Communicating with signs and symbols

As a technical communicator, I find it fascinating to learn about ways of communicating without using words. Often a diagram or drawing is more effective than a sentence, and can cross barriers of language, education, learning styles and ability.

Power symbols: on-off, Committee to Protect Journalists, Unicorn Mercat Cross

Power symbols: on-off, Committee to Protect Journalists, Unicorn Mercat Cross

At 6 am this morning, with my first cup of coffee in hand, I couldn’t remember which symbol means ‘on’ and which means ‘off’ on a power switch. I found a website called Symbols – a sort of Wikipedia for symbols – where the Power Symbols group contained the symbols I was looking for, along with a symbol for unicorn, as unicorns represent power as well as purity in Celtic mythology. The Media Control category includes the power symbols as well as symbols for the Committee to Protect Journalists, the Divide and Conquer symbol and the Play symbol for audio and film devices. So both Power and Media Control are used in different contexts – an example of how in language, one word can have many meanings.

Usually I’m pretty focussed when I’m using the internet, but I couldn’t resist looking up more symbols, and I came across Blissymbols.

Blissymbols for unicorn, cow, sheep and sheep barn show how symbols are combined to form new symbols

Blissymbols for unicorn, cow, sheep and sheep barn show how symbols are combined to form new symbols

Blissymbolics is a semantic graphical language that is currently composed of more than 5000 authorized symbols - Bliss-characters and Bliss-words. It is a generative language that allows its users to create new Bliss-words as needed. It is used by individuals with severe speech and physical impairments around the world, but also by others for language learning and support, or just for the fascination and joy of this unique language representation.

Simple shapes are used to keep the symbols easy and fast to draw and because both abstract and concrete levels of concepts can be represented, Blissymbolics can be applied both to children and adults and are appropriate for persons with a wide range of intellectual abilities.

The search on Blissymbols also led to an article about a study comparing them to manual symbols (such as sign language), which found that the 7- and 8-year-old children tested were able to learn and remember them equally well.

As I’ve been observing my 1-year-old granddaughter learning to communicate with signs over the past 9 months or so, I’m keen to find out whether we can teach her to communicate with Blissymbols as well, before she learns to speak understandably. I’ve been amazed at how well she can communicate with us with only 3 words but a dozen or more signs. I remember the frustration when my daughter was preverbal and couldn’t tell me what she needed or why she was upset, and I can imagine the difference it would make to communication with older children and adults who cannot speak understandably, or cannot use written words.

Blissymbols - milk and milkshake

Blissymbols - milk and milkshake



"On Off Symbol." STANDS4 LLC, 2019. Web. 16 Apr. 2019. <>.

"Unicorn Mercat Cross." STANDS4 LLC, 2019. Web. 16 Apr. 2019. <>.

"Committee to Protect Journalists." STANDS4 LLC, 2019. Web. 16 Apr. 2019. <>.

Blissymbolics Communication International

Learning of Blissymbols and Manual Signs, Diane Bristow and Macalyne Fristoe, Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, v.49 Issue 2, May 1984 pp 145-151.


Plain English and Australian usage

You may have been told you must write in plain English, or maybe you will just agree that it’s the best way to communicate with your chosen audience. Either way, you may need some help choosing appropriate words and phrases. This is especially important if you are writing instructions for other people to follow.

What is plain English?

Plain English is clear and accurate writing, in a natural style, and avoids the use of bureaucratic, longwinded and confusing language.

Learning to write in plain English

A great resource for learning how to write and communicate in plain English is the Oxford Guide to Plain English, which describes this ‘woolly term’ as:

The writing and setting out of essential information in a way that gives a co-operative, motivated person a good chance of understanding it at first reading, and in the same sense that the writer meant it to be understood.'

The Complete Plain Words, published by Penguin in 1987, also gives good explanations of how and why you should write clearly.

The Plain English Campaign was launched in Britain in 1979, and offers free online guides and other tools, including a gobbledegook generator.

Choosing the right words

The Macquarie Dictionary and Thesaurus are my first choice when I’m searching for the right word. I like to have a hardcopy edition but it’s well worth having a subscription to the online versions. However, a dictionary doesn’t always help us choose the best words to convey our meaning. There are many books that explain correct usage of words and phrases.

The two modern and specifically Australian references I find most useful are:

Right Words: A guide to English usage in Australia, by Stephen Murray-Smith, 2nd ed., Penguin, Ringwood, Vic 1990, is still an excellent reference. It explains the basic rules of grammar and punctuation, the difference in usage between words that are frequently confused, and common mistakes.

The Cambridge Guide to Australian English Usage, by Pam Peters, Cambridge University Press, Port Melbourne, Vic, 2007, is a comprehensive guide that gives the facts about variants of language used in written Australian communication, and leaves it up to the reader to choose the most suitable. It compares Australian English with British, American and other varieties of English. It covers spelling, grammar, punctuation, the style and structure of language, and editorial style and formatting.

If you are writing for an American audience, Garner’s Modern American Usage by Brian A. Garner, 3rd ed., Oxford University Press, New York, is a useful guide.