Most semantics definitions will keep you wondering. Merriam Webster defines semantics as “the historical and psychological study and the classification of changes in the signification of words or forms viewed as factors in linguistic development,” which really looks like a bunch of slightly related words strung together into a singular sentence. Cambridge gives a more concise, but less insightful definition of semantics with “the study of meaning in language.”

Get to know the in-depth definition of semantics and how you can use it to brush up on your own writing mechanics

Understanding Linguistic Semantics

Linguistics is the scientific study of language, which is broken down into six different branches. The first branch is phonetics, which is the actual sounds different languages use. With phonetics, linguists will study the physical speech organs, sound waves and how sounds are made and perceived through the phonetic alphabet. 

Then there’s phonology, the study of how those sounds come together and how their sounds and meaning change when combined. Moving on, there’s morphology which is the study of how words come together through smaller units like prefixes and suffixes. 

Semantics vs Syntax

Next, you’ll find syntax, the study of how those words come together to form sentences. Those studying syntax analyze sentence structure and the function of words within a sentence. It evaluates the typical formula of a sentence and how that affects language. For example, “The girls broke the lamp” achieves a different outcome than “The lamp was broken by the girls.”

Then you get to semantics, which is the study of the conventional meaning of words. When studying words through a linguistic point of view you should focus on what each word typically means rather than what the speaker wants them to mean. 

Semantics vs Pragmatics

Lastly, you have pragmatics, which is the study of language in certain contexts. It focuses on the relationship between the words said and the speaker and what they really mean by their word choice. Semantics is completely focused on the literal meaning, while pragmatics is more focused on the figurative meaning. 

Figuring Out Formal Semantics

Formal semantics focuses on the relationship between the meaning of a word and reality it exists within. A type of mathematics is used to analyze the language using a mathematical language called typed lambda calculus. There is a lot to dive into about formal semantics, but overall it involves studying a variety of sentences and deciding whether they are true, false, both or neither.

Grammatically nonsensical sentences like “Kim frightened sincerity” or those containing contradictions like “It is raining and it is not raining” are considered untrue.  Sentences can be considered true if they are implied in a previous sentence. For example, if you know “Jeff sold Mary a book” then “Mary bought a book from Jeff” must be true. 

Synonymous phrases can also be true with sentences like “Thomas is a bachelor” and “Thomas is an unmarried man.” 

Learning Lexical Semantics

Lexical semantics are concerned by two key ideas: how to describe the meaning of words and how to judge different meanings based on context. It also looks at how different meanings of words are related to each other like “fast” versus “slow” or “animal” and “dog.” 

Comprehending Conceptual Semantics

Finally, you have conceptual semantics, which analyzes the most basic meaning of a word before it gets changed by feeling, tone or the speaker’s influence. For example, the phrase “the big apple” has a completely different meaning in “there is a big apple on the table” and “every winter they go to the Big Apple for Christmas.”

“The big apple” can mean something completely different in the pragmatic sense when a speaker’s influence is involved. For example, imagine you had a son in kindergarten who was always talking about how his teacher had a huge picture of herself behind her desk. You go to visit the classroom one day with your partner and notice an apple on her desk as well as the humongous picture of her behind it. 

Your partner might poke you in the ribs with their elbow and say “Woah! That’s one big apple.” Here apple would be used as a euphemism in order to avoid commenting on the large picture in front of the teacher herself. This meaning would be disregarded in conceptual semantics because it only focuses on the basic meaning of the phrase, which would be that there is a physically large apple in the room. 

Finding Semantics Examples in Writing

The meaning of the words you use in creative writing are the very core of your work. Literary devices like word choice, imagery, metaphor, simile and personification are all involved with each word’s meaning. 

For example, F. Scott Fitzgerald is known for very descriptive writing with lots of imagery, whereas Ernest Hemingway is not. 

Look at this description of Daisy in The Great Gatsby:

“The exhilarating ripple of her voice was a wild tonic in the rain. I had to follow the sound of it for a moment, up and down, with my ear alone, before any words came through. A damp streak of hair lay like a dash of blue paint across her cheek, and her hand was wet with glistening drops as I took it to help her from the car.” (Fitzgerald, 66) 

Then look at this description of two characters in Hills Like White Elephants

“The American and the girl with him sat at a table in the shade, outside the building.” (Hemingway, 1) 

Fitzgerald uses semantics to envelope Daisy in a dreamy and artistic manner, which aligns with the way Gatsby perceives her. Hemingway uses semantics to isolate the characters and their environment and bring your attention to the characters directly rather than outside descriptors. 

“It’s Just Semantics” in Communication

It’s likely you’ve already heard the word semantics in the phrase “That’s just semantics” or “It’s just semantics.” People use this phrase to refer to something as trivial or unimportant. Since the exact meaning of a word is such a minute detail, fighting over it became synonymous with fighting over something trivial. 

If you’d like a laugh, take a look at these two toddlers fighting over whether it is “sprinkling” or “raining.” From an outside perspective, saying “it is sprinkling” or “it is raining” will generally accomplish the same goal. Whoever you’re speaking to will know water is falling from the sky, but their meanings are slightly different. An outside source could’ve come between these two toddlers and said “It’s just semantics” to tell them that the difference between the meaning of the two words is insignificant.  

On Your Way to Semantics Specialist

Lots of ink has been spilled over semantics and the true meaning of words. Everyone’s personal experiences and opinions influence what their meaning of a word is. As you work on creating a successful writing habit, try analyzing a few sentences just based on the meaning of each word. The more you take time to analyze a new word, the more you’ll get a true understanding of its meaning. As you develop as a reader and writer, you’ll be a true semantics specialist.

Written By

Calli Zarpas

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