Assignment 4 – Research – This means this, this means that: A users guide to semiotics

The book ‘This means this, this means that: A user’s guide to semiotics’ was highly recommended by a number of fellow students. I found it to be very well structured and easy to read/understand. With so many elements to semiotics I have created my own reference list below (using this log as my electronic notebook) with my own take on the meanings/definitions of many of the terms used, so that I can refer back to it in future.

Chapter 1 – Signs and Signing

The things that make up a Sign and which shape our understanding of language and meaning.

  • Signifier – The ‘thing’ that means something.
  • Signified – The meaning/interpretation of the ‘thing’.
  • Sign = Signifier + Signified.

A signifier can have more than one more significance. e.g. the signifier ‘Apple’ can signify Temptation (Adam & Eve), Health and Fruit.

  • Icon – Something that is ‘iconic’ i.e. it RESEMBLES something. e.g. a map resembles (is iconic of) the place depicted. A photograph resembles (is iconic of) the object in the photograph.
  • Index – A non-arbitrary relationship between the signifier and signified is ‘indexical’ i.e. CAUSED BY e.g. a black eye is caused by a punch.
  • Symbol – Something that is symbolic of something else through a relationship. e.g. A dove is a symbol of peace (doves are peaceful) and scales are a symbol of justice (the relationship is balance).
  • Sender – The author/creator of the message being conveyed. Knowledge of the sender, their background, culture and intent will aid in deciphering and interpreting the message.
  • Intention – What is the senders intent? Knowing this will likely influence the receivers understanding/reading of the message.
  • Message – The meaning of the whole. Will be influenced by the receivers understanding and may differ from the senders intent.
  • Transmission – messages are transmitted through a medium:
    • Presentational – Voice, face (expressions), body language etc.
    • Representational – Paintings, photographs, books etc.
    • Mechanical – TV, phone, internet etc.

The message in the Mona Lisa is transmitted using all 3. The Smile is indexical of happiness/emotion and is transmitted through a facial expression. This is transmitted representationally in the original painting and is transmitted mechanically in digital form.

  • Noise – The unintended distortion of a message, perhaps during transmission, e.g. not displayed as per the senders intent?
  • Receiver – The actual person receiving the message (the audience). How sense is made of the message will depend on how the receiver interprets it.
  • Addressee – A person, whether real or imaginary who is ‘said’ to be the target of a message.
  • Destination – When the message has been decoded and interpreted it has reached its destination. The message that arrives may not be the same as the message that was sent.

Chapter 2 – Ways of meaning

Methods of communication beyond the literal.

  • Simile – The likening of one thing to another. This can be through a linking property or figures of speech. e.g. a Hedgehog is like a brush (linked by bristles), or something flat is likened to a pancake (figure of speech – ‘flat as a pancake’). X is like Y
  • Metaphor – An implied comparison between two things that share a certain quality e.g. a thing in nature (such as a waterfall or flower) has qualities of naturalness and freshness linking it to/making it a metaphor for an object such as soap, washing powder or perfume. X is Y.
  • Metonym – Something that is closely related to/associated with something else, and which often indicates its presence e.g. a throne (object) indicates a monarch (concept). A picture of the White House (image) indicates the president of the USA (person). Watergate (word) indicates the impeaching of president Nixon (event).
  • Synecdoche – Using a part of something to represent the whole, or the whole to represent a part. e.g. using an image of Elvis’ hair to represent him. In this case the hair style is an iconic symbol of Elvis. Another example is using an individual to represent a group.
  • Irony – The use of language to convey a meaning that is at odds with the literal meaning, often with a humorous intent. Can be misunderstood if not used commonly used.
  • Lies – A claim that is literally false. Unlike irony which uses the same modality, it is the underlying message that makes the statement a lie.
  • Impossibility – Something that is not literally possible, though it may not stop us trying to imagine the possibility.
  • Depiction – What and How something is being depicted which can be affected by perspective. What is depicted can be different to what is represented. For example, what is depicted as a dove may represent the holy ghost. linked to Denotation and Connotation.
  • Representation – What is represented by the items/images – may require explanation or a deeper understanding.

Chapter 3 – Conceptual structures

The fundamental level of human thinking. Explored in opposing pairs.

