When people or objects appear in a setting where they don't belong, confusion may ensue. The same can be said of words. Every piece of writing has its own semantic field—that is, a vocabulary particular to that piece and that topic. If you are writing a piece that is filled with peaceful nature imagery and you throw in a word like "kamikaze," your semantic field is disturbed. The word does not "fit" in the general sense. Look at the following for an example:
bottle formula diapers cradle cyborg rattle nurse
What relationship is created among these seven words? How does the word that does not fit alter your perception of the words which follow it? Following the word cyborg, the word rattle begins to take on mechanical implications, which may not be what was intended. Think about how the words are used: cradle or nurse, for example, could be used appropriately as either nouns or verbs. Note also that in the above context, formula would be assumed to refer to nourishment for a baby, not mathematics, and meaning the latter could throw off the readers.
Of course, it is possible to have more than one semantic field working in a piece. It is possible to create tension between opposing sets of imagery—if, in your piece on the peacefulness of nature, you wanted to disturb things by using words like kamikaze, steamroller, violation, and so on, you could undercut what would normally be expected in a nature piece. The point is, of course, that there is an intentional choice.
How to sow seeds within your semantic field:
- Don't start out using technical language and then use a slang word, or vice versa.
- If an image or figure of speech stands out from what surrounds it, make sure that it is because of the vividness of the image, not because it does not fit with what surrounds it.
- Make sure you know all the possible meanings of a word in the contest in which you are using it, so your words do not contradict what you intend.
- Use words that are on your audience's level of understanding. For example, an essay on acting techniques would be written differently for the general public than for an audience of MFA students in theatre.
Imagine that you are reading the user manual for a construction crane. You are familiar with the topic. As a crane operator, you want your information provided in the most explicit and certain terms possible. Which of the following better suits your needs as a reader?
When using the FMC Link-Belt construction crane, equipped with hydraulic lifts and dealing with concrete pilings for high-moisture content soil, you should use the number three footings to prevent tippage of the machinery, as that could lead to serious injury to persons working in the area as well as irreparable damage to the hydraulic system of the crane.
When using the FMC Link-Belt construction crane, all funky and equipped with hydraulic lifts and dealing with concrete pilings for really, really wet soil, you should use the number three footings to prevent a wipe-out, as that could seriously smoosh persons working in the area and cause irreparable damage to the hydraulic system of the crane.