Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Just semantics

A phrase which often comes up in the IT business, perhaps more often from the business and management side of things rather than the techie side, is "that's just semantics". It has always bothered me. How can semantics - what something actually means - be dismissed in such an offhand manner?

Often, IT projects go wrong because there has been miscommunication. Requirements have been misunderstood. The architecture has been implemented incorrectly. The infrastructure has been built in a way that failed to take account of some critical operational features. Yet when it comes to getting a clear understanding about some things, a wave of the hand and a flippant "Oh, that's just semantics" is all it takes to set a disaster in motion.

I have often found that people talk glibly about a concept, or use a particular word, and when queried they either cannot define it, or, more often, there are wildly differing meanings being used by a group who remain ignorant of the fact that they are not talking about the same thing. I came across an example of this phenomenon only a couple of days ago, around the interpretation of the word "warranty". I've encountered many over the years. And yet to some, querying what they mean by a particular word is quibbling over what is "just semantics".


Inexplicable DeVice said...

Do you know, I've only had one (very large) glass of wine, but I just can't for the death of me connect all this together.
I was about to go off on a massive rant about the useless clods at work who dismiss relevant and pertinent info/data, but then decided I'd rather eat the last black forest trifle in my fridge. Sorry.

It's nice to see that I haven't been the only blog slacker!

Mwah x

Qenny said...

Between desperately looking for work immediately followed by desperately working very hard it's been a low few months on the blog front for me :(

David said...

I suspect the origin of this phrase may be from "that's just syntactic sugar" or "that's just syntax" beloved of the programming community when eschewing the distraction of representational form and going for the real meaning. The phase sounds "knowing". Those of that dangerous little education, with knowledge of the antonym "sematics", and who wish to impress, rashly grab for this bastard child phrase of no meaning, and very little brain.

Qenny said...

I think you could well be right, David, and I remember thinking that very though the first time I heard someone use the phrase "just semantics".

Mind you, the same man also said "Seek and ye shall receive", which tells you everything you need to know about him.

Tickersoid said...

Nice to know IDV is eating.

This begs the question, what do you suppose he thinks he means?

This post prompted me to spend 15 minutes browsing Wikipedia on the language of language.

I now totally understand the meaning of the word syntax...not!

I know, it wasn't that funny.

CyberPete said...

If I was management (which I never will be) I'd probably say something like that. Not knowing what it really means.

However as it is now, when or if I need IT help to make something for me I always try to explain exactly what it has to do. That seems to help, a little.