A few years ago when I started getting interested in HTML, I kept hearing this near-religious phrase pop up among the Web communities: “semantic markup rules.”
Well, not precisely that, but the essence for sure. As an English major at the time, I was excited. I loved semantics.
It’s not just Web developers who should concern themselves with semantic markup, though. Content folks – be they providers, strategists, editors, etc. – should familiarize themselves with the older type of semantics. When we write for the Web, when we tell stories, we should all have a good understanding of semantics and
what it means for the construction of a narrative.
If your content is a protein, the elements of semantics are amino acids. They are our tools, our ammunition, the subatomic structures of our recipe’s ingredients. It’s as close to science as writing or storytelling ever becomes. And it’s a lot more fun than it sounds.
The Obligatory Definition
I hate beginning a section with a definition, but I guess it’s necessary here. Semantics, in linguistics, is the study of meaning in words, phrases, and any combination or length of such. It’s how words relate to each other. The whole point of this field of study to to examine what words mean and how they function within a larger context.
Easy enough, right? Not so fast. To get a really fun look at semantics as it exists in linguistics, check out these resources:
The Amino Acids of Semantic Theory
Since you’ve undoubtedly read all of those links above, let’s get into the dirty work by looking at a number of semantic elements that are terribly useful to Web content folks.
Some may seem very obvious, but examining each independently – shining a scrutinizing light on ‘em – will force us to think critically about each word choice. After all, when space is limited, you want to make the most powerful word choices.
This happens when an element of language has a number of meanings. “Treat,” for instance, is what’s known as lexically ambiguous. It can mean “I gave myself a treat for not punching that guy,” or it can mean “I guess someone should medically treat that guy I just punched.”
But single words aren’t the only purveyors of ambiguity, as anyone who has ever heard of politics knows. There’s also structural ambiguity, which is where jokes happen. Consider the famous book on grammar, “Eats, Shoots & Leaves.” This title plays on structural (or grammatical) ambiguity, as there are three meanings. Did the pandas on the cover of the book eat, shoot something, and then leave? Or did they eat [bamboo] shoots and wander off? Or perhaps they ate shoots and leaves from the bamboo tree?
Headlines are powerful if purposefully ambiguous. Let’s look at a few, and see how they could draw a reader in:
“MPs To Take a Closer Look at Pornography” (from Edinburgh Evening News, 6 Feb 2007)
“Girl Hit By Car in Hospital” (same, 21 march 2006)
“McDonald’s Fried the Holy Grail for Potato Farmers” (from Associated Press in 2009)
These were likely considered mistakes for journalists, and have even been lovingly named “crash blossoms.” But consider the potential when crafting headlines – especially those meant to be funny – be they for articles, websites, blog posts, etc.
In short, a collocation in linguistic semantics is a word or unit that’s commonly seen next to other words. They can appear as any part of speech, too. “Commit,” for instance, is often seen in the wild seated next to “crime” in some iteration. “Bear” witness, another. Depending on the audience, there are different collocations, as well. “Customer,” for instance, in business is commonly seen beside “service,” “experience,” and “satisfaction.” In the Web design world, “experience” is often paired with “user” and so on.
Collocation evolves into fixed expression when the words so commonly appear together, they seem inseparable (a relative to the wondrous idiom, when the words themselves lose all inherent meaning). “Criminal mastermind,” “so to speak,” and “sign, sealed, delivered” are all examples of fixed expressions.
The power in collocation and fixed expressions comes when they’re broken. Surprising language is awesome and attention-getting. Break out the thesaurus and get creative…but don’t go overboard. Be sure whatever term you replace in the collocation or fixed expression is still relevant and close enough to the original phrase to still make sense.
Simile and Metaphor
Oh, these things are all over the place online. They’re magical because of their ability to allow readers to connect to an idea on a deeper level. Similes and metaphors compare something to something else, and if used properly, can drive in an idea like nothing else.
For those of you who need a refresher, similes compare things directly with a string of words like “as a,” “like a,” “much like,” and so on. “Fat as a cow,” for instance, and “strong like bull.”
