Semantics and pragmatics
Focuses on the literal meanings of words,
phrases and sentences;
concerned with how grammatical processes
build complex meanings out of simpler ones
Focuses on the use of language in particular
aims to explain how factors outside of
language contribute to both literal meaning
and nonliteral meanings which speakers
communicate using language
To understand semantic meaning, we have to
bring together 3 main components:
1) the context in which a sentence is used,
2) the meanings of the words in the
3) the morphological and syntactic structure
(1) My dog chased a cat under the house.
Because (1) contains the pronoun my, part of
its meaning depends on the fact that you
uttered it
Since you uttered it, my refers to you
The semantic meaning depends to some
extent on the context of use, the situation in
which the sentence was uttered, by a
particular speaker, to a particular addressee,
at a particular time, etc
The semantic meaning of (1) also depends on
the meanings of the individual words: dog,
chased, cat, etc. – the semantic meaning
depends on the lexicon
Morphological and syntactic structure of
sentence (1) is crucial to its meaning
If the words were rearranged to A cat under
the house chased my dog, it would mean sth
different – the semantic meaning also
depends on the grammatical structure of the
Suppose you know I’ve lost my cat and you
say (1) to me
Your speaker’s meaning would be to inform
me that my cat may be hiding under the
house, and to suggest that I go there to look
for it
To understand where this meaning comes
from, we need to bring together two
components: the semantic meaning and
pragmatic meaning
Pragmatic meaning: I have to assume that we
both know my cat is missing, that you know I
want to find it, and that you want to see that
my cat is safely back home
Semantic meaning
Speaker’s meaning
of use
Semantics focuses on the link between the
lexicon, grammar and semantic meaning
Pragmatics focuses on the connection
between context of use and semantic
Studying the semantics of different languages
shows us the great variety of ways in which
languages can accomplish the task of talking
about the world
Identifying what is common to the semantics
of all languages helps us to understand what
is unique about language and human nature
The most fundamental semantic concepts
describe how words, phrases, and sentences
relate to each other and to the world
Two words, phrases, or sentences are
synonyms if they have the same semantic
meaning (I saw more than two and fewer than
five dogs = I saw three or four dogs)
Two words are antonymous if they are
opposed in semantic meaning (e.g. tall –
A word is a hyponym of another if its
semantic meaning is more specific than the
other’s (e.g. dog – animal)
A word is a hyperonym of another if its
semantic meaning is more general than the
other’s (animal is a hyperonym of dog)
A word, or phrase, or sentence is polysemous
if it has multiple semantic meanings (e.g.
bank: river bank vs. financial institution;
head; chair)
A sentence entails another if the truth of the
first guarantees the truth of the second. (e.g.
I like all animals entails I like dogs)
A sentence is a tautology if it must be true (If
something is a big animal, it’s an animal)
A sentence is a contradiction if it cannot be
true (I like dogs contradicts I hate all animals)
Grammar (morphology and syntax) generates
new words, phrases and sentences
This gives us a potentially infinite number of
words, phrases and sentences that can have
In order to explain how an infinite number of
pieces of language can be meaningful, and
how we, as language users, can figure out the
meanings of new ones, semanticists apply the
Principle of Compositionality
The semantic meaning of any unit of
language is determined by the semantic
meanings of its parts along with the way they
are put together
Mary liked you – the meaning is determined
(a) the meanings of the individual morphemes
that make it up (Mary, like, “past”, you)
B) the morphological and syntactic structures
of the sentence
Does not apply only to sentences
It implies that the meaning of the verb phrase
liked you is determined by the meanings of
its parts and the grammatical structure of the
VP, and the meaning of the word liked is
determined by the meanings of the two
morphemes that make it up (like and –ed)
Compositional semantics (or formal
semantics) – concerned how the Principle of
Compositionality applies
Formal semanticists study the variety of
grammatical patterns which occur in
individual languages and across the
languages of the world
The meaning of a sentence – determined by
the meanings of its parts
Most sentences: subject and predicate
In most English sentences, the subject is the
first NP and the predicate is the VP of the
Under the Principle of Compositionality, the
meaning of such a sentence is determined in
terms of the meaning of its subject and
Simple NPs refer to particular things in the
world (called referents)
The predicate typically contains a verb,
adjective, noun or prepositional phrase:
ran down the street (VP)
is happy (is + AP)
is under the table (is + prepositional phrase)
is a butterfly (is + NP)
The meaning of a sentence is called a
Proposition -a complete thought, a statement
which can be true or false
The proposition is true if the predicate
accurately describes the referent of the
Propositions – usually described in terms of
truth conditions
Often a predicate contains, in addition to a
verb, preposition, or adjective, one or more
Arguments - elements which are needed to
complete the meaning of a predicate: they
bring the predicate closer to expressing a
complete proposition (The ball hit Mary: the
verb has two arguments: direct object and
The principle of compositionality applies to
more complex sentences made by combining
simpler sentences
Sentences may be modified and connected
using such words as not, and, or
The meanings of these words – traditionally
explained in terms of the truth conditions
(e.g. the word not reverses the truth
conditions of a sentence): the sentence a is
true if, and only if, b is false, and vice versa
A) The cat is under the table.
B) The cat is not under the table.
A sentence made by joining two sentences
with and is true if both component sentences
are true:
John ran down the street and Mary hit the
A sentence which is made by joining two
sentences with or is true if at least one of the
component sentences is true:
John ran down the street or Mary hit the ball.
The traditional goal of logic is to explain what
patterns of reasoning are valid, and the words
not, and and or are especially important for
Many adjectives display the property of
A word is vague if it has a single, general
meaning which becomes more specific in a
particular context of use
Adjectives which relate to a scale are vague
when they do not mention a particular value
on the scale (e.g. old);
E.g. good: a good deed (morally good); a
good pie (tasty); good walking shoes –
appropriate for a given use)
It is often difficult to distinguish vagueness
from polysemy
Polysemous words have multiple different,
but related, meanings; vagueness, in
contrast, describes a single general meaning
which becomes more specific in a particular
context of use
Since it involves more than one meaning,
polysemy is a kind of ambiguity, but
vagueness is not
Modality refers to aspects of meaning which
cause sentences to be about the non-actual –
i.e. about alternative possibilities for how
things could be
John is kind to animals.
John should be kind to animals.
Modality can be expressed through a variety
of grammatical categories: modal auxiliaries
(should, must, can), nouns (possibility,
necessity, requirement), adjectives (possible,
necessary, probable)
I must have left my keys in the car.
If I had dropped my keys on my way to the
car, they would be on the steps or on the
street now.
It is a requirement of this university that
everyone study Armenian.
Since the keys aren’t on the street, it is
probable that they are in the car.
Possible worlds help explain the semantics of
modals because they provide a way of talking
about alternative possibilities
The ability to imagine alternative ways that
the world could be – alternative possible
worlds – an essential part of the human
capacity to use language
Epistemic modals involve reference to facts
that we know (I must have left my keys in the
Deontic modals (Guests should leave their
keys in the car);
Modals which are about rules, right and
wrong, obligations etc. are known as deontic
Tense and aspect – semantic categories
having to do with time
They may lead to a sentence being about past
or future, not only the present
Aspect refers to features of language which
describe how events unfold in time, like the
English progressive:
John is drawing a picture.
Ben has fallen asleep.
