Semantics Matter

Heated discussions in my family often ended with someone declaring “It’s just semantics!” as we often agreed in the essentials, if not the specifics. But semantics matter. For writers, it should never be “just semantics”. We should be careful and cognizant of what we say, how we say it, and what the consequences might be.

ice cream cone spilled in streetAs I write this, coverage continues over the mass shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio. I am NOT going to get into a gun control debate here. That can (and has been) debated elsewhere on Medium and many other platforms. Rather, I want to address how we, as writers, have a responsibility to our readers to write clearly and meaningfully.

Apples, Oranges or Bananas

When emotions are high, it’s easy to get caught up in the coverage. One of the current statistics being thrown around today is “250 mass shootings” in the U.S. to date. Sounds like no one can go to a mall, bar, church, or school anymore, right?

The figures come from a site called Gun Violence Archive, and they identify themselves as a non-profit, non-advocacy group seeking to provide the best statistics they can for all concerned parties.

What often gets left behind in the reporting of such figures are things like definitions. Since there is no definitive definition(!) of mass shooting in the U.S., the GVA site defines a mass shooting as 4 or more victims (injured or killed) besides the shooter. However, there is no distinction between an apparent terrorist attack like what happened in El Paso, and a murder-suicide of a family of 5. Because states have their own definitions (or none), those figures may include police shootings, gang shootings and misreporting. So, as Mark Twain reminded us, there are “lies, damned lies, and statistics”.

When we, as writers, don’t practice due diligence in our handling of information, we do a disservice to our readers, if not to society as a whole. Those who prefer obfuscation deserve a special place in hell or to be reincarnated as slugs and mosquitoes.

Manifesto versus Screed

Another debate during the current news cycle is over whether the online post by the El Paso shooter shortly before his rampage was a manifesto or a screed. Gimme a break! By all accounts, it was a hate-filled, anti-immigrant rant. Does it really matter if he declared principle and policies? Either way, he faces the death penalty in Texas. I do agree that calling it a manifesto dignifies the post with a level of thought and logic that might exceed his capabilities. (I suspect manifesto has been greatly overused in the last few decades.) But simply debating this issue gives it more credence and air time than it deserves.


We all have our biases, whether ideological or practical (the need to pay bills). It’s human nature. And that’s OK, as long as we recognize them and take them into account. Our sources have biases, too. Many a courtroom or newscast has dueling “experts” expounding their opinions. They may or may not be informed, but they are opinions, none-the-less.

That doesn’t mean our opinions or perspectives aren’t important. It does mean that we, as writers, have an obligation to present them carefully, with known intent.

Are you fear mongering? It’s a great way to get clicks. (Shame on you!) At least be clear that creating fear is your goal. Likewise, are you castigating a large group of people for the actions of a few? I don’t fit the stereotypes of either U.S. political party, and neither do most of the people I know, regardless of how they voted in the last election. These questions are especially important when responding to others’ reactions and posts.girl wearing sign says We can be HEROS just for one day

Who cares? You should.

If you want your words to be more than rubber arrows hurled at a caricature foe, or if you want to be seen as more than a caricature yourself, you should care. If you want to engage in dialogue with listening and being listened to, you should care. If you want to improve your own life, you should care. If you want to make a difference in your community and world, you should care.

From Caesar’s “veni, vidi, vici”, to Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I have a dream,” semantics matter.

2 thoughts on “Semantics Matter”

  1. I whole heartedly agree. When we as a society use words as digs towards one another the word tends to loose its value. My example here would be Racist. Racist by definition:
    1) A belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.
    2) : A) A doctrine or political program based on the assumption of racism and designed to execute its principles.
    B) A political or social system founded on racism
    3) racial prejudice or discrimination.

    Now while there are indeed racist people in our country, by enlarge we as a people are not racist. As mentioned we do have our biases.
    We unfortunately have come to a point where if we disagree with someone on purely a policy issue, a law or a belief we are deemed racist.
    Example: If I tell someone on my project that he or she is not doing their job properly and they are of another ethnicity then my own, I may be labeled a racist. When in fact, they are doing a lousy job.
    When we improperly use words they loose there strength.
    When we improperly use words they shut down discussion, which leads to understanding, which leads to learning, which leads to collaboration.

    • Good points. While my experience says racism is more prevalent than we want to admit, it also suggests that the divides of culture and socio-economics are strong and often mislabeled as racism.

      I’m reminded of a job I had in accounting with a Fortune 500 company. One manager couldn’t spell and had struggles with the actual work (I often had to bail him out). Just out of college with no work experience. But he had an MBA from a prestigious college, and a fellow alumnus on the board.

      While he was fast-tracked for upper management, I was stuck. The reason given was my degree wasn’t in the appropriate field. The reality was: I was female and didn’t have connections. I saw this played out in other departments as well, and left. BTW, I was on the division level, but there were no minorities in the corporate offices nor on the board. There was one woman in a power position at corporate; when she gave birth, was in the office the next day for fear she’d lose her job. (This was the 90s,but still plays out in many places.)

      With your employees, the best you can do is be specific with issues and goals, keep it as impersonal as possible, and document everything!


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