Semantics 1

Robert Harris
Philosophy 210: Critical Thinking
Version Date: June 8, 2000

Words and Meaning

Semantics is the study of the relationship between words and their meanings. That is, the semanticist seeks to understand the connections and interactions between the symbols for things (words are symbols) and the things them selves (the actual objects or ideas the words refer to). Words are the tools of thought, but they are not the thoughts themselves. We know, for example, that a single thing can be named by many different words and that a group of many different things can be named by the same word; yet the single thing remains the same in itself regardless of the word applied to it and the different things remain different from each other regardless of their description by a single word.

A wooden alphabet block could be described or labeled as a "block," a "toy," a "child's learning tool," a "wooden cube," or a "manufactured object," but its essence would remain the same regardless of the name. Similarly, a cactus, an oak tree, and a rose bush could all be described as a "plant," but they all remain different.

In each case, however, the particular word applied to the thing is important, because the word can influence or alter our perceptions of the thing through the powerful symbolic and psychological effects of the word used: connotation and association trigger certain almost automatic responses with in our brains, and create attitudes toward, and influence our judgments about, the thing described by the word merely because it is described by that particular word. How do your attitudes and perceptions change when the word describing each of the following items is changed?
One Description
Another Description
garden flower weed
adult book pornography
half full glass half empty glass
incentive bribe

Note here the power of words. The little blooming plant remains absolutely the same plant no matter what we call it, but the word we use to describe it may make the difference between its life and death. Suppose a friend says, "I have a weed at my house I want you to see." Would you go see it? But what if he says, "I have a beautiful garden flower at my house that I want you to see"? The only thing that has changed is the description of the plant. Your attitude toward a thing has been altered (should we say "manipulated"?) by a change in language. A principal goal of semantics, then, is to teach the student to consider the thing referred to apart from the words describing it, and not to react to words. At the same time, it is important to realize that we all do have a very strong tendency to react to words, and that we therefore must be careful both in interpreting the statements of others and in choosing our own words.

Another goal of semantics is to teach the student to think and write with exact ideas and clear examples in mind, rather than with vague and general notions generated from mere words. The presence of a word, large or small, is no guarantee that there is a real idea behind it. Try to work from specific things, images, and examples. Always pursue the meaning behind the words.

For example, in a demonstration demanding "Power to the People," note the confusion caused here by the word "power," and further by the phrase, "Power to the people." Just what does this expression mean? What kind of power is meant, and in what arena, and with what, if any, boundaries or limitations? Which people are meant? What are the circumstances? Is this a call for democracy, anarchy, or the rule of a clique?

Semantics can be defined in a narrow sense as the study of the relationship between words and their meaning--in other words, the study of how words mean and how such variables as context, connotation, and intent influence the meaning of a word or statement.

Semantics is a part of the larger discipline of semiotics, the study of meaning in general, covering the importance of all communication symbols, both verbal and non-verbal. Waving an American flag, looking someone in the eyes in a certain way, waving the hands, crossing the legs, pounding the table, all are involved in conveying meaning, in communicating. Semantics is the verbal part of semiotics. Perhaps in one simple phrase we might define semantics as the analysis of meaning production through verbal symbols.

A couple of important principles to remember about words and language are these:

1. Words are only symbols, and in themselves have no absolute or unchanging meaning.

The meaning of a word must be agreed upon by the people using it. This includes whether the word has positive or negative associations, how specific or general our vocabulary is, and whether most of our words refer to actual things or only to concepts of uncertain actuality.

Because we tend to use the words we hear most often, and use them in the same way we hear others use them, the language others use controls the way we think and the ideas we are capable of having.

An excellent example of this is the area of trapping metaphors. There are certain dead metaphors that, when used uncritically, can take control of the way we view an issue and trap us into seeing the issue in a distorted way. My candidate for being the most dangerous of these is the balance metaphor. Often, when two items are each proposed as being important and valuable, and a discussion begins about which is more important, someone will say, "Well, what we need here is a balance." For example, "How do we meet the need for both faith and reason?" Well, what we need is a balance." This popular solution establishes an unresolved tension between the two ideas, suggesting that too much of one will cause the other to be insufficient. Similarly, with the tensions or questions about ethics and practical behavior, Jesus' humanity and divinity, or any other such ideas, the balance metaphor creates an irresolvable conflict and puts the ideas at irreconcilable opposites, to be handled only by yielding to equitable amounts of each. But why this metaphor and not another? Why not, "What we need is a fusion, or a mutual expression, or a proper blend, or a happy marriage, or a thorough integration, or a harmony of elements? Many other such metaphors could be found that wouldn't trap us into this conflict mentality.

