Answer: The study of communication examines information exchange, the creation of meaning, the development of relationships, and how messages are received and interpreted. In contrast, communications deals with the technology, systems, and channels used to deliver different modes of communication. In short, communication is focused on the message, while communications is focused on the means by which it is shared. However, while the terms communication and communications have historically been used to distinguish between different types of degree programs, that distinction has become less clear, as more schools have started to use the term communications in program titles.

Communication vs. Communications

Historically speaking, the term communication — without an “S” — is used to describe the exchange and interpretation of messages and the meanings behind them, specifically how different entities convey information to one another. Communications — with an “S” — is generally more focused on how these messages are delivered. It is less about the creation of meaning and development of relationships, and more concerned with the technical means by which a message is spread. Put simply, communication is the sharing, receiving, and interpretation of messages, while communications is the means by which those messages get shared.

As a result of this difference, communication and communication studies programs tend to emphasize areas of study such as interpersonal communication, group communication, organizational communication, rhetorical studies, and health communication. Communications programs, on the other hand, usually focus on topics like mass communications, integrated marketing communications, global communications, and strategic communications. (There are also separate programs, in fields like telecommunications, that involve working with the technology used to transmit information.)

The “S” is used in the latter programs for two primary reasons. First, these programs and fields generally entail multiple forms of communication. For example, an integrated marketing campaign might include a combination of radio ads, public relations, content marketing, and paid media. Thus, there is a need to make communication plural in reference to the various communication channels and tactics students study in the program.

Second, because the aforementioned programs focus heavily on the means of distributing messages, not just the meaning behind them, some schools choose to use the “S” to distinguish these degree paths from more traditional communication or communication studies programs. As previously stated, communications is focused on the technology and systems used to spread messages, which directly aligns with the focus of certain degree programs or specializations. For instance, most mass communications programs involve considerable study of the various mediums used to distribute messages on a large scale (e.g., television, newspapers, the internet). Thus, it makes more sense to use “communications” instead of “communication” in the title. (Note: The use of “S” varies by school in terms of mass communication(s) programs.)

Finally, students may find that some resources use the word “communications” as an umbrella term to describe a collection or combination of disciplines within the field of communication. For example, a resource covering interpersonal communication, group communication, and rhetorical studies may choose to pluralize “communication” to reflect the various specializations being discussed.

Examples of Master’s in Communication Programs That Use the Term Communications

The following is an example list of master’s programs that use the term communications instead of communication in their program name: