Sunday, January 18, 2009

How semantics can help you! Part 1

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. (pc, I assure you I'm relieved too.)

Because I'm sick at the moment (with vertigo, which is really shutting me down), 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."

I'd love to go digging for more examples, but it's late and my woozy head is telling me to lie down, so I'll stop there for now.

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


  1. I guess it's a personal, that is an individual thing, but in your example I had no trouble identifying "crashing" as a noun. In fact, the possibility of it's being a verb form didn't occur to me till you mentioned it, and frankly the possibility seems a stretch to me.

    That is not to say that a solid setting might not be advisable... "A sound of crashing," perhaps, or simply, "a crash"

    But, this example shows clearly that you can't assume anything. Just as you can't assume the reader has your vocabulary and your library of contexts and conotations, jus so you can't assume the reader has your responses to words or even contexts. You found "crashing" ambiguous. I found it unambiguous and thus easily understood. Another example of being divided by a common language.

    *scratches head* And yet, how can one communicate, make contact, with any entity outside one's own mind if nothing is solid, shared? We have to agree on *some* commonality or there can be no communication at all. At the same time ambiguity, allowing the reader to bring his own complex of contexts, conotations and assumptions to certain words can be a useful tool. The most obvious example of this reader freedom is in the mystery story, but that need not be the only use.

    I donno. Maybe it's because I'm a poet at heart and a fiction writer only secondarily, but I don't like the idea of straightjacketing and regimenting words. Clarity is esential, yes. But, do we really need to prescribe and circumscribe the exact, single meaning in the reader's mind of every word we use? Can't, shouldn't, we allow the reader some freedom of association, implication, application? Besides, using nothing but thoroughly unambiguous words all the time would be boring.

  2. Catreona, I in no way am advocating the "strait-jacketing" of words. On the contrary, I'm advocating using words with an awareness of all their multiple meanings. However, there are places where an ambiguity can give a reader confusion, or cause them to draw the wrong conclusion.

    You found the word "crashing" unambiguous - super. Yet what if you wrote a sequence of words resembling my example, all the while finding the word "crashing" unambiguous and not realizing that someone else might find it so? You might then be caught in the position of confusing a reader. If ambiguity is intended, it's awesome, and by all means hold onto it. If you mean all of the three or four possible meanings for a word, fantastic. But in a case where ambiguity exists and you don't intend it, it is helpful to bolster your narrative against possible misinterpretation.

    That was all I intended to say. If you've ever read Japanese poetry, you'll know how much I love multiple meanings. Reading tanka poetry in the original ancient Japanese was incredibly hard, but also wonderfully rewarding because of all the layers.

    Yes, it's amazing that over distances of space and time we can understand each other through writing.

    Shakespeare said, "So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, / so long lives this, and this gives life to thee."