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I hear this phrase from time to time, and I really don't know what it means. Two people are debating, and one says "the difference between your position and mine is just a matter of semantics." This would seem to me to be quite an important difference. That is, if one person means one thing, and the other person means something else, then they really do have different positions.

If they said "it is just a matter of terminology" or "just a matter of phrasing" I would get it. But if someone says "we differ only what we mean" ... it kinda makes me chuckle because it seems to be saying that their meaning is not important, as if the argument was primary and the positions they take a secondary consideration.

So I started looking around for examples of this. I guess it seems that there is a popular notion that semantics is about very fine distinctions, such as: I think it's just a matter of semantics, not so much a difference per se

Another interpretation seems to be that semantics is the difference between two ways of saying the same thing: I usually involve the students in the creation of classroom rules. To me, we are just agreeing upon how we can make our classroom a safe and fun place to be. I don’t know if it’s really so different from a DWS approach of having procedures, but “no rules.” Isn’t this just a matter of semantics?

Maybe it is just a way of stopping an annoying conversation: In ordinary conversations, when people debate a point and the words they are using for discussion they often backhand this disagreement with the phrase “It’s a matter of semantics.”

And then there is some usage that I simply don't understand: I recently spoke at a mens' event in which one of the participants asked me if having a good and noble heart was just a matter of semantics. -- In other words, does it really matter?

And also: The Argument for and against the 6-3-3-4 system of education has raged on as stakeholders give conflicting position on whether it stays or not .... the 6-3-3-4 policy is just a matter of semantics, the government cannot take decisions without due consultations.

Still, to me it is just a meaningless phrase. Am I missing an important meaning here?

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It is not just a meaningless phrase: it is offensive and dismissive. Semantics are about meaning, and meaning is without question the single most important thing in any communication. If meaning has no meaning, than people are just making random noises. So semantics is not a matter of no import as they would have you believe, but indeed the one single matter that is of undeniably paramount importance. People who use the phrase should have their fingernails ripped out. –  tchrist Jan 10 '13 at 1:58
If someone tells you they "don't want to get into a semantic argument with you," ask them if there are any arguments that don't involve semantics to some extent. –  Robusto Jan 10 '13 at 2:22
A person who says you are making a semantic argument usually does not mean you are making a legitimate point about meaning. He usually means to accuse you of being difficult about a technicality in order to avoid losing the argument about the essence. –  MετάEd Jan 10 '13 at 3:24
@MετάEd: A good example of this kind of debate occurred in the Washington Post the other day when one reader complained that the category "assault weapon" (used by another reader who commented on the mass murder) did not exist & that the rifle used in Newton, CT, was an "assault rifle", as if the technical distinction actually made a fingernail's difference in the debate about the desirability or effectiveness of gun control laws or the heinousness of the crime. –  user21497 Jan 10 '13 at 3:33
Some describe a glass as half empty or half full...it's just a matter of semantics... –  Boshe Mar 5 at 11:16

6 Answers 6

As a commenter points out, it's a pejorative use of the term semantics, but I don't see why language enthusiasts should take offense any more than politicians would get offended if someone says dismissively "it's just politics." The phrase has a meaning, which I'll try to clarify by analogy to contract law (I paraphrase the key parts from S. Schane's book Language and the Law).

Two basic approaches to the theory of contract law are the objective and the subjective doctrine. According to the objective doctrine, the only thing that matters in deciding a contractual dispute is the language of the contract, and its meaning according to conventionally accepted meanings of the words and grammatical constructions contained in the contract. According to the subjective doctrine, a contract is not binding unless a consensus ad idem, or "meeting of minds" is established: the parties to the contract have a mutual understanding about what the contract means.

If we think of debates as metaphorical contractual disputes, saying that some issue in a debate is "a matter of semantics" means that those who are raising it are too stubbornly wedded to the objective theory; they only care about the words being used, and do not bother to look at the intentions of the disputants. I think this can be a legitimate kind of concern to raise, but on the other hand, in debate one should not be granted a handicap for inarticulateness.

