A "semantic" difference

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From a NYT story (Shaila Dewan, "Pollster's Censure Jolts News Organizations", October 3) on the polling company Strategic Vision, which has been reprimanded by a professional society of pollsters for failing to disclose "essential facts" about its methods:

As for the accusation that the company's claim to be based in Atlanta was misleading, Mr. Johnson [David E. Johnson, the founder and chief executive of Strategic Vision] acknowledged that the main Strategic Vision office was in Blairsville, Ga., 115 miles away, but said the difference was "semantic".

Yeah, yeah, blame it on the words. "Semantic" here means 'only semantic, not substantive' and locates the problem not in differences of matters of fact but in differences in the meanings of linguistic expressions. The claim is that some people use certain expressions (like based in Atlanta) one way, while other people use these expressions somewhat differently, so that any dispute about the state of things is "just / merely / only" a dispute about word meanings.

Now, there's plenty of variation in the meanings people assign to words (and other expressions), and lexicographers, dialectologists, sociolinguists, and theoretical linguists examine this variation all the time. The question is whether SV's use of based in Atlanta is an instance of this sort of variation. As a rule of thumb, you should be suspicious whenever someone who's not professionally involved in the study of semantic variation dismisses some difference as "(just) semantic(s)" or the like; it's likely to be a dodge, or at least a stretching of the truth.

In the case at hand, what's at issue is what counts as being in some location. There's a certain amount of allowable leeway in such things, according to which you can get by saying that your company is located in X when in fact it's in a suburb of X or in a separate jurisdiction within the boundaries of X. So if your company is located in West Hollywood, Santa Monica, or Burbank, it wouldn't be entirely misleading to say (in some contexts) that it's in Los Angeles (though "in the Los Angeles area", or something similar, would be a more scrupulous phrasing).

But even when places are in the same metropolitan area and are close to one another, sometimes few people would accept as "located/based in [principal city of the whole area]" as an identification for a company. A company based in Oakland, Berkeley, Palo Alto, or Mountain View (not to mention San Jose or Santa Cruz) can't get away with saying it's "based in San Francisco". "Based in the Bay Area", yes, but not "based in San Francisco". Sometimes, close doesn't count.

Washington DC and Baltimore MD are different locations, even though they're only 34 miles apart; similarly, Boston MA and Providence RI, only 41 miles apart. And then on to New York NY and New Haven CT, 67 miles apart; Chicago IL and Milwaukee WI, 83 miles apart; New York NY and Philadelphia PA, 86 miles apart; Cleveland OH and Erie PA, 92 miles apart. (All under the 115-mile mark.)

You don't have to cross state lines: Philadelphia and Harrisburg PA are 90 miles apart; Columbus and Cincinnati OH, 100 miles apart; Los Angeles and San Diego CA, 111 miles apart. Just a tad over the 115-mile mark are Columbus and Cleveland OH, 124 miles apart. (These lists are not intended to be exhaustive, merely representative; the distances are from the Geobytes City Distance Tool.)

The point is that it can be seriously misleading to say that your company is based at location X when in fact it's based at location Y, even if Y is not far from X or is in Y's cultural orbit.

Note: "in its cultural orbit". I imagine that David Johnson would like to claim that he can say that his company is based in Atlanta because Atlanta is the largest city near the tiny town of Blairsville (though Knoxville TN is 122 miles from Blairsville). But thinking this way would allow all sorts of mischievous misrepresentation. For instance, a company with its headquarters in Auburn AL could represent itself as "based in Atlanta" (a mere 106 miles away from Auburn).

It might have been useful for Johnson to refer to Atlanta in some way in locating his company. (Who knows about Blairsville, after all?) Or he could have said that the company is located in Union County, at the very northern edge of Georgia. But saying that the company is located in Atlanta just won't do, and trying to deflect criticism of this claim by saying it's all a matter of semantics won't do either.

[Addendum 10/8: Peter Taylor writes: "One of the criticisms levelled at Strategic Vision, LLC is that there is a well-known (and, it is alleged, better-known) polling company called Strategic Vision, Inc. based in San Diego. At the moment your LL post refers simply to "Strategic Vision". You may wish to clarify."]

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