communications. communication

In August, I emailed Merriam-Webster the following question. Assistant Editor Emily Vezina replied. (If you can figure this out, youre smarter than I am.)

Q: Can you help me understand the difference between “communications” and “communication,” and when to use which?

For example, do I work in the field of strategic “communications,” or strategic “communication”? Do I help clients polish their “communications” skills, or their “communication” skills? Do I run a digital “communications” firm, or a digital “communication” firm?

I came across this article, but don’t quite understand its explanation—other than that there’s a big difference between these two words, and that I should know it.

A: “Communication” often refers to the simple exchange of information and ideas between people. Here are a few examples from two of our websites ( and

  • There was a breakdown in communication between members of the group
  • Parents need to have good communication with their children [they need to be able to understand and be understood by their children]
  • nonverbal communication
  • communication problems/skills
  • from many college/university websites, some form of “Department of Communication and Journalism”

“Communications” (plural) is typically used to describe the following:

  • the field of study of how information is sent to people using technology
  • He majored in communications. (NB: More and more colleges and universities seem to be using the singular to name the department that teachers this subject matter, but I am still seeing more examples of “communications major” rather than “communication major”)
  • the actual technology and ways of sending information
  • radio/wireless/electronic communications
  • a communications satellite (a satellite that is used to send signals for television, radio, etc., to people around the world)
  • the office or personnel at a school or business that is in charge of communicating information to the larger world outside of the organization

An example is Harvard’s Public Affairs and Communications (HPAC) office. Here is the description of their role from their website:

“Harvard Public Affairs and Communications manages and facilitates the University’s relationships with neighboring communities; local, state, and federal government; the media; and the general public. HPAC advances information and communications related to the University’s mission of excellence in teaching, learning, and research through a variety of managed channels and other means including the University’s homepage, the Harvard Gazette, and Harvard’s Information Center.”

Notice the use of “communications” in the description of HPAC. To complicate matters further, “communication” singular can refer to a message or an instance of communicating. It can, therefore, be used in the plural (as it is here) as well as in the singular.

As for your direct questions about your business, without knowing the context of what you do, your individual questions are difficult to answer. If your clients are individual people, I would say that that you help clients polish their communication skills. If your clients are institutions of some kind (schools, businesses, etc.), I’d use “communications skills.” The same basic concept applies to the other two issues as well.

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