It’s Just Semantics

August 19, 2016

Semantics ComicNo it isn’t.

It’s never just semantics. All writing is about a meaning expressed; an intention delivered. Writing is an ultimatum, and a claim made on nature. Every piece of writing ever created asserts the shape of reality on the reader and their place in the world. Writing attempts to create a shared frame of reference by presenting readers with some kind of truth. Even in the most obscurantist and esoteric forms of fiction are claims on the imagination that try to alter the way readers think.

That’s where the magic is at least.

So when we discuss semantics, we’re looking at a great deal more than the specific meanings and dictionary definitions of words. We need to consider the shaping effects of grammar, the sculpting power of word origins, and sometimes even the historical lifecycle of certain words. After all, words are just symbols and sounds that convey understood meanings, and in and of themselves, are completely inert without context. Properly understood, the whole world is “just semantics,” and to dismiss the nuance of meaning by tossing such a crude accusation at a writer (or a speaker) is to deny the unique experiences of those around us. Semantics aren’t just a thing, they may be the only thing – the hidden structure of our collective reality. With respect to Alfred Korzybski, the map might not be the territory, but it’s all that most people will ever see.

It is through semantic choices that writers create the ideological framework of their works. It might sound like a bold claim, but ideology is not simply an external, social phenomenon. Ideologies are the sum total, not simply of the outside world and its political speech, but are pushed, conjured, and made manifest through the act of silent, collective adherence.

What is to the individual a simple perspective, must be understood to reflect an entire and complete ideological framework. To some extent, the architecture of the individual is found in their relationship to grammar and vocabulary; the product of their combination is an ideological edifice that supports writing. It is the basis of, and derives from, the actual words that wind up on the page. Writers are world builders, and whether those worlds are fictional or non, the writer has only one thing that might be constrained a a duty to their reader: they must be true to themselves; true to their ideological perspective. Semantics become the difference between a consistent worldview and something else.

So how do you control the semantic side of your writing? Listen to your inner monologue. Imagine your reader to be a sympathetic ear. Never try to justify your work. Rather, the writer should believe that the world wants the writer’s perspective; their ideology. After all, everyone, from the most acclaimed novelist to the greatest speechwriter can only imagine the audience; they can never really know the mind of the reader.

The upshot is that writers have to play a trick on themselves. They should be fearless not because they are, in point of fact unafraid, but because there is no choice but to take the risk. Semantic and stylistic choices can only be driven by the writer: their limitations are not limits in the traditional sense, but rather mark the ideological boundaries of their own perspectives. Acknowledging limitations is a good way to remain both comfortable and to control the purview of one’s work.

...or do I?

…or do I?

The practice of writing is really about the writer exploring their own limits. For this reason, the craft itself must be undertaken from a place of relative innocence, but always with the belief that every style, properly refined, is a good one for someone. Conversely, the greatest sin that a writer can commit is the hubris of pandering. You cannot know what people want, and to pretend otherwise is simply foolhardy.

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