Another trapping metaphor is that of the "burden." Who should bear the burden of learning, the students or the professor? Well, if it's a burden, then it is undesirable. Would you like to share the burden of power? Or do you live in spite of the burden of faith? Why not other terms like opportunity, challenge, or helium balloon?

A last trapping metaphor is that of falling in love. What does it mean to use the expression "fall in love?" That the event is an accident, an uncontrolled and uncontrollable emotional event? But why this metaphor that makes love out to be irrational? Why not "walk into love," or "climb into love," or "work into love," or "commit into love," or "tunnel into love"?

The danger about trapping metaphors is that we don't pay any attention as we use them, yet they control our attitudes and the way we think and perceive an issue.

Similarly, labels often go unexamined or are used as if they are absolute categorizations. Many emotional problems come largely from people pinning labels on themselves or worried about whether a particular label fits them: Am I really a man? Am I just a failure? If I don't do that, will I be a coward? Am I intelligent?

And advertisers have so permeated society with ways of thinking and with words that convey the impression of meaning without having any real meaning that we have lost a lot of ability to think independently.

We often create life and relationship goals based on values created by the squishy terms of advertising: go for the gusto, feeling free, spend yourself happy.

Perhaps a better example is, again, the idea of love. Most people will tell you that they want to marry for "love." But what is love? How you define love--or how love is defined for you by society and the media--will determine how you choose and whom you choose to marry.

If love is a euphoric feeling, you'll look for a person who gives you that. If love is a commitment to another's welfare, you'll look for someone worthy of committing to. If love is a benevolent action or a partnership or an act of self indulgence or the same thing as lust, then your choices will be directed accordingly. And if love is a euphoric feeling, when the feeling leaves, it means you no longer love--that love cannot be controlled. But if love is a commitment, it means that love can leave only by conscious decision--it can be controlled.

2. The structure of our language pushes us toward false dilemmas, toward either/or thinking.

We have so many polarizing terms, like good/bad, old/young, strong/weak, big/little, rich/poor, normal/abnormal, sane/insane, success/failure, that we tend to think in those categories. Thinking in terms of degrees or combinations (partly successful, partly unsuccessful) becomes a genuine and seemingly unnatural effort.

A further complication of these polarized terms is that neither end of the polarity is defined well. If your goal is to be popular rather than unpopular or successful rather than a failure, how will you know when you get there? What is the measurement? And do you switch from one to the other when you gain just one more friend or earn just one more dollar? Just what, for example, is "success"? Is it an end product? Are you a failure until you get there--big house, big income, etc.? My favorite definition of success is "making reasonable progress toward a worthy ideal." That way you can be a successful person even now.

In a word, then, we are too often conditioned and controlled, in thought and action, by words that we do not understand and do not take the time to investigate for meaning.

Think for a minute about the words you use all the time that you would be very hard pressed to give a clear, one sentence definition for:

What is love? What is art? What is truth? What is faith? What is need? What is beauty?

The goal of studying semantics, then is to become more aware of how language and communication symbols operate, to free the mind from the distortions caused by inappropriate understanding of the symbols of meaning we have available.

Take a controversial issue and term like the death penalty. Does California have a "death penalty"? What does the term mean? In legal and philosophical terms, it means executing people. In practical terms, however, it means "life in prison" because California has not executed anyone since 1967. That may change any time, of course, so perhaps the term will later mean the possibility of being executed. What about the term "life in prison"? The average prisoner in California sentenced to life in prison is released after nine years. Nationwide, half the murderers sentenced to life in prison served less than seven years and twenty percent served less than three years. So what is the definition of "life in prison"?

So now if you are on a jury, do you think, "We should give this person the death penalty, meaning life in prison, rather than life in prison, meaning three to nine years"?

Or go back to the idea of love. If love is feeling, a statement like "I love you too much to marry you" is meaningless, but if love is concern for another's best welfare, it is full of meaning.

