Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Communication vs. Communications

Recently, I hear a lot of people say communications when I think they mean communication. For example, I've heard people say they are a communications major when they are clearly in the Department of Communication (no S). In fact, to me, adding an S to communication does a whole lot more than just make it plural.

Tim Larson at the University of Utah defines the terms in the following way:
  • Communication — The communicating of information. The exchange of information between individuals, for example, by means of speaking, writing, or using a common system of signs or behavior.
  • Communications — The technology and systems used for sending and receiving messages, for example, postal, telephone, radio, TV and the Internet. The tactics used to execute a marcom (marketing communication) strategy, for example, advertising, PR, sales promotion, events....
Now, I like that Larson makes a differentiation between the two terms. However, I think in my own use of the terms I take them even farther apart. I think about the terms in sense of the job fields in which they employ people as well.

When I hear that someone works in communication, I think of public relations or maybe advertising or marketing. I also think about rhetorical critics, media effects researchers and orators. Perhaps that person even works in visual media or is a journalist if you stretch the term a bit. However, communications is more akin to a trade than a particular profession in my mind. I envision a lineman up a telephone pole or a lady setting up a radio antenna. Some telemarketers might even say they work in telecommunications.

In another way, communication is the strategy and creativity. It is the planning and managing that takes place first, and then communications are employed (through various media, whether the medium is print or Web or whatever) to get those formulated messages across.

So I suppose the moral of the story is, think before you speak, especially around someone who works as a communication scholar or professional, or they might just refer you to the cable company instead of the PR firm.

As always, I'd love to hear your comments and experiences regarding this blog post!


Joshua said...

You know, communications (with an S) can also refer to the means of traveling or of transporting goods, such as roads or railroads according to the Oxford American Dictionary.

JD said...

Indeed, kind sir. Thanks for the insight. Again, this looks like communications being more about tools used for employing communication. Or, in this case, vehicles. Perhaps if we check out the etymology we will find some relation between this and the word commute?

Beamer said...

Thanks for this. My roommate always calls it communicationS and I constantly correct her. Grad school has made me a snob regarding this.

JD said...

You are very welcome. But I will not be so nice to you Beamer in the upcoming blog war... although I am brainstorming still.

Elizabeth said...

... and if I use multiple means to communicate, does that constitute a plural as communications?

Joshua A. DeLung said...

Interesting point, Elizabeth.

However, if you use multiple communications to communicate, you are still employing communication in the act (and communications, in the sense of the tools/technologies).

In my mind, anyway. This definitely isn't a universal viewpoint on which everyone agrees. I've noticed trends, though, where this is becoming the norm.

For example, during my job search, I came across multiple "communications" jobs. These usually involved telemarketing, being a technician on actual systems, etc. When I found a job, it ended up being as a communication specialist (no S). However, I've seen some organizations still putting an S on it, but I think their employees still do PR just like I do.

It would be nice if we could establish universal standards for these things. Ha. I think my first goal, though, would be to eliminate the serial comma.

Sebastian said...

Notivce that communications is actually a singular and not a plural. There is no plural of communication.

Icanboogie said...

Hi there,
interesting discussion (-s?) here.
I am just about setting up an advertising company in Germany, and, as paying tribute to the hopefully international roll out of it after some local success, I wish to give this company, right from the start, an english name, or at least a part of it: so I ask myself if this would best be -let's say - "KING communication company" or "KING communications company" ?!
The company will do mainly classic advertising and pr stuff: conceptioning and producing marketing materials, websites, doing press work, and alike.
therefore, it will be creative and 'productive' in equal amounts.
I would be really thankful for your opinion on this:
Should I buy an "-s" for it?


Joshua A. DeLung said...

I personally would go without the S.

Icanboogie said...

Yes, that's what I'm leaning towards, and now will go for: Communication. No s.
sounds good.
Thanks a lot for the input!
Greetings from Berlin,

Elizabeth Massengale said...

What about Mathematics as a major? Is it pural or not?

Seasoned Elegance (40+ non-fashionista) said...

Well said! I cringe a little when someone says "Strategic Communication(s)".

mbgith said...

I think of communication (no s) as the processes of creating a shared reality or understanding (through the exchange of information, perhaps, but also through expressions of similarity/difference, etc. - the non-linguistic). Communications are the tools (technologies, strategies) and specific messages (bits and bytes) one could study as clues to the former.

Joshua A. DeLung said...

I'm still so surprised at how many hits and comments this article receives many years after having written it as a lowly graduate student. I will say that no matter how far along in my career I get, I will still prefer to say I practice strategic communication — no S!