  • Truth & Falsity – Exploring what is true and false, often in representation. Is a picture of a pipe a pipe? Is the word pipe a pipe? Raises questions about the ability of an image/language to represent or misrepresent an item/object/word.
  • Sameness & Difference – It is only our perception that makes one thing different from another. Differences occur in kind (a fundamental difference) and in degrees (when the difference between 2 things is only by degrees of separation). Sameness is rarely absolute, but is often found in certain qualities (shape, size, colour. texture etc).
  • Wholes & Parts – A whole, consisting of parts, is only a part of a greater whole. An iris is part of an eye, an eye is part of a head etc etc. It is important to focus on whats important, including enough, but not too much.
  • Subjectivity & Objectivity – Many experiences cannot be described objectively and are purely personal (subjective). Despite scientific objectivity and tests, these are not able to articulate what something actually means to a person.
  • Appearance & Reality – Many things add to or detract from the reality/realistic appearance of an image. Perspective, Tone, Colour, Texture etc.
  • Continuity & Discontinuity – In general, analogue signs create relationships that are graded on a continuum (e.g. an analogue clock face allows us to see how much time has passed, as well as what time it is now). Examples are things that have a more/less quality such as visual images, physical gestures, facial expressions, bodily movements, textures, tastes and smells. Digital signs have an either/or quality (like a digital clock face) that can seem discontinuous because the categories used are unitised. Examples are things like Black/White, Zero & One, Off and On, This or That, Light and Dark, Alive or Dead.
  • Sense & Reference – In referring to something, we rely on shared understanding of things we take for granted to communicate what we’re referring to. This can lead to misunderstanding and makes us consider shifts in meaning.
  • Meaningful & Meaningless – The meaning of something can vary from culture to culture, e.g, the meaning of the colours in a traffic light system.  In order to have an understandable meaning, there must be clear distinction between the elements that form the system, in this case, the three colours.
  • Problem & Solution – One overall philosophical difficulty that we face is that while some problems have one solution and others have many, some problems have no solutions. The problem then, is in telling what sort of problem we have.  “Think outside the box”.

Chapter 4 – Visual structures

Exploration of composition and its 2 dimensions – time and space.

  • Viewer & Image – An image can be interpreted and re-interpreted a number of times. The notional position of the viewer (in relation to the image) can shift based on the description.
  • Ideal & Real – Idealised elements tend to be at the top of a picture, with the realistic elements at the bottom.
  • Given & New – Depending on which direction an image is read (left to right in western cultures), given information tends to come first, followed by new information e.g. a diet product will show the ‘before’ on the left, ‘after’ on the right.
  • Centre & Margin – Objects in the centre tend to have significance/higher importance than subjects in the margins which appear to have less importance/gravity.
  • Foreground & Background – When certain things are perceived as being in the foreground, the other things tend to form the background and can go unnoticed. A perceptual switch can occur, in which the foreground becomes the background and vice versa, but this does not happen often and is usually deliberate.
  • Proximity & Presence – Objects that are in close proximity tend to be grouped together which can draw the viewer’s attention. How objects are placed can also be used to divert attention away. Presence can be indicated by size, colour, sharpness, tone, texture etc. Size usually indicates importance and authority, colour = naturalism, sharpness = realism, contrast = drama, texture = imperfection/flawlessness.
  • Before & After – The conventions of how an image is read (e.g. from L to R) can be deviated from, as long as the change in convention is understood, otherwise the deviation can result in incomprehension.
  • Past, Present & Future – How are the 3 represented pictorially? Quaint, nostalgic, exciting, boring, frightening etc.
  • Fast & Slow – Time can be represented through photographic techniques and the use of metaphor (a walking stick = slow, motorbike = fast). Consider what speeds can mean e.g. Fast  = exciting, energetic etc. Slow = calm, contemplative, sluggish etc.

Chapter 5 – Textual structures

Examining the structure of text/images in order to understand the relationships and meanings.

  • Readers & Texts – Text and Images can be read in multiple ways depending on the concept e.g. structuralist or post-structuralist.
  • Words & Images – Consider Anchor & Relay (how captions work to add meaning). Text can add meaning and/or reduce the level of involvement of the viewer.
  • Functions – The same phrase, said or written in different ways can have a number of functions.
    • Emotive – e.g. giving away a sign of nervousness.
    • Conative – e.g. the effect on the listener/reader/viewer such as irritation or happiness.
    • Referential – When the words/image don’t necessarily matter, but refer to something e.g. the language of Shakespeare.
    • Poetic – About the creativity or aesthetic use of the language.
    • Phatic – To get attention, or to keep channels of communication open.
    • Metalingual –  Checking function e.g. a question that requires a response.
  • Forms – Language can be used to form a type of relationship between speaker/listener, writer/reader namely Formal or Informal.
  • Placing – The placing of objects/words can have an effect on the reader. The same objects/words arranged differently can have a different effect. Those objects/words read first tend to take more prominence as they are easier to recall. Certain clichés also influence us.
  • Prominence – If something is prominent it will be remembered. What happens in the beginning and end are most prominent, the middle tends to be a blur. Prominence can be given by repetition or patterns. To be really prominent, the ‘thing’ must be set against what is not prominent.
  • Inter & Intratextuality – Intertextuality: How works make reference (often in clever ways) to one another. Intratextuality: The internal relationship between parts of the same work.
  • Paratext & Paralanguage – Paratext sits outside of the main work and can add to or alter its meaning (such as a caption or title). Paralanguage is the non-verbal communication that may support or modify the meaning of the main text e.g. body language of someone reading a text, or the way in which an image is displayed.