Think about Jeane Kirkpatrick, former representative to the UN. She was a Democrat for a long time, and when she was appointed to the UN or considered for Cabinet posts, many Republicans went around muttering, "But she's a Democrat." Well, then she changed her label and registered as a Republican. Then she was suddenly acceptable and was even suggested as a candidate for president. All the while, her political beliefs had not really changed: they were always a mixture of so-called Democratic and Republican ideas.

As a student of semantics, then, you should train yourself to examine not just the ideas you encounter, but the clothing those ideas come in--the words and context associated with them.

3. All perception and expression of perception and belief is subjective at least to some extent.

In human terms, there is no such thing as being completely objective; no neutrality. All knowledge and experience are filtered and altered and informed by attached meanings. This is necessary as well as problematic, because the facts never speak for themselves. "Just the facts," and "The facts speak for themselves," are impossibilities.

Some good examples of the semantic cast of ideas comes in the use of poll questions. Two polls were taken at the same time on the issue of aid to the Contras. When the question was, Should we aid the rebels in Nicaragua "to prevent Communist influence from spreading?" 58 percent were in favor and 29 percent against the aid. When the question was, Should we assist "the people trying to overthrow the government of Nicaragua?" 24 percent were in favor and 62 percent against.

Similarly, in two polls on abortion taken at the same time, when the question was, Should we have a constitutional amendment "prohibiting abortions?" 28 percent were in favor and 67 percent against. When the question was, Should we have a constitutional amendment "protecting the life of the unborn?" 50 percent were in favor and 39 percent against.

In two same-time polls on welfare, when the question was, "Are we spending too much, too little, or about the right amount on welfare?" 22 percent said too little. When the question was, "Are we spending too much, too little, or about the right amount on assistance to the poor?" 61 percent said too little.

Notice then that many people's understanding and perception of an issue is shaped by the language that clothes the issue. By accepting an idea in the clothes it arrives in, we are in danger of being deceived without even noticing what's going on. The goal then, is to discover the real idea or thing behind its verbal clothing, whether that clothing is simple and honest or elaborate and deceptive, and not be led astray by external appearance.

4. Almost all discourse is directive and purposeful, implies conclusions, or at least reflects a position.

The distinction between narrative, descriptive, explanatory, and persuasive is artificial to some extent. Even discourse that we might try to describe as "exposition" leads to an implied "so what" and an answer to the so what. This is so true that when we hear discourse with no obvious intent, we ask, "Why are you telling me all this?"

"See that man over there? Earlier this evening I overheard him talking to the hibiscus about spies; then he whispered to the azaleas, and finally seemed to be exchanging jokes with the mulberry tree." Notice that this so-called exposition really has a direction, a conclusion implied, and could really be thought of as an argument. Most discourse is of this nature. In fact, non-directed discourse is difficult to listen to. When someone begins to tell us a long narrative without seeming to have a point, we are forced to interrupt and demand, "What are you getting at?" or "Why are you telling me this?"

5. Discourse takes place in a context of meaning and of connotation.

That is, we often cannot understand the meaning or implications of a statement until we can see it in the context of other statements or information. Note how the same evidence can be adduced to support different conclusions because we have set up the context to do so:

In each of these above cases, notice that meaning and interpretation are being put upon facts or statements by the person using them.

By studying semantics, then, you should develop the ability to free your thoughts from the verbal constructions imposed on you by others, become free to examine what is really going on in communication, intention, innuendo, slanting, and so forth. You will regain control of your own mind and your own ability to express ideas clearly and meaningfully.


A standard, dictionary definition of context would be something like "the parts of a discourse surrounding a particular word or passage and often helping to reveal the meaning of the word or passage." Surrounding or appurtenant parts are indeed part of what context is, and the concept that context serves to shed light on the meaning of a word or passage in question is exactly right. That's the heart of context: the associated words that help clarify other words in question.

But context in its full existence is much larger than this definition. In fact, the definition I have just given is really enormously inadequate. (And here, by the way, you see the danger of quoting dictionaries or receiving their definitions with satisfaction when in the process of defining an idea.)

For our purposes, a working definition of context will be "the total environment of all factors affecting the meaning or interpretation of a word or statement or discourse." Such a general definition may at first seem less satisfactory than the neat dictionary definition. However, meaning is a product of many factors, some minute and proximate to the utterance in question and others broad and distant--even global. Every statement, in other words, exists not just in the context of surrounding words in a document, but in a whole universe of discourse and a universe of activity.