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Yes, look at the debate about same-sex "marriage". Some folks say that "marriage" is the wrong word & should be replaced by "civil union" because "marriage" is some kind of religious sacrament that doesn't allow same-gender unions even though all states issue "marriage licenses" rather than "civil union" licenses. Some folks insist that all residents of countries in N. & S. America should be called Americans because they all live in one of the "Americas", but "American(o)" means "USA American". These are typical "matters of semantics". "Inarticulateness" is endemic to the human condition. –  user21497 Jan 10 '13 at 3:20
Hmmm. if those wedded to objective theory "only care about the words being used", wouldn't that be a matter of terminology? Why would they say it is a matter of semantics? I would think that semantics is the meanings behind the words. –  KSwenson Jan 10 '13 at 4:50
@KSwenson: Terminology and semantics are two sides of the same coinage, to use the apt cliché here. Euphemisms exist not to change the meanings of words but to mask the meanings by softening or totally disfiguring the sounds associated with those meanings. Pass away = die, right to work = anti-union, lady of the night = whore, undocumented worker = illegal alien, intellectually challenged = stupid, & the list goes on forever. Which all goes to prove that it's not what you say, but how you say it that matters. –  user21497 Jan 10 '13 at 8:19
The problem within @BillFranke's example (not a problem with it as an example, but actually a reason why it's a particularly good one) is that some other people could similarly say "marriage is a sacrament and/or rite in some religions, so using a term other than marriage is at best a slight and at worse an oppression of those religions who don't have a different-sex-only rule". This is the case of many things some would argue as "only semantics", they might want to make an argument go away by saying it, but it often just highlights yet another aspect of it. –  Jon Hanna Jan 10 '13 at 15:51
@BillFranke let take the marriage/civil union argument a bit further. Say that I argue in German, and you argue in French. Clearly we are using different words. Can we say the difference is "just semantics"? Either we have a difference in meaning (and should not be trivialized) or we mean the same thing, in which case there is no difference. We argue about phrasing and how we say it -- that is clear -- but if we argue about meaning, then the use of the word "just" seems wrong. (Hope I am not being too dense here, I am just not quite getting it.) –  KSwenson Jan 10 '13 at 16:20
up vote 1 down vote accepted

The phrase "it's just a matter of semantics" is not a meaningless phrase. Two people can agree on meaning, and still differ on semantics.

Semantics is defined as

  1. the study of meaning (Wikipedia) - this definition does not apply in this case, because we are not talking about the practice of studying language.
  2. The meaning or the interpretation of a word, sentence, or other language form - this refers to the semantics of a particular statement, that is, the meaning of that statement.

All this does is open a conversation on the nature of meaning. If the semantics of the conversation is defined as the meaning of their statements, how can it be that two people agree on meaning, and yet differ on semantics? The definition of semantics as the meaning of the utterances is not strictly correct. According to Wikipedia, meaning is derived not only from semantics, but also pragmatics. Semantics deals with the relationship of words (symbols) to their meaning. Pragmatics deal with how context effects meaning, and is one way that semantics does not reflect the complete picture when it comes to the meaning of a statement. In this way, the second definition is a loose, colloquial definition.

It is possible for semantics to vary from person to person. That is, the mapping between words and meaning for one person may not hold for another person. It is possible for two people to agree on a position (their intended meaning) and still disagree on the meaning of the words. This would be better described as a "matter of terminology" however a disagreement about terms to use might occur even if you agree on the meanings of the terms. The claim that it is a matter of semantics says specifically that you have a disagreement on the meanings of words.

An example of this (thanks to Bill Frank's comments) is two people arguing about same-sex marriage. In this scenario both take the position that laws need to change, and that same-sex unions should be supported legally. But one takes the position that gays should be allowed to marry and have the legal rights that come with it. The other takes the position that civil unions should be accorded all the rights and privileges of marriage. The net effect is the same: same-sex couples gain key rights, but the positions differ on what to call this relationship. These debaters differ on semantics -- the meaning of the word "marriage" -- while meaning the same thing in terms of actions to change the world.

The phrase is misused when people intend to say only that the difference in position is very small. It is also misused when just trying to dismiss the other as not being worth the bother. While the difference in meaning that two people have over words is likely to be small, the phrase is referring specifically to people having a difference of meanings associated with words. Thus, some of the citations in the question are proper uses of the phrase.

