Semantics and Connotations

By Maeve Maddox

A reader found himself puzzling over the grammatical number of the word semantics:

I just had to rewrite a sentence: “The semantics are a problem” vs. “The semantics is a problem.” 

My dictionary demurs, explaining that the form of semantics is plural though the number is singular or plural, depending on the sense.  

No matter which way I wrote it, someone would think I’m wrong, so I changed it (for the better maybe — to the clearer, if longer, “connotations of the word”). [Please] write about how you’d make the choice, and how other plural-looking words should be used.

I cannot glean context from the examples the writer has given, but I can say that the noun semantics takes a singular verb: “Semantics is a branch of study that fascinates me.”

The OED does not have an entry for semantic as a noun, but Merriam-Webster offers a noun entry that defines singular semantic as “a system or theory of meaning.” If this definition is intended, then one might say, “the semantics (systems/theories) are a problem.”

Avoiding the choice of agreement by changing semantics to “connotations of the word” is not an effective solution.

Although connotation is an aspect of semantics, connotation is not a synonym for semantics.

Words have denotation and connotation. Denotation is the usual meaning of word. Connotation is a sense that is not present in the definition, but is implied. For example, the words house, mansion, hovel, and hut all have the semantic meaning (denotation) of “structure in which people dwell,” but mansion connotes wealth, hut connotes a temporary or badly built structure, and hovel connotes squalid poverty. Only house is relatively free of connotation.

The two most usual meanings of semantics I’m familiar with are these:

1. semantics noun: The study of meaning.

2. semantics noun: The meaning or the interpretation of a word, sentence, or other language form.

M-W offers a third definition—one that I usually attach to the word rhetoric: “the language used (as in advertising or political propaganda) to achieve a desired effect on an audience.”

The word semantics is popular in the media. Sometimes it is used accurately, in reference to the meaning of words, but often it is used where language, terminology, rhetoric, or, yes, connotation, would perhaps be a better choice.

Note: The question about other words that end in -ics will be addressed in another post.

Related post:
Embezzlement, Peculation, and Connotation

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