No, It’s Not “Just” Semantics

The English language has a problem in America.

Some Americans once believed (and some apparently still do) that such things as “alternative facts” can exist, and believed further that such “facts” can include obvious fictions. Beliefs like that make it hard to avoid the impression that our native tongue is teetering toward a fatal imprecision. And that’s a problem—especially if you are or have ever been an English teacher.

So, having been an English teacher on more than one occasion, you try to regain some linguistic precision, explaining that the word facts should apply only to facts that really are facts, nothing alternative about them. You acknowledge that people can of course focus on alternative selections from the universe of facts. (They can focus on the current blue of the sky, for instance, and ignore the forecast calling for rain.) And you admit that people can form alternative interpretations of the facts, leading them to reach alternative conclusions (including those concerning the reliability of weather forecasts).

But, you argue, the concept of “alternative facts” is nonetheless preposterous: when two alternatives are objectively and mutually exclusive—for example, “there were more than a zillion” vs. “there were fewer than a dozen”—it’s impossible for both to be legitimately called “facts.” One of them, you say, must be acknowledged as fiction.

That’s when the person you’re talking to says “That’s just semantics.”

Of course it’s semantics. But not “just” semantics. The phrase “just semantics” is another logical impossibility, just like “alternative facts.” Semantic distinctions aren’t trivial. They’re vitally important—in any context—because they’re nothing less than the way people use language to create and understand meaning.

Really. Literally. Semantics is our only method for distinguishing between, say, happy and ecstatic. Those are clearly different conditions—both emotionally positive, to be sure, but very different in intensity. And if you think that’s only a minor difference, ask yourself this: if you were trying to please your spouse (or significant other) and managed to produce one of those reactions, which one would you prefer?

Or imagine overhearing a bit of conversation between a couple of hedge-fund types in expensive suits. One of them clearly utters the phrases “gonna crash” and “next week.” Wouldn’t it be helpful to know whether he’s talking about his market analysis or his plans for a party to which he hasn’t been invited? Again, that’s semantics.

Another example: when should a promotional payment be thought of as an incentive? When would it more accurately be considered a bribe? This question had serious implications for several radio DJs during the payola scandals of the ‘50s and ‘60s. Are there businesses where a similar semantic clarification would be worthwhile today? Come to think of it, hasn’t someone proposed legislation aimed specifically at accomplishing that clarification?

And if you were the chief negotiator in crucial talks between two warring nations, which would you consider the most desirable outcome—peace, truce, or standoff? Are those differences just semantics?

There are cases in which semantics may have already helped resolve an issue. Take the transformation over the past decade or so in popular support for legalization of gay marriage. Most explanations have identified judicial and sociological factors as the key forces behind the remarkably rapid and broad-based change. But could semantics have played a part as well? Could the shift in rhetorical emphasis from “same-sex” to “gay marriage” have helped shift voter perceptions as well—to focus on loving commitment rather than getting hung up on sex?

And here’s another question to consider. When news media cover a terrorist attack, they typically report that “ISIS has claimed responsibility for the attack.” But “claimed” conveys the wrong implicit message. Shouldn’t the coverage say instead that “ISIS has admitted responsibility for the attack”? Wouldn’t that help brand it as immoral and illegitimate instead of reinforcing the terrorists’ assertion of “heroic martyrdom”?

Of course, semantic changes like substituting “admitted” for “claimed” are unlikely to have any immediate effect on world politics. But they are likely to accomplish incremental changes in people’s understanding of the issues they describe. And changes in understanding lead inevitably to changes in attitudes—which lead, ultimately, to changes in actions.

And doesn’t that mean that maybe, instead of dismissing semantic distinctions, we should be emphasizing them?