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When pointing out to my friends one day that I should have used a different word in a previous conversation, I mentioned that I was being pedantic. They, ironically, corrected me saying I was being semantic. When I pointed out that their distinction was being pedantic, they again disagreed, saying that was semantic. Though I looked up both definitions and that they seem to have a lot of overlap, pedantic seems to be the adjective to use for people though is far more general. Which one is more correct in these situations, or are they both correct? If they are both correct, which one is more "proper?"

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closed as off-topic by David M, FumbleFingers, choster, TimLymington, RyeɃreḁd Mar 14 '14 at 0:18

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I think you really miss the point there. It's not about correctness, it's about something else. –  RegDwigнt Mar 13 '14 at 14:24
This is General Reference. Look the words up in a dictionary and pay attention - the definitions are totally different, as are the semantic and grammatical contexts in which they can be used. –  FumbleFingers Mar 13 '14 at 15:22
It's a perfectly reasonable question. You can't refer somebody to a dictionary for answers to questions about meaning and pragmatics; they just list usages. If there are a lot, it's easy to get confused. –  John Lawler Mar 13 '14 at 15:31
@kojiro: Apparently they are sometimes used interchangeably by people who should know better, but that's just pedantics. –  FumbleFingers Mar 13 '14 at 18:18
@FumbleFingers Sorry to be an anal, but "pedantics" isn't a word. –  Jason C Mar 13 '14 at 19:13

6 Answers 6

up vote 15 down vote accepted

On the face of it, the answer to the question in the title cannot be anything other than "mu": these two words are almost completely orthogonal. But given your explanation, I can see where you're coming from.

I would say your friends are wrong, by virtue of the fact that "being" and "semantic" don't go together in my mind. An argument can be semantic; a person can't. (nGram that agrees with me)

That said, Ronan Murphy is correct in that semantic nitpicking is a specific type of pedantry. You can be pedantic about a lot of things, but when you're pedantic about the meanings of words, then you're engaging in semantic pedantry.

Note that pedantry isn't really the same thing as nitpicking. As a button I own says, "I'm not anal, I'm a pedant. There's a difference. Let me explain...". :)

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"Mu"? What's that? –  Canis Lupus Mar 13 '14 at 15:12
+1 for having the right attitude! (Where can I get one of those buttons? :) –  FumbleFingers Mar 13 '14 at 15:19
@Jim: "mu" is the answer to a question that asks the wrong thing, like the proverbial "Have you stopped beating your wife yet?" It's the answer that simultaneously means all of yes, no, black, white, wicker chair, and poinsettia. –  Marthaª Mar 13 '14 at 15:45
@Jim: It's not a usage I'm familiar with, but here it is in Wikipedia citing the same archetypal example as Martha. My version is None of the Above, which I intend using as the name for a new political party I'm founding. All preliminary market research suggests we will win the next election in the UK by a landslide. –  FumbleFingers Mar 13 '14 at 16:01
I think "mu" works for "Your question hinges on so many premises and unspoken assumptions that I don't hold, I can't answer it in a way that will communicate what I actually think accurately" –  swbarnes2 Mar 13 '14 at 20:09

They are two completely separate concepts.

Pedantic means being overly scrupulous in your assessment. In other words, sticking too closely to strict definitions at the cost of the overall meaning.

Semantic means pertaining to meaning in language.

They are not interchangeable, though they are frequently used that way.

The expression that's just semantics really means you are not arguing the premise, just what to call it. (Note that this argument is actually backwards since semantics implies the meaning of the words rather than the choice of words.)

The expression you are being pedantic means that you are nitpicking over unimportant details in the argument. In other words, if you are discussing George Washington's horsemanship: trying to discredit your opponents point of view because his horse was white not brown. That would be pedantic.

It is absolutely possible to have pedantic semantic argument, but it doesn't make them equivalent.

And, before it gets said in comments my post is both pedantic and semantic!

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I have never in my life heard anyone say "You are [just] being semantic." To me, it's just meaningless gobbledegook, and I don't think it would be unduly pedantic of me to point this out. –  FumbleFingers Mar 13 '14 at 15:17
No, semantic means pertaining to meaning. Semantics is one of the core disciplines of linguistics. All linguistics, not just semantics, "pertains to language". –  John Lawler Mar 13 '14 at 15:19
@fumblefingers It would be pedantic since I never used that phrase in my post. –  David M Mar 13 '14 at 15:23
@JohnLawler that was a phone based error. Sometimes I lose track of what I've typed on the small screen. I've edited it to be correct. –  David M Mar 13 '14 at 15:25
Thanks. I still think I'm gonna hafta answer this one, though. –  John Lawler Mar 13 '14 at 15:28

Your friend was attempting to be witty, but I guess they didn't quite get their point across there.

Compare with the following hypothetical conversation...

Customer: Hi, I ordered a rugby ball from your website, but you sent me a soccer ball.

Shop-keeper: Sounds like a clerical error.

Customer: I think you mean spherical error.

Hint - you were being both pedantic and semantic, although it's true that "being semantic" isn't common usage.

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The dictionary definitions actually give a decent hint (from Merriam-Webster online):

Semantic - adj. of or relating to the meanings of words and phrases

Pedantic - adj. of, relating to, or being a pedant

Pedant - n. 1. one who makes a show of knowledge, 2. one who is unimaginative or who unduly emphasizes minutiae in the presentation or use of knowledge, 3. a formalist or precisionist in teaching

Those definitions don't leave much up for debate; the words are very different. From them, it is fairly easy to see the differences. In particular:

  • "Semantic" would not be used to describe a person, as it is generally nonsense to say that a person is "of or relating to the meanings of words and phrases" (this is the primary reason why your friends are incorrect). An idea/thing could be "semantic".
  • "Semantic" is specific to words and phrases. "Pedantic" covers everything. You can be pedantic about issues that aren't semantic.

So you can be pedantic, or your argument can be semantic, or you can be pedantic about semantic things, or pedantic about semantics. You'd never really be semantic. (Note, by the way, that the noun "semantics" is related to the adjective "semantic" but, of course, is not the "plural" of it; there is no noun "semantic".)

Your friends could have said something more along the lines of "You are concentrating too much on semantics", or "You are getting caught up with semantic details", but definitely not "You are being semantic".

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Semantic is specifically related to words and their use, so you could be semantic about using "a different word in a previous conversation". You could also be pedantic about this, but because pedantic is a more general term, you could be pedantic about how you like your shelves organised, but you wouldn't be semantic about it.

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...and what Reg said. :) –  Ronan Mar 13 '14 at 14:27

They're different words. Semantics refers to the meaning of words: for example, I could talk about the word "ball" in terms of its semantics; in that case, I would say that it means a spherical object, typically able to be thrown, and can sometimes be bounced. Pedantry (adjective pedantic) is when someone is being nit-picky, criticising apparently minor errors or flaws in something.

Lately, people seem to use the phrase "That's just a matter of semantics" to imply that someone is being pedantic. At the moment, this is a misuse of the word. The idea behind the phrase is to suggest that the other person is getting too deeply involved in the meaning of the words, where the distinction doesn't really matter. The phrase suggests someone is being pedantic. Over time that's probably become shortened to "semantics", and I imagine this is why your friends equate the two. But right now, they're definitely different words. That may well change.

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