Metaphors go straight for the throat, and do so unapologetically. “He’s such a pig.” “Oh, you little devil.” “My heart is an ocean.” (ugh)
Metaphors have a special life online; in fact, they are arguably responsible for the adoption of all “virtual” technologies we’ve encountered. Any time you search your “folders,” listen to online “radio,” hit the back “button,” or open a new “window” or “tab,” you’re interfacing with metaphors. Humans and computers speak drastically different languages, “think” in very different ways. Without these metaphoric connections, most of us would have been very, very lost on newfangled computers and the Web (which, by the way, is also a metaphor).
This type of semantic element is particularly useful if you’re working with some sort of new technology or application. For instance, if I had to create copy for a platform that deals heavily with keeping track of finances, I might turn to metaphors like “wallet” (cough cough Google Wallet cough cough), “accountant,” or anything else I would use in real life to keep track of my finances. After all, “wallet” sounds much better than “finance tracking database” or what have you.
Consider how your project connects with the real world. Write/create accordingly.
These are fun. Homonyms are words that sound the same and are spelled the same, but mean something completely different. Take “case.” A case can be a container of sorts to keep stuff in. Or someone can case (survey) a bank before robbing it. A “roll” can mean a tumble or sorts, or it can mean a tasty buttery treat. You get the idea.
Homographs share the same spelling, but are pronounced differently (“read” and “read”). Homophones sound the same when spoken but are spelled differently (“except” and “accept”; “ate” and “eight”).
Creative pun potential abounds here. Homonyms give content creators another chance to use language unexpectedly.
This is a relationship between words where one word is a part of the other (or a part of what that word represents). “Bone” is a meronym of “skeleton”; “toe” is a meronym of “foot”; “processor” is a meronym of “computer.”
When creating headlines or branding a product, try to keep in mind the relationship between your key ideas/words and other components. If you’re writing copy for Rdio, let’s say, look to work in meronyms of “radio,” the metaphor the site runs on.
Zeugma (for the win!)
I’m going to ask forgiveness in advance here; zeugmas are more rhetorical elements than semantic ones, but I really like them so wanted to touch on them. I’ll make up for it with a post soon on rhetoric strategy in content creation, but for now, let’s take a look.
What the hell is a zeugma, you may ask? It’s a figure of speech that bonds several parts of a sentence together with a single verb or noun. They do so for dramatic effect. Still with me?
Good! Here are a few types of zeugma so we can make concrete this rather abstract-sounding monster.
Hunger trumped my reason, thirst my motivation, fatigue my will to live.
This is a a prozeugma because “trumped” applies to every item in the series above. Rather than repeat that verb, I omitted it for effect.
First the ball dropped, then his jaw.
Here we have a mesozeugma. You’ll see the connecting verb is in the middle of the sentence this time, rather than the beginning. (Protip – this is also a syllepsis, which you’ll see more on below.)
My parrot savaged my couch, ate my cheese, destroyed my patience.
Behold the diazeugma. The noun (my parrot) is commanding every verb in the sentence.
Friends, neighbors, police officials, hear me out, please.
This is a hypozeugma, where the last part of the sentence with the verb (“hear me”) is applied to each subject before it.
I will eat your donuts. I will eat your cheesy poofs. I will eat your chips and I will eat your Skittles. I will eat it all.
Ah, the zeugma’s opposite – the hypozeuxis. This is where the verb is repeated for each subject, for obvious effect. I’m taking a stance. I’m taking your food.
- I held my breath and the kitchen knife.
- He stole my heart and my CDs.
- Standing there in my nun costume, I gave out some candy and the rest of my dignity.
These are my favorites. Also known to some as “semantic zeugmas,” these are called syllepses. They’re plays on words, as you can likely see. Like the other zeugmas, each of these sentences sees one verb modifying two nouns, but they do so unexpectedly. “He stole my heart” is a figure of speech, whereas “he stole my CDs” is in no way figurative.
Syllepses are delightfully fun to play around with, and can really spice up content if used cleverly. It will take some time to come up with some good, non-trite ones, for sure; if you do though, your audience or users will thank you.
This was by no means (heh – fixed expression, anyone?) an exhaustive look at linguistic semantics. I feared if I went balls-to-the-wall with this, I’d bore the snot out of everyone.
So really, if you consider yourself a creator, curator, strategist, or editor of any kind of content (I’m looking at you, web content strategists), it’s a good idea to have a handle on the basics. Know what you’re working with. The more you know, the more you can manipulate. You say content is king? Then treat it like one.