In some sense, the meaning of almost any statement is influenced by the whole history of civilization, every word, thought, action, and experience. When we say, for example, "Sunset will be at 6:32," we are depending on the knowledge of clocks and time and numbers and upon an understanding that "sunset" is a historical term drawn from a phenomenological view of the world--when the sun does indeed appear to "set"--a view still convenient even though the speaker means that "the earth will rotate our position on it out of the sun's light at 6:32 our time."

If we accept the definition of context as an environment which determines meaning, let's look at the parts or levels of it in a more systematic way. For ease of understanding, I've divided context into three parts.

1. The surrounding verbal landscape. The surrounding verbal landscape is closest to our ordinary idea of context, and it includes the words surrounding a statement. There are two parts to this landscape. First is the surrounding or immediate context--the verbal bouquet or the whole bush--of words. What was said before and after a statement.

For example, 2 Corinthians 12:13b: "Forgive me this wrong!" Out of context, this appears to be a request for forgiveness. But in context, it is an ironic comment emphasizing how much Paul has done for the Corinthians.

Similarly, Proverbs 5:15: "Drink water from your own cistern." Out of context, out of its surrounding landscape, this seems to be a text about thirst quenching etiquette. In context, however, it is clearly a text concerned with sexual fidelity.

The second part of #1, the surrounding verbal landscape, is just a wider surrounding context--the whole garden or meadow. That is, the whole discourse or document in which the statement occurs must be taken into account as part of the "context" of the statement. Sometimes something said a hundred pages earlier will affect the meaning of a statement--it's slant, suggestiveness, seriousness, and so on.

An example might be Matthew 10:28, "Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell." For those who don't know Greek, the meaning of the word "destroy" here is clarified by other references to souls in hell elsewhere in the New Testament. Immediate context is of little help.

A full understanding of the surrounding verbal landscape is necessary to prevent the distortions of vicious abstraction and accent (two fallacies you've already studied).

2. The whole verbal geography. This is a context beyond the immediate garden or landscape, reaching to other, similar gardens and meadows and including the surrounding mountains. There are two major parts. First is the writer's or speaker's personal whole verbal geography--everything he has spoken or written. Writers often have habits of using words in certain ways that become clear only in the context of their whole work. Certain abstractions like "democracy" or "truth" or even "God" may have their meanings shaped by distant usages. If, for example, a writer says, "God is good," and in another book he has written, "We are all God and God is only what we are," his statement that "God is good," means "We are good" or "I am good" rather than "the personal being who created the universe and man is good."

At its largest, however, the whole verbal geography includes all the speech and writings in the language, how the language itself is used, before and up to the time of the statement's utterance or writing. In studying this "macro whole verbal geography" we must include such subjects as word history, connotation, denotation, societal meanings, euphemisms, idioms, even cliches.

We need to understand, for example, that words in a given context of time and place can mean something different from what they mean in our own time and place. In 1711, when St. Paul's Cathedral in London had been completed and was shown to King George I, the king enthusiastically told Christopher Wren, the architect, that the cathedral was "awful" and "artificial." In eighteenth century England, "awful" and "artificial" were compliments, because "awful" (also spelled "aweful") meant "filling with awe," and "artificial" meant "full of art." That's why the KJV refers to God as an "awful God."

Especially important here is an understanding of how society uses figurative language. If we say "the stock market drifted slightly downward in light trading," we must have an understanding of how the words "stock market," "drifted," and "light trading" are being used. Notice that mere knowledge of grammar and of the definitions of words is not nearly enough for understanding a statement. What is the stock market? Cows and Pigs? How can they drift? Are they on a boat? And what is being traded? And traded lightly? Is it a feather market? And how is it going down?

What we are talking about for the whole verbal geography, then, is really the two parts of the computer scientists' expert system: a knowledge base and an inference engine. You must have knowledge to gain knowledge and you must have an inference engine--a developed capacity to discern how language is being used and how it produces meaning through its traditional, communal methods of expression. You remember Humpty Dumpty's remark in Alice in Wonderland: "When I use a word it means whatever I want it to mean." That's a much more subversive statement than any revolutionist's rhetoric because it would put an end to communication and destroy the very adhesive mechanism of society. The word "communication," after all, comes from a Latin verb meaning "to impart, to participate," the same root as commune, and common. Language is what we have in common, and to discover what a statement means, we must know how language is used by the society out of which the statement or document arose.

