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Language Patterns: Deep Structure And Surface Structure

Have you ever struggled to put what you are feeling into words? Have you ever tried to convey some information that you know inside out, but had a hard time finding the right words to express it as precisely as you want, not leaving anything important out?

What’s going on there is that you know what you want to say – in NLP terms, we would say that you have a rich internal representation of it, in images, feelings and other sensory information as well as words and concepts. But to tell someone else about it, you need to translate that rich stew of sensory information into just words – and inevitably, some elements are going to get lost in translation.

The way NLP thinks of language is based on Noam Chomsky’s Transformational Grammar. This is an academic model, but the basic elements we need to know about for our purposes are this: our internal representation of what we want to say is called the ‘deep structure’, and the words that actually come out of our mouths, or that we write in a report or an email, are called the ‘surface structure’. In plain English, the deep structure is what you mean, the surface structure is what you actually say.

To get from deep structure to surface structure, our unconscious minds use three processes of translation. We leave some information out – deletion; we make generalisations rather than describing every single time a similar event happened; and we make assumptions which can lead to distortions, where we unconsciously bend the facts to fit our beliefs, or we accidentally introduce distortions by using a word that could be ambiguous or misleading.

All this happens unconsciously; we don’t consciously select every word that comes out of our mouths, because it would take far too long to say anything. In fact, our unconscious mind is better at forming grammatical sentences that flow properly than our conscious mind is. You may have noticed times when you’ve tried to consciously choose exactly the right words, and it comes out more stilted than usual.

On the listener’s or reader’s side, the same processes of deletion, distortion and generalisation are happening to translate the surface structure of your words into the deep structure of what they think you meant. The listener fills in deleted gaps with information from their own map of the world – which may or may not be the same information that you left out. They filter the words through their own generalisations and introduce their own distortions. So what they end up with may be very different to what you meant to say.

Because we’re running these translation processes of deletion, distortion and generalisation unconsciously, we are usually not aware of the deletions, distortions and generalisations that show up in our speech. Most people are never aware of them. But each time this distortion, deletion or generalisation happens, it leaves behind linguistic markers – evidence in the words and sentence structure that something has been deleted, distorted or generalised.

If you don’t know how to spot these, it’s more likely that you find yourself accepting the assumptions and generalisations embedded in what someone is saying without even realising it, even if you might not agree with them if you were consciously aware of that they were present.

Skilled communicators can presuppose certain things in their language to get people to see things from their point of view, or to frame an issue in the way that’s going to benefit them; while unskilled communicators, because they aren’t aware of the assumptions in their own language, often don’t make their case as well as they might, or don’t make themselves as clear as they could be, so they don’t get the results they want. So which would you rather be – skilled or unskilled?

Practical NLP 2: Language ebook

If you want an in-depth reference for NLP language patterns, including Meta Model, the Milton Model, presuppositions, the ‘Hierarchy of Ideas’ (chunking), and metaphor, get my ebook Practical NLP 2: Language.

It gives practical examples of how to use NLP language patterns for precision questioning, coaching and influencing, for business and personal development.

Disclaimer: I am not an academic linguistics scholar

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