements:

    • Known word meaning and context - what do you already know about the vocabulary and the context?

    • Literal vs. figurative words and phrases - is the meaning straightforward or more abstract?

    • Denotative and connotative meanings - literal definition vs. associated/cultural meaning.

    • History of words and word changes - how has the meaning of a word changed over time?

    If we look beyond a word's denotative (literal) meaning, this can make communication more effective. For example, if we consider the connotative (associated/cultural) meaning of a word, we can apply it to more specific situations and have deeper conversations. This is because connotative meanings are more personal and rely more on context.

    Take the word 'home.' The denotative meaning refers to a place. However, the connotative meaning of 'home' can differ depending on what a person defines 'home' as. To some, 'home' could be a place or a person. To others, it could be a feeling.

    Morphological Cues and Conventions

    Morphology is concerned with how words are formed and their relationship to other words in the same language. Morphological cues and conventions consider the following elements:

    • Structure and parts of words - e.g., stem and root words, and prefixes and suffixes.

    • Word choice and usage - how can context change a word's meaning and/or pronunciation?

    We can trace a word back to its root to help understand its meaning. One way we can do this is by looking at a word's etymology. This refers to the origins of a word, including when and where the word was first used. We can also use a word's etymology to help understand how a word's meaning has changed over time. For example, the word 'sick' used to only have a negative meaning (relating to illness) but has now also developed a positive one (meaning 'cool' or 'awesome').

    Knowing the meaning of prefixes and suffixes can also help us understand a word's meaning. For example, if a word begins with the prefix 'dis', we know it is implying an opposite meaning, e.g., dislike = don't like.

    Graphophonic cues and conventions

    Graphophonics refers to the relationship between the symbols and sounds of a language. This includes the following aspects:

    • Sounds and letter patterns.
    • Stress - the emphasis we place on specific letters or words.
    • Pitch - how high or low our voice is.
    • Intonation - how our pitch varies in conversation.
    • Volume - how loud or quiet our voice is.

    Cues and Conventions Image of a man speaking StudySmarterFig. 1 - We can change how our voice sounds to convey different feelings.

    A change in someone's pitch and volume can affect the meaning of an utterance. For example, if someone speaks in a higher pitch, this may show that they are excited or surprised. If someone speaks loudly, they could be showing anger or frustration.

    Cues in Communication

    Cues in communication (known as communication cues) refer to certain prompts or signals that people use to indicate their intent (purpose for communication) to another person. These cues can be either verbal or non-verbal. Let's take a look at each of these in more detail:

    Verbal cues

    Verbal cues refer to spoken language. We can use our language to signal something to the listener or let them know our intentions. Verbal cues can either be direct or indirect:

    Direct verbal cues

    Just as the name suggests, direct verbal cues give direct instruction to the listener. They are obvious and clear. For example:

    "Please open the window"

    This verbal cue is straightforward and orders the listener to do something. They will (hopefully) respond by opening the window.

    Indirect verbal cues

    On the other hand, indirect verbal cues are not so obvious, so the intentions may not be initially clear. For example:

    Instead of saying, "Please open the window," someone might say, "It's getting really hot in here." This indirectly implies to the listener that the speaker wants them to open the window.

    Non-verbal cues

    Non-verbal cues refer to elements of speech that are not spoken words. This includes things such as:

    • Body language

    • Gestures

    • Facial expressions

    • Eye contact

    Making eye contact and smiling at someone can show your intention to begin a conversation with them.

    Cues and Conventions Image of different facial expressions StudySmarterFig. 2 - Facial expressions are types of non-verbal cues we can use to express our emotions.

    Cues and Conventions in Writing

    Cues and conventions in writing differ slightly from cues and conventions in spoken language. Written communication relies solely on written words/sentences and the elements of a text to get a message across. These include:

    • Spelling
    • Punctuation
    • Capitalization
    • Grammar

    It may sometimes be challenging to convey someone's true intentions via written communication. This is because we cannot use paraverbals (e.g., tone of voice, pitch, and intonation) or non-verbals (such as facial expressions or body language) in writing!

    When we speak, we are able to express our emotions using different inflections in our voices, or different non-verbal expressions. This lets the listener know our mood and how we are feeling during a conversation.

    Punctuation can be used in written communication to add meaning instead. For example, exclamation marks can often be used to emphasize a feeling of excitement, surprise, or anger. Question marks are used when someone is curious or unsure and asks a question.

    Dramatic Conventions

    Dramatic conventions refer to the techniques in a drama (e.g., tv, film, play) used for dramatic effect and to add significance to its central message. A piece of drama will have different conventions from other forms (such as literature) as it relies on both visual and verbal aspects to convey a message. Some examples of dramatic conventions are:

    • Slow motion

    • Dramatic irony (the audience is aware of the situation, but the characters are not).

    • Use of narration

    • Use of music

    • Breaking the fourth wall (directly addressing the audience)

    Cues and Conventions - Key Takeaways

    • Cues and conventions in the English language refer to the rules and patterns we follow to ensure our language makes sense and the purpose/intentions of our communication are clear.
    • The different types of cues and conventions in the English language are pragmatic, textual, syntactical, semantic, morphological, and graphophonic.
    • Communication cues refer to specific prompts or signals that people use to indicate their intent to another person. These can be either verbal (direct or indirect) or non-verbal.
    • Cues and conventions in writing rely on written words and textual elements (e.g., spelling, punctuation, capitalization, grammar).
    • Dramatic conventions refer to the techniques in a drama (tv, film, play) that are used for dramatic effect and add significance to its central message.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Cues and Conventions

    What are cues and conventions?

    Cues and conventions are rules and patterns we follow to ensure our language makes sense and the purpose/intentions of our communication are clear.

    What are cues in language?

    Communication cues are certain prompts or signals that people use to indicate their intent to another person. For example, verbal cues (spoken language) or non-verbal cues (e.g. body language, gestures, facial expressions).

    What are meaning cues in reading?

    Meaning cues are prompts used by teachers that encourage students to identify the meaning of words.

    What is an example of a semantic cue?

    Examples of semantic cues include:

    • known word meaning and context (prior knowledge)
    • literal vs figurative words/phrases
    • Denotative vs connotative meaning
    • History of words and word changes over time

    What are examples of conventions?

    Examples of cues and conventions include: pragmatic, textual, syntactical, semantic, morphological and graphophonic.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Spot the complex sentence  

    What is syntax?

    Spot the declarative sentence 


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