Here's the reason that semantic analysis can be so difficult for students. You have to have a rather wide acquaintance with language and how it is used before you can detect the subtle manipulations of attitude and nuances of meaning that are put into writing. Wide reading and careful analysis about how language is used will enable you to discover a lot more implied meaning that you would otherwise see.

3. The non-verbal context. The third kind of context moves beyond the considerations of language and into the surrounding world. The writer or speaker's life, personality, and actions as known historically can help to reveal meanings. A simple example is Jesus' remark in Luke 14:26, "If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters--yes, even his own life--he cannot be my disciple," can be understood as a hyperbole rather than as a command to hate if we put it into the context of Jesus' life and other teachings, and if we consider the context of the use of figurative language both in his time and throughout previous history.

A knowledge of contemporaneous events, culture, and values is often needed for understanding certain allusions or meanings that would otherwise be unclear. When Jonathan Swift writes in A Modest Proposal that he could name a certain group of landlords who would be glad to eat up the children of Ireland, we can know by a historical context that he is referring to England.

There is also a context of delivery--the circumstances or events or situation surrounding an utterance. Many statements are acontextually ambiguous (ambiguous when taken out of their context) and require surroundings (whether verbal or otherwise) to gain meaning. Is the statement, "Sam is something else," a compliment or an insult? Suppose a married man in his late forties asked a 22-year-old young woman, "Do you have a date for Toy Story 2?" What did he mean? The actual question was asked, but at the time, both persons were standing in a video store, and the young woman was a store employee. The film had already come and gone at the theaters and the question, by physical and temporal context, clearly referred to a date that the video would be released.

Transcripts of court proceedings can be problematic just because they do not often reflect how a statement is made. So many different intonations, facial expressions, gestures, and body language are possible, that a simple transcript of a word or sentence can be entirely misleading.

Similarly, events can give meanings to language quite different from dictionary definitions. Irony is of course an obvious case in point. Antony's speech about Brutus being an "honest man" in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar is an example. But more than that, a statement can become a symbol that has nothing to do with its verbal content. Semanticist S. I. Hayakawa has noted that in a certain setting or in a certain "event context" the statement "The moon is bright tonight" might mean "Kiss me." Or imagine the statement, "If you do that again, I'm going to kill you." If spoken by one angry person to another on the street, it might have one meaning, while if spoken by one racquetball player to another or by a parent to a child, it might mean something entirely different.

Meaning, then, is intimately connected to context. We cannot know what is actually meant by a statement until we know its context. Individual words can have very different meanings depending on their context. "Take off" can mean to remove, to fly, to leave, to satirize, or to subtract.

Words are, in fact so flexible, that for the 500 most used words in English, the Oxford Dictionary lists 14,000 meanings. Understanding what has been written or said, then involves an attempt to recapture certain contexts and to avoid certain others. We should strive to recapture what knowledge the author possesses and what knowledge he presupposes the audience will know: metaphors, allusions, catch phrases, experiences, jargon, idioms, awareness of historical events, beliefs. For example, when he uses the word "amorous," does he expect his audience to believe the word means "loving," or "sexual"?

Thus, communication involves a wholeness, a set of contexts. The flower has special meaning as it is part of a garden or meadow. Note the appropriateness of the metaphor here. A flower in the garden means one thing, but if I pick it and give it to you, it suddenly means something quite different. If I give it to you while shaking my head sadly and handing you back an exam or if I give it to you with a wink and a grin, the meaning differs still.

As we continue to analyze passages, we do indeed want to pay attention to the connotations created by individual words, but we also want to consider the context of the whole, what other words are used in the passage or document, before making a conclusion about overall impression or even the impression created by an individual word. Connotations, like denotations, change with context: negative words can become less negative or neutral or even positive, and positive words can become negative.

Consider both the specific and the general when you interpret a passage or a term.

Some food for thought

1. How much of whole verbal geography and non-verbal context are shared by the audience? Shared knowledge, ability to understand intent, references to shared knowledge, etc.

2. Subsequent historical linguistic context changes usage, meanings, connotations. It must be looked beyond in order to recapture original context and meaning.

