Semantic Barriers

The Basic Idea

Given the sheer volume of languages that are spoken around the world, it’s no wonder that the meaning of a message can easily be disrupted. Every language comes with its own set of signs, meanings, and symbols. If you were to tell your North American friend to call you a taxi, he’d promptly order a car to come pick you up. Ask a South American friend to call you a taxi on the other hand, and you might have a new nickname. 

To understand what semantic barriers are, it’s important to first understand what semantic means. Semantics is the study of meaning, signs and symbols used for communication. The word is actually derived from the Greek word “sema” which means “signs”. Semantic barriers, then, are obstacles in communication that distort the meaning of a message being sent. 

Miscommunications can arise due to different situations that form the semantic barrier between the sender and the receiver. These situations, to name a few, may be language, education, or  cultural differences. There are two types of semantic barriers that exist in communication: denotative barriers and connotative barriers.

A denotative barrier is a difference in the definition or meaning of a word used by the sender and receiver. Ultimately, the sender and receiver don’t agree on the meaning of a word and so they encounter some miscommunication. Take for example the word “jumper”. In British English, jumper refers to a long-sleeved article of clothing that goes over your head. In American English, a jumper is referred to as a sweater. These denotative differences could surely cause some confusion on a trip abroad to London.

A connotative barrier refers to the difference of meaning according to different abstract situations and contexts. The sender and the receiver know the meanings of the word, but use the meaning that fits the context of the conversation. The word current is a good example of this type of barrier. The sender and receiver know that the word current can mean up to date or a flow of water. However, the context of the conversation in which the word is used will signal to the receiver what the sender means.

Theory, meet practice

TDL is an applied research consultancy. In our work, we leverage the insights of diverse fields—from psychology and economics to machine learning and behavioral data science—to sculpt targeted solutions to nuanced problems.

Our consulting services

Key Terms

Sender: the initiator of the communication, the individual that sends a message.⁴

Receiver: the individual to which the message is sent.⁴

Message: the sender encodes their idea into a message, which takes form in verbal, non-verbal or written language.⁴

Semantic barrier: obstacles in communication that distort the meaning of a message being sent in some way other than how it was intended.³

Denotative barrier: difference in the definition or meaning of a word used by the sender and receiver.¹

Connotative barrier: difference of meaning according to different abstract situations and contexts.¹


To understand semantic barriers, it’s important to understand the theory of communication. Communication is the process of exchanging information and common understanding between two people⁵. To have communication, there must be a common understanding. If there is no understanding between the sender and the receiver, there is no communication. 

There are several common elements to any communication exchange.⁴ First, there is always a sender and a receiver. The sender is the individual that sends a message while the receiver is the individual to which the message was sent. The message, in communication theory, is the idea encoded and sent by the sender in verbal, non-verbal, or written language. Messages are delivered through a medium, then the receiver of the message decodes the message into information. Sometimes, there can be noise that distorts this message. An example of noise would be a language barrier, emotions, or attitudes.

All the elements of the communication process affect the quality of a communication exchange. A problem in any one of these elements can result in ineffective communication⁵. There are many barriers to effective communication.

  • There are process barriers, which include anything that impedes the communication process, such as a medium barrier. Imagine you have an issue with your coworker. Instead of talking to the coworker face-to-face, you decide to send them a strongly worded email in the heat of the moment. This can result in a medium barrier, where the channel through which the message was sent leads to a misunderstanding.
  • There can also be physical barriers, which are tangible barriers to communication, such as the distance between two people.
  • Lastly, there are semantic barriers, which refers to the words we choose, how we use them, and the meaning attached to these words. They can also be seen as “noise” that changes the meaning of the message sent by the sender to the receiver. ⁵


Semantic barriers can appear in many different areas, including in interpersonal communication, social interaction, and workplace issues. Effective communication between staff is essential for businesses to perform at their best, so it’s important to note what these barriers might look like.

