How semantics can help you! Part 1

by Juliette Wade

Semantics is the study of meaning. I have a confession to make: I’ve always found the idea of semantics more exciting than the study itself. This is because academic classes on the subject involve a great deal of hard logic.

I’m not going to do that stuff here and I’m going to divide this one up. Today’s entry will concern a topic that I’m sure every writer can relate to:

Word Meaning: Choosing the Right Word

Choosing the right word is critical to getting our meaning across as writers. Here are a few initial things to think about:

1. Does this word have the meaning I’m looking for?
2. Does it supply that meaning unambiguously?
3. Does it have the proper positive, negative, mysterious, or other desired connotations?
4. Does it reflect on the attitude or identity of the point of view character?

I’m going to spend a little time on ambiguity, because linguistically speaking, even the denotation (meaning) of a word is never simple and singular.

Consider the word “dog.” When you hear it, what do you imagine? I get an instant image of something beagle-sized and brown, with floppy ears and a wet nose and a wagging tail. This is my meaning-prototype for the word “dog,” even though I know the word includes great Danes and shar peis and toy poodles and Snoopy.

A word’s meaning is like a pointillist painting – the prototype lies at the center of a scattering of points which are each possible meanings for the word. As long as the object has enough of the right features (but not necessarily always the same ones), it will be rapidly construed as a member of the set.

This brings me to the problem of ambiguity.

Very often when I critique – either editing myself or reading for others – I’ll come across words that don’t work well because of ambiguity. This is not because the writer has necessarily chosen the wrong word, but because the word they’ve picked has more than one possible meaning.

Meanings and words don’t have a precisely one-to-one relationship, much in the way that “dog” doesn’t always describe the same dog. When we hear a word, our brain brings up every known meaning for that word simultaneously. These generally occur in a hierarchical order of likelihood, but they are all present. Therefore, if the context provided does not narrow the choice sufficiently, the ambiguity can become distracting. Homonyms are a natural context for this, but so are words that appear in idiomatic expressions (they can be ambiguous between idiomatic and non-idiomatic meanings).

The example below shows a different type – a word whose part of speech is ambiguous:

“Joseph burst into the suspect’s apartment. Crashing and the tinkle of broken glass came from the back room.”

In this sequence, the word “crashing” is ambiguous between the following meanings:

crashing: NOUN a loud sound made when something breaks
crashing: VERB breaking something

Because we’ve got a verb context set up with Joseph’s sudden entry, it’s easy to misconstrue “crashing” and end up confused when it gets set up as a parallel with “the tinkle of broken glass.” So maybe we should consider replacing “crashing” or setting up a noun context by using an adjective like “horrible” to make it “horrible crashing.”

Stay tuned for my next semantics entries
1. connotations/ point of view
2. creating words and
3. altering the meaning of words.

How semantics can help you! Part 1 is reprinted by permission of the author.

Julie WadeJuliette Wade is an author of science fiction and fantasy who loves language and its cultural consequences. Her fiction appears in Analog and other short fiction magazines. She has degrees in Linguistics, Anthropology and Japanese.