3. Multiple levels of meaning are possible depending on the audience's knowledge. An author may write to more than one audience on more than one level (satirists do this frequently) so that one sub-audience will understand a statement one way while another sub-audience will see a different meaning. Dryden's "Ode to Killigrew" comes to mind, as does "Puff the Magic Dragon." Most cartoons are produced at multiple levels as well, with content aimed at both children and adults.

4. Understanding and interpretation are much more than a skill; they are really an art and an experience-based ability.

Abstract and Concrete, General and Specific

Words exist at different levels of abstraction, or put another way, words exist along a continuum between abstract and concrete. Abstract words refer to qualities or conditions ("strong," "hot," "smart"), to ideas or concepts ("truth," "democracy," "imitation"), or to some other theoretical thing or relationship. Abstract words are necessary to express complex ideas, but they are often difficult for the mind to process because they do not create images or pictures in the mind. Sentences made up of all abstract words can be very hard to understand: Unlike abstract words, concrete words create images and sometimes even sensations in the reader's mind, because these words refer to actual, specific objects which can be seen and touched. Concrete words are very easy for the mind to process because they can be immediately connected to things in our own physical (or at least vicarious) experience. So when you think and write, better understanding will result if you keep moving from the abstract toward the concrete, and if, when you do need to use abstract words, you clarify them by adding concrete examples. It is often possible to substitute a more concrete word for an abstract one:

Tonight I have--
some stuff to do.
to study.
to read Chapter 3 in this book.

showed her affection to him.
kissed him.

Uncle Fred
had legal problems.
was taken away in handcuffs.

They heard a
squeaking, creaking door.

The sky was
filled with drifting, puffy clouds.

Be aware, too, that abstract ideas can frequently be made clearer by using concrete metaphors to describe them. Metaphors give the mind something to fix on--an image--and to associate with the abstraction:

Kathy's smile is
pleasant and refreshing.
a cool, shady tree on a hot day.

The language of this book is
hard to understand.
so swampy I'm sunk in the mud.

I cannot think of any more good examples.
The fountain of my imagination has run dry.

Abstract words are almost always general words, while concrete words are often specific words. Let's look at these two concepts. A general word refers to a group or class or set of things--to a whole. "Tree," for example, covers many things, so it is more general than "Haas avocado tree," which refers to fewer things, and is therefore relatively specific. Similarly, "tree" is less general than "plant," since "plant" refers to a larger group than "tree." A specific word refers to one or only a few things, and so tends to evoke a distinct mental picture. "Walnut paneling" is more specific (and more concrete) than "wall covering," for example, and "wall covering" is more specific than "building material." Thus there is a continuum or range between general and specific just as there is between abstract and concrete. In these examples, notice that the more specific the word, the clearer and more distinct the mental picture becomes.

ß more general - - - - - - - - - - - more specific à
item - - - object - - - tool- - - wrench - - - 1" combination wrench
thing - being - creature - animal - pet - dog - beagle - brown beagle
movement - journey - ride - bike ride - pedaling a ten-speed
material - food - dessert - baked dessert - pie - apple pie
pollution - - liquid waste - - cesspool overflow

Note that some abstract words are more specific than others, and that abstract thinking and writing can be improved and made clearer by being as specific as possible.

ß more general - - - - - - - - - - - more specific à
temperature - - - high temperature - - - 532 degrees F
sore arm - - - injured arm - - - bruised arm - - - swolled, bruised arm
utility - - - electricity - - - home electrical service

Compare the passages below to see how the movement from general to specific and from abstract to concrete improves clarity and understanding.

The lessons of this chapter, then, are these: 1. Use words that create images. This helps you and your readers to think more clearly and accurately.

2. Use a specific word or a detail either instead of a general or abstract word or in addition to the general or abstract word.

3. Use specific, concrete examples to pin down and clarify difficult points.

Exercise 1

We would immediately recognize the vagueness in questions like these, where the general has been substituted for the specific:

How long is a road?
How tall is a tree?
How old is a man?

But we often do not realize that many real questions and statements are equally vague, because they use words which are equally general, imprecise, or undefined. When a highly variable term is used as if it meant something precise, only confusion results. Consider this question:

Are you in favor of gun control?

