Semantics Lesson for Kids: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Suzanne Rose

Suzanne has taught all levels PK-graduate school and has a PhD in Instructional Systems Design. She currently teachers literacy courses to preservice and inservice teachers.

Any time we are discussing what language means, we're talking about semantics. Read this lesson to find out about about semantics and learn why semantics are important in your everyday life.

What Is Semantics?

Semantics is the study of the meanings of words, phrases and other text. Think about your first name. Do you think you would be a different person if you'd been named something else? A name is like a label that you've been given. It's what people have agreed to call you. We also have labels for everything else in our world; these labels are called words. Words are labels for ideas, things, actions, people, places…words label everything!

Words and Labels

We have agreed to use certain words when we're talking about the things we label. This is important - if everyone made up their own labels, we wouldn't be able to understand each other. For example, if I call my car a 'table,' but you call it a 'car,' you won't understand what I mean when I invite you to ride in my 'table!'

In the book Frindle, by Andrew Clements, the main character decides he's going to stop using the word 'pen.' Instead, he calls his pen a 'frindle.' At first, no one understands what he is talking about. Eventually, all the kids in school start using the word 'frindle' and, in time, the adults do too! This is an example of how new words come into use.

New words are added to the dictionary every year.

Many people think that the dictionary never changes. In fact, new words are added to dictionaries every year. Recently, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary added several new words, including 'photobomb,' which means 'to move into the frame of a photograph as it is being taken.' When words like this are used over and over by a large number of people, they eventually become part of our language and then make their way into the dictionary. A new word is born!

Literal or Figurative?

Words and phrases can have either literal or figurative meaning. Read this sentence: 'I'm so hungry, I could eat a whole cow!' Does the speaker really plan to eat a cow? Of course not! That's an example of figurative meaning. The speaker is using figurative language to vividly describe his feelings of hunger. If he really did plan to eat a whole cow, that would be the literal meaning. If a speaker means exactly what he or she says, it is literal.

Are you hungry enough to eat a whole cow?

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