signify vs. signal [verbs]

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Sun14

Senior Member
Chinese
Hello, my friends,

I check the dictionary and find both of them can mean indicate(as for signal, it has the similar use). The example of "signal" from WR dictionary:

to make a signal to (someone or something): to signal that he wants to come home

I think in this context, "signal" can mean "indicate". And this confused me more.

Would you give me some advice on the difference of the two? Thank you.
 
  • entangledbank

    Senior Member
    English - South-East England
    They can overlap in use, but 'signal' is usually a physical action: waving your hand, or holding a flag out as part of a code, or setting a railway signal to a horizontal position – that sort of thing. 'Signify' is usually more abstract: words, or printed symbols, signify things.
     

    PaulQ

    Senior Member
    UK
    English - England
    To signal = (i) to make a sign; to gesture. -> He waved his arms, signalling to me that he had seen me. (ii) Of things, usually to announce; to give some type of information about something -> In Hong Kong, the firing of the noonday canon signals that it is 12 o'clock.

    To signify = (i) to stand in place of; to represent something (in a figurative manner); -> "He looked at the map. On the map were small crosses. The crosses signified the places where people had died." or "A crown printed on the map signifies the king: it shows you where he is."
     

    Sun14

    Senior Member
    Chinese
    They can overlap in use, but 'signal' is usually a physical action: waving your hand, or holding a flag out as part of a code, or setting a railway signal to a horizontal position – that sort of thing. 'Signify' is usually more abstract: words, or printed symbols, signify things.
    Does it mean in formal writing "signify" might be used more?
     

    Sun14

    Senior Member
    Chinese
    To signal = (i) to make a sign; to gesture. -> He waved his arms, signalling to me that he had seen me. (ii) Of things, usually to announce; to give some type of information about something -> In Hong Kong, the firing of the noonday canon signals that it is 12 o'clock.

    To signify = (i) to stand in place of; to represent something (in a figurative manner); -> "He looked at the map. On the map were small crosses. The crosses signified the places where people had died." or "A crown printed on the map signifies the king: it shows you where he is."
    I see, Thank you very much.
     

    PaulQ

    Senior Member
    UK
    English - England
    Does it mean in formal writing "signify" might be used more?
    No. It does not. The words are used as entangledbank has described. It does not matter whether something is formal or informal. Informally, "to signify" is reduced first to "to represent" and more informally to "to mean"

    Formal: "The crown signifies the power of the king."
    Less formal: "The crown represents the power of the king."
    Quite informal: "The crown means the power of the king."
     

    entangledbank

    Senior Member
    English - South-East England
    They overlap more when they're extended to figurative uses. For example, we find these uses from the UK newspaper The Independent:

    PM signals support for anti-terror action in North Africa
    Jihadist caliphate signals a global struggle
    New blood test signals breakthrough in ongoing search for Alzheimer’s cure
    The Bank of England is wrong to assume that falling unemployment signals rising wages.

    In the first one, the PM has done something to 'send a signal', but in the other three it's an inactive meaning: one thing 'is a sign of' another thing. 'Signify' could possibly be used in those three.
     
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