Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

On Semantics and General Semantics: Re-Defining the Former to Understand the Latter

Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

On Semantics and General Semantics: Re-Defining the Former to Understand the Latter

Article excerpt

If one could in some wise suddenly reveal clearly to mankind the full extent to which human culture, human achievements, human civilization in all its aspects and dimensions have depended upon the silent service rendered by the subtle relation which we denote in English by the little word imply, the vision would fill its beholders with ineffable wonder and awe; so little do we, ordinarily, sense the immeasurable gravity of a great imponderable principle [like implication]. (1)

--Cassius Jackson Keyser

The Pastures of Wonder: The Realm of Mathematics and the Realm of Science


The purpose of this essay is to re-define the subject of semantics, then to apply those insights to the subject of general semantics. Semantics and general semantics are decidedly different subjects that unfortunately share a root name. This essay will demonstrate how this re-definition of semantics clarifies what general semantics constitutes.

Some Notes on Writing Style

First, I want to provide a few stylistic notes on how this essay is written.

When we write, we typically talk about things. But when we write about language, we talk about something conceptually different from things: words. That is, when we write about language, we end up in the peculiar situation of using words to talk about words. Our writing on language can become confusing if we do not distinguish whether we are talking about words or things. Take for instance this sample sentence:

The word choice was appropriate.

In this sentence, which was appropriate: the word or the word choice? The sentence is ambiguous. But say that I wanted to communicate in a sentence that the word "choice" was an appropriate word. If I submitted to you the sample sentence, you might be led to believe I was talking about an appropriate word choice instead.

Given this kind of potential confusion, when tasked with simultaneously writing about the verbal (words) and about the non-verbal (things), I find it very important to distinguish typographically between the two. When I want to talk about a thing, the word in the sentence looks like most words you encounter in most sentences. It is plain. However, whenever I want to talk about a word, that word is put within quotation marks. Doing this helps to clarify for you that I am talking about the word and not the thing the word represents. For example, I can talk about elephants, or I can talk about the word "elephants." I cannot talk about the etymology of elephants, but I can talk about the etymology of the word "elephants." You know better what I am talking about based on whether there are quotations around the word.

Sometimes, writers will use italics to serve a similar purpose in designating words in sentences. Such a writer might construct the sample sentence in this way:

The word choke was appropriate.

I use quotation marks as opposed to italics when designating a word. Using quotations marks from my experience offers less potential ambiguity than using italics. Italics can inadvertently communicate emphasis when you are simply talking about a word without emphasis. Plus, foreign words, species names, etc., which traditionally are italicized in a sentence, in theory would lose their italics if you wanted to talk about them, making for dubious typography. (Why is this foreign word not italicized?)

When it comes to writing about words, often I add to my sentences some further clarification. I index the quotation marks that surround the words I am talking about. (2) Before the quotation marks, I frequently make explicit that the word within the quotation marks is, say, a word, a term, a name, a phrase, so-called, etc. Any of these explications functions just like an index of the quotation marks and clarifies better what the word in the quotation marks is grammatically. I practice this indexing because un-indexed quotation marks have potentially ambiguous meaning; they may read as direct quotations, scare quotes, dialogue, loose phrasing, etc. …

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