- "You're talking semantics."
- "Then let's get the semantics out of the way first to make this debate constructive."
How many of you spent quality time with a dictionary in school, just trying to make sense of the world?
In high school, when I didn't know what faculty and staff meant by a particular word, I looked it up. I spent a lot of time with a dictionary in study hall. It worked for some things. But a lot of things that I was misunderstanding at the time (such as "normal" and "expected" and "appropriate") led to a thicket of circular definitions.
Later on, when I joined the Internet, I encountered two things that confirmed my suspicions. One was Layne's Law of Debate, which I phrase paralleling Mike Godwin's: "As a debate continues, the probability that it will hinge on defining a word approaches one." Thus I set out to get definitions settled early whenever I suspected someone would misunderstand my message. Another was Study Tech, a set of classroom techniques promoted by L. Ron Hubbard. I learned that the practice I had done in high school had a name: "word clearing." Hubbard claimed that this would help alleviate difficulties in understanding material caused by a misunderstood word.
In some cases, I've been able to define my way out of a mess by trying to capture what I believe to be the essence of a term.
- Sorites paradox
- The sorites paradox or heap paradox boils down to a debate about how much you can take away from a heap of sand with it remaining a heap. A quick trip to Wiktionary solved it: a heap is a collection of items "so as to form an elevation." Thus a heap comes into being when some items rest only on other items.
- Some free software advocates refer to the Linux operating system as "GNU/Linux". Others find the name absurd because Alpine Linux proves the possibility of replacing most GNU software in a desktop or server Linux environment with non-GNU workalikes. So I chose a boundary for how I perceive GNU/Linux in contrast to Android and embedded systems: GNU/Linux is an operating environment incorporating Linux, GNU Coreutils, and two other major components of GNU. I also began using the term "X11/Linux" to refer specifically to the desktop experience.
- Some pundits object to transgender rights on grounds that "gender" lacks a clear definition. To survey the field, I read introductory material from both trans rights activists and gender-critical TERFs. Then I wrote concise summaries of how I understood the terms in a gender glossary.