I doubt if this answer is 100% correct, since the entire field of linguistics is highly philosophical, and there is still considerable disagreement among the various branches. This answer does clarify that "the semantics of a statement" is not necessarily the intended meaning of the speaker, nor is there necessarily a single "semantic meaning" of a given statement. I don't see a better answer than this one, so I am answering my own question, but I am very much grateful to the comments from others that have helped me clarify this concept. It seems, in the end, that this entire discussion, is just a matter of semantics, in more ways than one.

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I would have to agree with this post. Two parties might argue over let's say a female personality, and one party might say, "she has loved many men." The other could respond, "We just disagree on semantics. She's a whore." They both agree that the woman has had sex with multiple men, but the implications and social meanings are very different." –  Benjamin Wade Jun 5 at 1:50

First, citing Wikipedia automatically invalidates anything the person citing it is trying to say. Wikipedia is NEVER a valid source of information!

Second, the people who respond to a statement with "it's just semantics" or something to that effect (but usually including the word semantics) really are just trying to be dismissive. It's a way of trying to shut the other person up when you don't have a valid response to make. Sometimes, it's a way of saying that what you said is the same thing that the other person (or a third party) said, in which case they're confusing semantics with synonymous.

Semantics is all about meaning in language and meaning is an essential element in communication. If people communicating with each other don't agree on the meaning of the words being used, they can't communicate. If I say to you "The sky looks blue" and you give me a strange look indicating that I must be insane and respond, "No, it looks mesh," it's clear that we're not understanding each other. I understand the word blue to be a color and you understand mesh to be that same color, but you understand blue to be a verb meaning to mix with other things and I use the verb mesh to describe that mixing. Something similar happened in the fifth century between the Christian bishops Cyril and Nestorius. Cyril used the Greek word hypostasis the way Nestorius used the Greek word prosopon in communicating Christ's two natures. Refusing to recognize that they were largely saying the same thing, Cyril conspired with Roman bishop Celestine and others to have Nestorius declared a heretic and driven from his office into exile. (For the record, the Christian New Testament used hypostasis in a way that is different from how Cyril used it). This unfortunate lesson in semantics reverberated throughout Christendom and its effects continue today. .

So, while those who say "it's just semantics" might be trying to say that something is meaningless (and, by extension, that the person saying it is to be dismissed out of hand), the phrase itself (in its various forms) is definitely not meaningless. Again, the inappropriate way they're using the word is dismissive and pejorative.

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Claiming that Wikipedia is never a valid source of information invalidates your entire post. The validity of a source should be judged by its content, not location. –  David M Mar 1 at 22:14
Peer reviewed studies have shown that Wikipedia's entries are as correct and well-researched as the Britannica's, within a narrow margin of error, and have greater depth, volume, and immediacy. –  Benjamin Wade Jun 5 at 1:44

"Am I missing an important meaning here?"

Yes, semantics is not the study of meaning. It is the study of meaning in language.

"if someone says 'we differ only what we mean' ... it kinda makes me chuckle because it seems to be saying that their meaning is not important..."

Mean? The meaning of what?

Would it make you chuckle if someone said "we differ only what we mean in language/terminology/phrases?

Hmmm. Maybe my disagreement with you is primarily based on the definition of "meaning." In other words, "it's just a matter of semantics."

Definition of meaning (thefreedictionary.com):

  1. Something that is conveyed or signified; sense or significance.
  2. Something that one wishes to convey, especially by language.

You have focused on "especially by language."

"Something that is conveyed" can be a thought, idea, concept, theory. Can two people not have the same idea and not know it because they are using different meanings in language.

See how your definition of "meaning" was different than my definition of "meaning?" Semantics? Right?

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Because the term comes to us from the Latin "sēmantikós" meaning of "significance", I would replace the one word with the other and say that it really is just a mirror of our dejure/de-facto world. If something of significant difference is of no matter then the dismissive tone the phrase is said with is the main problem, also underling the ignorance involved.

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When the argument is about the syntax, structure or shape of things, the meaning really doesn't really matter. The argument would apply to any "meaning" that takes that particular shape, rendering the semantics irrelevant. However, in daily conversation

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Technical difficulties? This looks cut off in the middle. –  MετάEd Jan 10 '13 at 2:53

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