Quite often, I come across someone saying, “That’s just semantics”. The irony about the phrase (and debates around the phrase) is that it’s not exactly clear what it means. At the very least, it’s not always clear what the phrase means (to me).
Some people will say that the meaning of that phrase depends on the context.
For example, I’ve seen some people complain that people use that phrase to ignore a presented argument. In other words, the person was just trotting out the cliche of “that’s just semantics” as if it’s a rebuttal.
On the other hand, I’ve seen cases for another reason: the other person wasn’t addressing the main point of the argument but focusing on stipulative definitions. To ignore the core of an argument because of disagreements in terminology is fallacious.
Thirdly, I’ve seen people interpret the phrase as meaning that semantics/definitions/clarity don’t matter (which seems obviously absurd).
Fourthly, the phrase could mean that two people really do agree on concepts but are talking past each other with definitions/terms/labels/words. People can agree on concepts but disagree on labels, so people can be agreeing with each other but disagree about whether a label is good.
All/most of these things could be true. We should be clear with our terms, and we should value linguistics, and we shouldn’t avoid addressing a person’s main argument by focusing exclusively on stipulative definitions. Finally, we shouldn’t disingenuously say that phrase as if it’s a good rebuttal/comeback.
Another irony of this subject is the definition of semantics itself. Semantics is the study of meaning, so semantics, as a field of study, isn’t only concerned with what the phrase implies. This might be why some linguists don’t like the phrase, particularly because of the deflationary use of the term “just.” But, perhaps, the “just” could mean that one is only concerned with definitions (which is not the only thing that the subject of Semantics is focused on).
I’m aware that all of this might seem nitpicky, pedantic, and so on; however, as I’ve said before, being clear on terms is pivotal, no? So, the next time someone says, “That’s just semantics,” ask them what they mean by that. Literally say, “What do you mean by that?”. If the person is frustrated or still frustrated, then it may be the case that they aren’t in the mood for any debate. That’s fine. How so? Because there’s more to life than debating — — other goals. And, perhaps people aren’t making assertions to knowledge/truth, even if that appears to be the case. Maybe the person misspoke; maybe, they didn’t mean what you thought they meant; etc.