Entering into a debate and being dismissed with the phrase, “it’s just semantics,” can be pretty frustrating. What exactly is “semantics”? And how did this particular field of linguistics get the power to stop so many arguments in their tracks?
What Is "Semantics"?
When linguists study semantics, they are studying meaning. This can be the meaning of words, phrases, sentences, or entire written works. In Romeo and Juliet, for example, Juliet mused that “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” but the word “rose” conjures up a mix of concepts and ideas in addition to the tangible flower. Those thoughts shape what the word “rose” means to us — not just a flower, but something elegant, romantic, sweet, etc.
Semantics also interacts with the study of syntax (how sentences are constructed) and pragmatics (context related to meaning). When examining syntax, we’re checking to see if a sentence follows established grammar rules. For example, the following sentence doesn’t make any sense grammatically:
My crossed daughter the street the school bus to catch.
That’s a mess. But rewritten as “My daughter crossed the street to catch the school bus” is much better.
Pragmatics studies the meaning of sentences in their context. Let’s see what happens if we rearrange our sentence:
The school bus crossed the street to catch my daughter.
The sentence might be grammatically correct, but it doesn’t make any sense. In the context of our world, school buses don’t cross streets to catch little girls. From a pragmatic point of view, it’s unclear how we could interpret this sentence correctly.
“It’s Just Semantics”
So what does the phrase really mean? It’s usually a shorthand way of saying, “That’s trivial or unimportant,” or “Now we’re just arguing about the meaning of words.” It can also be a way of saying that both sides mean the same thing but use different language to express it. In short, you can agree to disagree because the dispute is negligible.
“That’s just semantics” or “You’re just arguing semantics” might pop up when debating controversial topics, but it doesn’t have to be a stopping point. If semantics is all about meaning, then perhaps the speaker should be saying, “We just disagree on meaning.” But questioning what the other person means is what most good debates are about.
If the disagreement is really about word choice, that wouldn’t be covered by semantics. That would be covered by lexicography or diction. But, “You’re just arguing lexicography” doesn’t have the same ring to it.
Why It’s Not “Just Semantics”
Semantics isn’t just a superficial difference of opinion. It’s important because words, sentences, and phrases frame our reality. Disputes about semantics and meaning can be a very big deal. Businesses, marketing firms, and political parties go through a lot of trouble to find the right words to convey the right message to the public.
Think about the words “estate taxes” and “death taxes.” The estate tax was enacted in the early 20th century as part of a progressive-era tax reform. But by the 1940s, opponents started labeling it the “death tax” in an effort to get it repealed. These words strike different emotional chords. People relate differently to them, even though they refer to the exact same thing.
Consider how language evolves. “Handicapped people” have become “people with disabilities.” These changes are not “just semantics.” People-first language constructions make a big difference. These semantics help us change the way we think and interact with others. Words carry meaning, and that’s something we should take very seriously.
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