Chapter 6 – Matters of interpretation

Exploring the need for context in order to interpret a message. Also looks at the notion of making viewers ‘work’ to understand by looking beneath the surface at the deep structures and hidden symbols.

  • Concepts & Conceptions – People can communicate using the same concepts, but their thoughts (or conceptions) and interpretations of them may be different based on levels of knowledge (e.g. the concepts of Oak and Elm trees which only some people may be able to distinguish but many people know what they are).
  • Connotation & Denotation – Studied in detail earlier in the course. Denotation = What is photographed (the literal). Connotation = How it is photographed (the meaning).
  • Langue & Parole – Langue is the ‘code’ (or structure/system/set of rules etc) for how something is communicated. The Parole is the ‘instance’ of use. e.g. How a menu is arranged = Langue. A particular menu = Parole.
  • Combinations & Substitutions – These can be used to create different effects e.g. combining clothes of different styles.
    • Syntagm – Any combination of things that conform to a specified set of social rules e.g. how we dress for a funeral.
    • Paradigm – created by the social rules that dictate when one thing can be substituted/added in a certain system without the system being undermined.
  • Tokens & Types – Tokens = number of instances. Type = Type of instance e.g. a print of which there are a hundred copies from the same press = 1 type, but 100 tokens.
  • Conventions – Agreed systems of understanding that allow us to interpret what is happening. Often a part of a culture, and not always transparent to other cultures.
  • Classifications – Where does work sit in terms of classification? Is it Art? Does it raise questions of classification?
  • Understanding & Misunderstanding – Using the example of gestures, what is widely understood in one culture, could be misinterpreted in another.

Chapter 7 – Framing meaning

Building a framework that will allow the understanding of communication in the wider context of society and culture.

  • Semantic units – An aspect or part of a ‘thing’ that has an actual or potential meaning. e.g. a Chair.
  • Genres – Categories that conform to a division or subdivision of a medium. e.g. Office Furniture
  • Styles – A manner of doing something. Form can matter as much as content e.g. Functional.
  • Stereotypes – A generalised idea of something often derived from certain observations or prejudices that may or may not be grounded in fact e.g. An object with a rather nondescript look (Stereotypical chair).
  • Institutions – Institutions can regulate meaning. e.g. a museum removes items (semantic units) form their point of origin and gives them a feeling of reverence through the use of lighting and the method of display e.g. A Shop (in relation to the example of the chair).
  • Ideologies – A system of beliefs that are characteristic of the value system of a particular class, group or culture e.g. Consumerism.
  • Discourses – Help to form our ideas about the world through regulated forms of use. Discourses can make what is known, seem to be common sense, natural and self-evident. e.g. Need (to prevent a bad back).
  • Myths – Help us to understand the world. Can be true, partly true or completely false. Myths can influence how an artists work is viewed, particularly the myth of the artist themselves. e.g. Practicality (the myth of office furniture).
  • Paradigms – A paradigm-shift is a different way of thinking, based on the concepts/structures applied to our understanding of something. If we view a drawing, and believe it is done by Sigmund Freud, the meaning may be wildly different to the same picture if we believe it was by Albert Einstein, due to what we know about each individual (paradigms). A paradigm may also be called a frame of reference e.g. Modernism.

Chapter 8 – Stories & storytelling

Exploration of concepts that are central to stories and storytelling.

  • Fact & Fiction – Stories can be told with an emphasis on morality and symbolism. Whether a story is true or not does not always matter.
  • Narratives – A story must sustain interest. The use of a disturbance to create disequilibrium will create drama.
  • Legends – Their purpose is to communicate some sort of moral to others in a simple, transferable and memorable form.
  • Characters & Persona – Consideration should be given to how a character or their persona is portrayed in an image.
  • Viewpoints – The stories that we tell can be presented from different viewpoints, which will influence how they are read e.g. subjective or objective, positive or negative etc.
  • Mysteries – Provides a space for speculation and interest e.g. what happened next?
  • Tensions – Allow the imagination to wonder what happens next/if? Without something happening, there is no story. Can be used to create expectation.
  • Turning-points – A key moment when something happens to bring about a change.
  • Resolutions – We crave resolution, but should not forget the value of the journey. Resolutions can be profound, leaving the reader with a lasting impression.


Hall, S. (2012) This means this, this means that: A user’s guide to semiotics. 2nd edn. London: Laurence King Publishing.

One thought on “Assignment 4 – Research – This means this, this means that: A users guide to semiotics

  1. Pingback: Assignment 4 – Research – John Berger: Ways of seeing | My Learning (B)Log – Context and Narrative

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