Sunday, July 17, 2011

It’s Just Semantics
(Except When It’s Not)

As an English major and aspirant writer, I know that the words we choose are vitally important.  As a professional programmer and longtime corporate denizen, I know that changing words around doesn’t actually change the reality of the situation.  Boy, it’s a good thing I believe in balance and paradox, eh?

The question of whether the phrase “it’s semantics” is invested with concern or derision is a delicate one.  In my role as a parent, language is most often a tool used by my children to try to get out of following one of our (very few) family rules.  For instance, rule #1 is “don’t step on things that aren’t the floor.”

“What about the ground?”

“Obviously you can step on the ground.”

“Well, what about the carpet?  That’s not actually the floor.”

“Look, don’t play semantics with me.  I ain’t raising no lawyers!”

In these types of instances, I’m nearly always fighting to make the point that the exact words don’t matter as much as the ideas behind them.  Use a little common sense, man.  Don’t try to twist the words.

On the other hand, in my role as a writer, whether that’s for work, for personal stuff, or in my delusional life where I am writing the next great fantasy series, the exact word you choose is crucially important.  The shades of meaning that separate two apparent synonyms become vital: maybe the audience will understand roughly what I mean either way, but “roughly” just ain’t good enough.  If you can’t write any better than that, you should just give it up right now.

And then there’s my role as a business programmer.  And here’s where it gets tricky, because suddenly both viewpoints are simultaneously important.  On the one hand, I have to deal with people who have technical ideas which are disastrous, but they think they’re brilliant just because they changed a couple of words.  On top of that, I work for a corporation.  It’s not full-on Dilbert by any stretch of the imagination, but it certainly does happen that our corporate overlords will try to dress up a bad idea in pretty words and think we’re going to be fooled.  (All corporations do this ... they just can’t help themselves.)

And yet ...

And yet all too often I find myself in a situation where words really do matter.  The most common one is when choosing language at the beginning of a project.  You would (probably) be quite surprised at how vital it is to get definitions straight for a project.  Simply choosing the wrong word can cost a company thousands (if not millions) of dollars in lost time and miscoummunication.  How could that possibly be, you ask?  Simple—I’ve seen it happen time and again.  The business means something very specific when it uses a word, but somehow that’s miscommunicated to the technical people.  They start using the same word to mean something very different—always closely related, of course, but still different in some crucial way.  Suddenly the business people and the technical people aren’t speaking the same language.  And it spreads, and it gets all mixed up: mostly the new technical people learn what the words means from the other technical people, so they have the second defintion, but every once in a while one will learn it from a business person (or have their definition corrected by a business person) and now the technical people are miscommunicating with the other technical people.  Same thing happens with the business people, some of whom pick up the alternate definition that the tech department has given the word as a matter of self-defense for not losing their sanity when trying to talk to engineers.  Now no one is on the same page, not even the people in the same department, and specs get confused, mistakes get made, assumptions are propagated, work is delayed ... if you’re fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to realize there are two definitions, then every single time you see the word, you have to find the person who wrote it and ask them which way they meant it.  And sometimes they don’t even really know: they just meant it whichever way some other person meant it, so now you have to track down that person and ask them.  Trust me, such a little thing as what a word means in a particular context can have a profound financial impact on a project, not to mention its impact on the frustration level of the people working on it.

And words have a tendency to get stuck.  Once a bunch of people all agree on a word and its meaning, you will be using that word forever.  Doesn’t matter if tomorrow you find out that the word is completely wrong.  Doesn’t matter if what the word really means is something completely different, and will confuse anyone who happens to understand the proper definition.  Doesn’t matter if the word is already being used by someone else for something entirely different.  At the point at which three or more people all use a word to mean X, it will mean X to those people forever, and no attempt to change the word will ever be successful.  So not only is the word important for what it means today, but it’s important for a long time to come.

And because I have this pet peeve about making the same mistake twice, I do a lot of correcting people when they use the wrong word, or use the right word in the wrong context, or use a word that isn’t going to mean what they think it means to everyone else in the company (even if the people who are going to get confused don’t happen to be in the room at the time).  Because I’ve seen it go wrong before and I really don’t want to see it again.  And then I’m on the receiving end of that frustrated “it’s just semantics” lecture.

And I’m going: yes, I know.  And I agree with you.  Except for right now.  ‘Cause, right now, the words are important.

This is a frustrating position to be in, because it makes you look inconsistent, or worse: hypocritical.  “Wait a minute,” people will say to me.  “When I tried to correct your word yesterday, you said it didn’t really matter which word I used.  Now you’re up my ass nitpicking my language.  What’s up with that?” And I find it difficult to explain.  Partially because it’s a true paradox: both are true at once.  And partially because it’s a matter of balance: you need to know when to lean one way and when to lean the other.

You see, the truth is the words really don’t matter.  All that matters are the ideas underneath.  Changing the way you describe an idea doesn’t actually change the idea.  A stupid idea is always going to be stupid and it doesn’t matter how you dress it up.  A good idea is always going to be good regardless of how badly you describe it.  The fundamental nature of the idea doesn’t change regardless of the words that are used to express it.

Except there’s a problem.  An idea exists in my mind; I don’t have any way to instantly transfer it to yours.  There’s only one way that I can share my idea with you: I put it into words.  Then, as any college student of Communications 101 knows, I have become the transmitter, and you the receiver, and the idea is the signal, and there will always be noise.  Noise comes in many forms, but often the words themselves are a form of noise.  Because words are an imperfect form to stuff an idea into.  Words are slippery, and no two people are going to have exactly the same combination of denotation and connotation for every word they use in their conversations.  So if I use the wrong word, you get the wrong impression, and suddenly you have the wrong idea: it’s not my idea any more.  It’s similar—perhaps extremely similar—but not exactly my idea.  Of course, it’s not your idea either—as far as you’re concerned, it’s my idea.  It’s some shadow of my idea, mangled in transmission, not really anyone’s any more, but with a twisted life of its own.

So obviously the words do matter.  My choice of words is crucial, because it’s the only way I have to make sure the idea doesn’t get warped out of true on its way to you.  It’s going to get warped, mind you—nothing either of us can do about that, it’s just the nature of the beast—but perhaps, if I can just find the right words, it won’t get warped too badly.  Perhaps it will still be mostly my idea ... close enough to still work.

So I suppose the trick is to know when choosing a different word will help the idea come through more clearly, and when you’re just fiddling with the window dressing.  I try to figure out which is which every day, and I bet I get it wrong a lot.  But I keep trying, because the words are important.

Except when they’re not, of course.

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