Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

Common Sense Principles about Language

Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

Common Sense Principles about Language

Article excerpt


THE WORD is not the thing. You can't eat the word "apple" or shoot the word "gun." In many ways, words are like maps. The more accurately the map describes the territory, the more useful it is. Maps can be wrong, and often are. There are outdated maps (beliefs and statements); make-believe "maps"; deliberately misleading maps; well-intentioned but naive maps; maps that do not go into sufficient detail; maps that emphasize superhighways when you may be interested in winding country roads; etc.

2. It's hard to pin down the meanings of general, abstract, relative terms. Try to get beyond just words to the actual things they stand for. Know how reliable your sources of second- and third-hand information are. Before you write, examine the "territory" for yourself. Consider the facts with your own senses. Don't just rely on other people's words.

People misunderstand each other when they:

a) use the same words while meaning different things, or

b) use different words while meaning the same thing.

Practically all words, with the exception of some technical terms, have a number of different meanings. Don't just hope that your reader will get the particular meanings you intended; make yourself clear with specific examples.

For example, "Sure I said it was a party, but that doesn't mean there has to be dancing!" (The word "party" is a general term and means different things to different persons.)

I lost my blue crayon (specific term), clothing (general), freedom (abstract), appetite (relative).

3. Context (not the dictionary) determines meaning. Bank of snow ... blood bank ... bank on your support ... dives from the bank ... took money from the bank ... bank the furnace ... roads are banked on curves ... where do you bank ... banks of roses ... a bank of swans... the jets banked in unison ... we got stuck on the bank... you hold the bank ... I'll be the bank ... the banks of the organ ... chained to the banks ... etc.

King James referred to St. Paul's Cathedral as "amusing, awful, and artificial." He meant it as a compliment. In the eighteenth century, the words meant "amazing, awe-inspiring, and artistic."

Be especially cautious with pronouns. Any pronoun can contribute to vagueness and confusion unless you make perfectly clear what it refers to in the previous sentence or sentences.

For example: Charles told Captain Boyle that he had inherited a considerable sum of money from his cousin. Who? Whose cousin?

4. Don't mix up inferences and facts. When you talk about what you know "for a fact," or even what you have actually seen with your own eyes, how accurate are you? Would most people agree with what you say? Are you sure they would? Would you bet a dollar that you're right? A hundred dollars? Most people guess about things much more than they realize. Learn to distinguish inferences, assumptions, judgments, and opinions from facts.

a) REPORT: The poorly dressed man was slumped against the doorway.

INFERENCE: The man is drunk. (What are the facts?)

b) REPORT: George was here the day the watch disappeared.

INFERENCE: George took the watch. (What are the facts?)

c) REPORT: A doctor's car is parked in front of Mr. Smith's house.

INFERENCE: Someone is sick. (What are the facts?) A fact is a statement:

a. that can be verified --

b. by impersonal means --

c. and applies to a particular person or situation at a particular time at a particular place.

Put mental quotation marks around the words "fact" and "true" to remind yourself how hard it is to be sure about anything.

Are the following statements "true" or "false"? (Apply the a-b-c formula above.)

"It is raining."

"He is an enemy."

"This product will make you look younger, feel younger."

5. There are different kinds of truth.

a) "This watermelon weighs 8 pounds, and at 46 cents a pound, it will cost you $3. …

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