Have you ever heard someone say, “That’s just semantics?” Basically, they’re saying you’re picking apart the meaning of a word to draw a different conclusion but it all means the same thing. It’s possible the person saying, “It’s just semantics,” is wrong, though.
Semantics is the study of the relationship between words and how we draw meaning from those words. People can absolutely interpret words differently and draw different meanings from them. Some examples of semantics will help you see the many meanings of English words.
What Is Semantics?
Semantics involves the deconstruction of words, signals, and sentence structure. It influences our reading comprehension as well as our comprehension of other people’s words in everyday conversation. Semantics play a large part in our daily communication, understanding, and language learning without us even realizing it.
For example, in everyday use, a child might make use of semantics to understand a mom’s directive to “do your chores” as, “do your chores whenever you feel like it.” However, the mother was probably saying, “do your chores right now.”
Since meaning in language is so complex, there are actually different theories used within semantics, such as formal semantics, lexical semantics, and conceptual semantics.
- Formal Semantics - Formal semantics uses techniques from math, philosophy, and logic to analyze the broader relationship between language and reality, truth and possibility. Has your teacher ever asked you to use an “if… then” question? It breaks apart lines of information to detect the underlying meaning or consequence of events.
- Lexical Semantics - Lexical semantics deconstruct words and phrases within a line of text to understand the meaning in terms of context. This can include a study of individual nouns, verbs, adjectives, prefixes, root words, suffixes, or longer phrases or idioms.
- Conceptual Semantics - Conceptual semantics deals with the most basic concept and form of a word before our thoughts and feelings added context to it.
For example, at its most basic we know a cougar to be a large wild cat. But, the word cougar has also come to indicate an older woman who’s dating a younger man. This is where context is important.
Conceptual semantics opens the door to a conversation on connotation and denotation. Denotation is the standard definition of a word. Meanwhile, connotation deals with the emotion evoked from a word. Connotation will be derived from the manner in which you interpret a word or sentence’s meaning. As such, semantics and connotation are deeply entwined. For a deeper dive, read these examples and exercises on connotative words.
Semantics in Everyday Life
One part of studying language is understanding the many meanings of individual words. Once you have a handle on the words themselves, context comes into play. The same word can be said to two people and they can interpret them differently.
For example, imagine a man told a woman, “I care for you… a lot.” Wouldn’t that made the woman’s heart melt? Sure, if he just said that out of the blue, walking down the beach one day. But, what if the woman told the man, “I love you,” and, after a long pause, all he said was, “I care for you… a lot.” She’d be crushed. So, context (the current situation) will always play a role in everyday semantics.
Here are some examples of everyday words that can have more than one meaning:
- A water pill could be a pill with water in it but it is understood to be a diuretic that causes a person to lose water from his body.
- “Crash” can mean an auto accident, a drop in the Stock Market, to attend a party without being invited, ocean waves hitting the shore, or the sound of cymbals being struck together.
- Depending on context, a flowering plant could be referred to as a weed or a flower.
- A human can be referred to as a male, female, child, adult, baby, bachelor, father or mother.
- To call someone a lady means more than simply being female. Semantics tell us that, if she’s a lady, she possesses elegance and grace.
- “Young” can allude to a colt, filly, piglet, baby, puppy, or kitten.
- To say something was challenging leads us to believe it was not a good experience. It wasn’t just difficult, it was also unpleasant.
- The verb “move” can mean change place, push, pull or carry, or stir emotion.
- To call someone an angel doesn’t mean they inhabit heaven. Semantics leads us to believe they have a lovely disposition.
- The word “create” can mean build, make, construct, erect, compose or imagine.
- The simple word "on" can have many meanings, such as: on call, on the roof, on cloud nine, on edge, on fire, on purpose, on demand, on top, or on the phone.
Remember the different connotations of the phrase, “I care for you?” Let’s revisit the idea that a single line of text can be interpreted in different ways. Suppose a college grad was just hired to a new job. She was excited to start this new chapter; everything seemed glossy and bright.
On the first day, her boss mentions she’ll have to travel to the new Miami office to help the office hit the ground running. In reality, she’ll be going there to do very mundane chores like order office supplies and clean the cubicles (something that nobody else wants to do).
So, as the new employee exclaims, “You chose me? Thank you!” and the supervisor says, “Yup, I chose you all right,” we’ll know that, given the context of the situation, the supervisor isn’t saying this in a positive light. However, the new employee will interpret it to mean something very positive.
Or, what if a husband comes home with what he labels a “brand new” coffee table. He might tell his wife it was a steal and a gorgeous new piece for their home. The wife might take one look at it and say, “This isn’t new. I saw this at the local consignment shop the other day.” The husband might retort, “Semantics. It’s new to us!” Indeed, two people can take one word or expression and take it to mean entirely different things.
Semantics in Puns
In your reading, you may come across a pun or two. Puns like to play on words. They deliberately use multiple meanings to reshape the meaning of a sentence. So, what we understand a word to mean can be twisted to mean something else.
We’ll see this in the examples below. In the first one, we know littering to mean something like tossing garbage out the window as we drive. But, the play on words is being made by the fact that dogs have “litters” of puppies. They’re fun! Let’s take a look:
- A dog gave birth to puppies near the road and was cited for littering.
- "One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas I'll never know."- Groucho Marx
- Let's talk about rights and lefts. You're right, so I left.
- Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.
- Diet slogan: Are you going the wrong weigh?
- I fired my masseuse today. She just rubbed me the wrong way.
- The best way to communicate with a fish is to drop them a line.
- Two silkworms had a race. They ended up in a tie.
Draw Your Own Conclusions with Semantics
The study of words through semantics provides a better understanding of the multiple meanings of words. They’re a nice way to spice up a story or put a twist on the conversation between two characters.
If, indeed, you’re working on a short story and would like to play with semantics, take a look at Get Creative: How to Write a Short Story. Have fun crafting nifty conversations and making a play on words!