This question seeks a yes or no answer, implying that the term or concept "gun control" is a single, fixed thing which we can accept or reject. But just what does this term mean? Some gun control already exists. Prisoners, convicted felons, children, and mental patients are not allowed to own guns; there are restrictions on carrying loaded weapons in public. Is this what is meant? Does a "no" answer mean that you want to buy a revolver for your baby sister? The term "gun control" is also used to refer to a variety of new plans to limit or prohibit different kinds of weapons. "Gun control" has meant all of these different things:

federal registration of handguns
local registration of rifles
federal registration of rifles
a moratorium on gun sales
an end to the sale of newly made guns
confiscation of handguns
more difficult gun buying requirements
confiscation of all guns

Many other terms tossed around as topics of the day are equally as undefined as this one. How would you explain in the examples below the need for a definition which included specifics, details, and examples in each of the following, and can you give a fairly exact description of what you might mean by each of these terms? Compare your definition or description with that of a friend, and see how close or how far apart you are.

Are you in favor of
sex education?
death with dignity?
back to basics?
the people's right to know?
women's rights?
the American way?
values clarification?
welfare reform?

Exercise 2

It is really quite possible that no two people mean exactly the same thing when they use such vague expressions as those above, and it is very possible that many people do not mean anything very specific--they have only a misty idea of what they are thinking about. When you encounter such expressions in others' writings or in your own head, try to understand the user's idea behind them; move from the general to the specific, from the vague to the exact, from the abstract to the concrete. Suppose the question arises, "Are old coins valuable?" Ask yourself, "What is he (or what am I) really thinking about? How old does he mean? And which old coins? Any particular ones? What condition are they in? Are they valuable in what way? That is, are they worth money? Then how much money makes them 'valuable'? Or are they valuable in the sense of sentimental, artistic, or historical value?" After some thought like this, the question might be changed to something like, "Do you suppose I can get twenty dollars from a coin dealer for this beat-up 1925D Buffalo nickel?" Such a specific question is much more likely to be answerable than a vague one, since a yes or no answer is not possible for a vague question.

However, one of the major difficulties of modern thought is the continuous demand for yes or no answers to enormous and vague generalizations--generalizations which level all distinctions. What questions could you ask about these questions, and how could they be made clearer, more exact and more concrete?

Exercise 3

How would you describe the answer to this question, and could you make some suggestions for a better answer? Do you suppose the answerer meant to be as vague as this? Why?

Q. Just how do you make an aircraft invisible, as the stealth bomber is supposed to be?

A. The greatly reduced observableness of stealth vehicles is not achieved by any single gimmick; it requires the complex synthesis of many techniques. The degree of stealth and the impact on other performance characteristics of the aircraft is influenced by the number of techniques employed and the degree to which they are applied. [U. S. News]

Now compare this description. What difference do you find?

The advanced technologies involved in reducing the plane's ability to be detected by radar are highly classified, but some basic concepts are known. The Northrop stealth bomber design is similar to the "Flying Wing" bomber which the company developed shortly after World War II, but it incorporates a number of new features. Radar echoes are reduced by virtually eliminating vertical surfaces and sharp corners, according to Pentagon sources. In addition, metal surfaces are painted with radar-absorbing coatings and many metal parts are replaced with plastic compounds. [L. A. Times]

Exercise 4

Three pumps, each of different brand and all rated nominally at the same flow, have been installed on a water project. The actual output of each of the pumps, however, is as follows:

Pump A: 100 gpm Pump B: 110 gpm Pump C: 125 gpm

The Hercules pump makers want to advertise their pump used on this project. Their motto, which is literally true, is, "The only pump on the project that puts out the rated flow."

Exercise 5

Compare the difference between these: A. 1. He saw in the nature of man a dualism of mind and body.
2. He saw in the nature of man a rigid dualism of mind and body.
B. 1. Seventeenth-century thought was intensely concerned with God.
2. Seventeenth-century thought was God-ridden.
C. 1. This controversy resulted in hundreds of tracts and books.
2. This controversy kept many printers in business.


Terms and Concepts

trapping metaphors
abstract words
concrete words


1. Distinguish between abstract and concrete words.

2. Distinguish between a general and a specific word.

3. Distinguish between an abstract and a general word.

4. Distinguish between a specific and a concrete word.

5. Explain how language is symbolic.

6. Why is perception subjective?

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About the author:
Robert Harris is a writer and educator with more than 25 years of teaching experience at the college and university level. RHarris at virtualsalt.com