It’s just semantics – that is the point, isn’t it?

Reference books on table, elevated viewI’ve got a few expressions (or words) that really get on my nerves (piles of other things get on my nerves, but only a few expressions).  The biggest is, as you can probably guess, “literally” when applied to something that didn’t literally, or more usually – literally couldn’t happen.  You “literally exploded with rage”?  Really?  Unless we’re going the hyperbole route, which I doubt most people do intentionally, I’m simply going to have problems believing you.  If you’re a professional communicator – then I’m really going to have to rethink things.

My number two cringe-inducer is “Well that’s just semantics.”  The phrase implies that the difference between the opinions being expressed is merely cosmetic – just a matter of words. But here’s the thing, while that may be true for a significant number of topics, there’s two key problems:

  1. If it truly is just word choice, and the discussion is still ongoing there’s obviously something more to it than just word choice
  2. For communications professionals it makes a word, erm – world, of difference.

Let’s start at the top:

Semantics defined (emphasis added):

3 a : the meaning or relationship of meanings of a sign or set of signs; especially : connotative meaning b : the language used (as in advertising or political propaganda) to achieve a desired effect on an audience especially through the use of words with novel or dual meanings

So what we’re dealing with when talking “semantics” is the connotative difference and, for our purposes in the communications world, how to achieve a desired effect on our audience.

That pretty much sounds like part of our job description to a T.  Or does it just barely fit the bill?  Certainly it doesn’t pass muster to encompass all that we do, but it’s a pretty hefty chunk.

Without any further wordplay, or wordsmithing, the point is this – words have meanings – usually a very specific meaning.  They 1) can’t be interchanged willy-nilly, even if they’re next to each other in the thesaurus and 2) even words that “mean the same thing” have a unique power, a hint of something else, an implication of degree (e.g. smoldering vs. hot), etc. The rights word used at the right place and time can be used to spin (or rather frame) a story the way you’d like your audience (or rather community) to receive it.  Outrage, calm, anxiety, excitement, anticipation, boredom, intrigue – can all be at your beck and call with the write words (pun intentional).

So, yes, the difference may be ‘semantics’ – but that’s exactly what we’re, as professional communicators, here to do.

Share on Tumblr

  • http://twitter.com/AmandaSena Amanda Sena

    Great post! Used sparingly I don't usually mind of folks use words such as “literally” too much in casual conversation. But it doesn't have a place in more formal business writing and used too much, it just makes everything that person says to be exaggerated and, to me, less believable.

  • http://prbreakfastclub.com PR Cog

    Hey Amanda -

    Thanks so much :) There's definitely a time and a place for 'fun' conversation (and perhaps even professional circles where words are meaningless), but for us it's an entirely different story ;-)

    P