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What are Semantics?

Diane Goettel
Updated May 23, 2024
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Semantics is the study of meaning in language. In particular, it is the study of how meaning is structured in sentences, phrases, and words. The English term “semantics” comes from the Greek semantikos which means to show or give signs. Semantics can be applied to different kinds of symbol systems, such as computer languages and similar coding systems. In general, however, semantics generally refers to how meaning is conveyed through the symbols of a written language. Semantics can be understood when it is contrasted with another linguistic term, syntax. Syntax is the study of rules regarding how symbols are arranged. Syntax is the study of the structure of a language while semantics is the study of the meaning of a language.

When studying semantics, it is important to recognize the generally accepted meaning of a word or term rather than the literal meaning. Take the term “water pill” for example. The term “water pill” is an accepted term for a kind of diuretic. These pills are often taken by people who, for one reason or another, are retaining too much water in their bodies. If we were to look at the literal meaning of the word “water pill,” the term would seem to indicate a pill filled with water. Of course, it is quite the opposite; when the pill is ingested it causes a person to lose water.

The following is a famous Groucho Marx quote that is often referred to by linguists in discussions regarding semantics:

“One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas I'll never know.”

Upon reading the first sentence, it seems that Marx woke up one morning and shot an elephant. However, Marx reverses the meaning of the sentence in the second sentence in which we learn that the elephant was literally inside of his pajamas.

In the study of semantics, the generally accepted meaning of a word, phrase, or sentence is compared to the possible meaning of the same word, phrase, or sentence. When one first reads the word “crash,” for example, a car accident may leap to mind. However, the term can also be used to discuss the sound that is created when a pair of large symbols are brought together in a piece of music, or how waves break against a rocky coast.

Because semantics is a study steeped in the meaning of words, it often uses synonymy and antonymy in its investigations. It is quite common to describe the world around us in terms of opposites and commonalities. For example, say a woman named Grace was trying to describe the way that her daughter looks. She might say, “She isn’t as tall as her father, but she looks exactly like her Aunt Drew.” If the listener knew both the father and the aunt of the daughter who is being described, this information would probably help him to imagine what she looked like. The same exercise is applied by linguists when they use synonyms (words that have similar meanings) and antonyms (words that have opposite meanings) to describe a word, phrase, or sentence.

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Diane Goettel
By Diane Goettel
"Diane Goettel has a BA from Sarah Lawrence College and an MA in English from Brooklyn College. Diane lives in Mount Vernon, New York with her husband, Noah. They are the proud parents of a Doberman Pinscher named Spoon. Specialties: book editing, book marketing, book publishing, freelance writing, magazine publishing, magazine writing, copywriting,"
Discussion Comments
By janosabel — On Aug 06, 2011

Is BioNerd talking about specific semantic concerns addressed in the discipline referred to as *General* Semantics?

Your piece here does not mention the branch of semantics founded by Alfred Korzybski. In addition, the link to "General Semantics" leads to misleading referents.

By anon153308 — On Feb 17, 2011

What about the use of "their" instead of "there",

"your" vs "you're" or "too" vs "to"?

Would these be errors of a semantic nature because the words are not misspelled but misused? These words, when written, may be incorrect because the meaning associated with the spelling may not be correct, depending on the context.

By BioNerd — On Jul 27, 2010

It is necessary to understand context in order to plumb the depths of meaning. By "context" I don't mean necessarily the context in which a sentence is written (lexical context), but also the historical context, the context of conversation, who is speaking, who is being spoken to, etc. Such a study borders on the sister field of Pragmatics, but is nevertheless essential in understanding implications and nuance in a given speech act. The human mind is so infinitely deep and powerful that we are able to create and understand millions of building blocks of communication, and all the trillions of potential combinations thereof.

By anon16147 — On Jul 30, 2008

The next question that I can think of is What is the Difference Between Semantics and Analogical?

Diane Goettel
Diane Goettel
"Diane Goettel has a BA from Sarah Lawrence College and an MA in English from Brooklyn College. Diane lives in Mount...
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