Idioms are a common semantic barrier.⁷ They are phrases that have a figurative meaning that is different from what it literally sounds like. Coming to a co-worker and asking them to give you a hand can sound very different for the sender than for the receiver. 

Perhaps one of the biggest semantic barriers is language barriers, in that either the receiver or sender are a non-native speaker of the language being used. Words can get lost in translation leading to a clear miscommunication of a message.

Jokes can also be semantic barriers. Sometimes, for many reasons, a joke might not come across as it should. This can cause the joke to appear unfunny or just downright inappropriate. It’s important to be aware of your audience’s culture and language when using humour in any interpersonal setting. Jargon, slang, and technical terminology can all add to semantic barriers. What one might consider slang in one’s culture or language can very well mean another thing entirely in another person’s point of view.²


The great thing about semantic barriers is that, for the most part, they can be avoided.⁶ Yep, you read that right. Communication can be much more effective and engaging if we take a little time to understand how to be clear and straightforward. Below are some tips to achieve this, both in our personal lives and in the workplace:

  1. Be explicit when speaking. Try not to be sarcastic or speak in code. Be direct with your expectations to eliminate any chance of misinterpretation.
  2. Be an active listener. Context is key when it comes to understanding a message. By practicing active listening, one can acknowledge how the other person is feeling and expressing themselves. 
  3. Be aware of cultural differences. With how diverse our world is, it’s important to be cognizant of the receiver’s cultural background when trying to send a message. By establishing shared understanding, one can make their cross-cultural communication much easier and enlightening.

When in doubt, ask about. Never assume what the sender is trying to say if you are unsure. It’s always better to ask them to clarify their message than operating on an incorrect meaning.

Case Study

Semantic barriers in the workplace

Semantic barriers can create significant challenges in the workplace. They can contribute to issues with coworkers, underperformance, and difficulty establishing a workplace culture.³ Let’s imagine the following scenario. Ninjani is working as a telesales representative. He is friendly, outgoing, and very knowledgeable of the company’s products. However, his sales have not been meeting the necessary quota as he has a lot of difficulty in closing sales and communicating effectively with buyers. For this reason, he was called in to speak with his manager about his underperformance.

In getting to know Ninjani, the manager discovers that he learned to speak English only a few years ago. It’s easier to understand how semantic barriers, particularly denotative barriers, could arise in interactions with potential buyers and lead to his underperformance.

This is just a brief example of how semantic barriers can affect communication, especially in the workforce. It’s important for managers and leaders within the company to be aware of this and create training opportunities for employees.

Related TDL Content


Read this reference guide if you’re interested in an example of how culture and linguistics can result in semantic barriers. Metaphors, which can be pretty abstract, can definitely lead to miscommunications between two individuals.


Analogies are another linguistic concept that can lead to miscommunications between a sender and a receiver. Read this reference guide to learn more about the use of analogies across linguistics, science, and philosophy, how this type of heuristic functions in arguments.

Cognitive grammar

Cognitive grammar is one of the most well known approaches to structure and meaning in linguistics. Read up on it here to see how semantics and prior experiences can change how we communicate and understand speech.


  1. Bajracharya, S. (2018, February 15). Semantic Barriers of Communication. Retrieved from
  2. Barot, H. (2021, May 18). Barriers to Communication in the Workplace. Retrieved from
  3. Beqiri, G. (2019, August 02). Barriers to Effective Communication in the Workplace. Retrieved from
  4. Cheney, G. (2011). Organizational communication in an age of globalization: Issues, reflections, practices.
  5. Keyton, J. (2011). Communication and organizational culture: A key to understanding work experience.
  6. Semantic Barriers of Communication: Meaning, Examples and How to Overcome Semantic Barriers. (2021, September 07). Retrieved from
  7. What are Semantic Barriers? definition and meaning – Business Jargons . (2016, July 09). Retrieved from

Read Next

Notes illustration

Eager to learn about how behavioral science can help your organization?