Statives – sentences which describe states,
while non-stative sentences can be called
Eventives can be further classified as
achievements, activities, and
Semantics can play a role in the interpretation of
Case: Raymond Moskal, who lived in
Pennsylvania, would buy used automobiles, set
back the milometers, send the inaccurate mileage
readings to Virginia along with other required
information, and receive new titles from Virginia
with the incorrect mileage. He would then sell the
cars for inflated prices to unsuspecting
customers. He was prosecuted and convicted for
violating a statute that prohibits the interstate
transportation of ‘falsely made’ securities. In
short, Moskal got real titles that contained false
Whoever, with unlawful or fraudulent intent,
transports in interstate or foreign commerce
any falsely made, forged, altered, or
counterfeited securities or tax stamps,
knowing the same to have been falsely made,
forged, altered, or counterfeited…Shall be
fined under this title or imprisoned not more
than ten years, or both. (18 USC &2314
The US Supreme Court agreed that Moskal
could be punished under this law, but Justice
Scalia dissented for two reasons based on the
meaning of the phrase falsely made.
One reason had to do with the historical
meaning of the phrase falsely made in legal
documents and the other had to do with its
ordinary meaning.
Justice Scalia showed that in the 100 years up
to 1939, when the statute was written, legal
documents had used falsely made to mean
‘forged’ or ‘counterfeit’
Thus, it seems that the meaning of this
crucial phrase had changed, at least within
the world of law, between the time the law
was written and the time it was applied to
Scalia’s other argument was that the phrase
falsely made, in its ordinary meaning,
includes only things that are counterfeit, not
real documents that are made to contain false
Solan concluded that Scalia’s ordinary
meaning argument is wrong
He shows that falsely made typically means
‘made to include false information’ as in
“(When falsely made, this accusation (child
abuse) can be enormously destructive”
In other words, a falsely made accusation
means that the accusation contained false
information, and Solan assumes by analogy
that a falsely made car title would be a car
title containing false information
Do you agree with Justice Scalia or the
How convincing do you find Scalia’s historical
Do you think that Solan is correct that falsely
made means the same thing when applied to
an accusation and when applied to a
document? Is a falsely made car title a
counterfeit car title or a car title containing
false information?
What do you think of Solan’s strategy of
looking at a database of newspaper columns
to determine the ordinary meaning of a
controversial phrase?
Two main branches: lexical semantics and
compositional semantics
Lexical semantics: Meaning of words
Compositional semantics focuses on the
process of building up more complex
meanings from simpler ones
Pragmatics concerns the relationship between
context of use and sentence meaning, and
the relationships among sentence meaning,
context of use, and speaker’s meaning
words and phrases that cannot be fully
understood without additional contextual
Words are deictic if their semantic meaning is
fixed but their denotational meaning varies
depending on time and/or place.
Words or phrases that require contextual
information to convey any meaning – e.g.,
English pronouns – deictic
grammatical persons involved in an
(1) those directly involved (e.g. the speaker,
the addressee),
(2) those not directly involved (e.g.
overhearers—those who hear the utterance
but who are not being directly addressed)
(3) those mentioned in the utterance
Locations may be either those of the speaker
and addressee or those of persons or objects
being referred to.
The most salient English examples are the
adverbs“here” and “there” and the
demonstratives “this” and “that”, e.g.:
I enjoy living in this city
Here is where we will place the statue
She was sitting over there
Time, or temporal, deixis concerns itself with the
various times involved in and referred to in an
This includes time adverbs, e.g. "now", "then",
"soon", etc. and also different tenses
Example: tomorrow denotes the consecutive next
day after every day. The "tomorrow" of a day last
year was a different day from the "tomorrow" of a
day next week.
Time adverbs can be relative to the time when an
utterance is made (Fillmore: "encoding time", or
ET) or when the utterance is heard (Fillmore’s
"decoding time", or DT): e.g. „It is raining now,
but I hope when you read this it will be sunny”
Tenses are generally separated into absolute
(deictic) and relative tenses: e.g. simple
English past tense – absolute: He went
the pluperfect is relative to some other
deictically specified time:He had gone.
concerns the social information that is encoded
within various expressions, such as relative social
status and familiarity.
Two major forms of it are the so-called T–V
distinctions and honorifics.
T–V distinctions, named for the Latin “tu” and “vos” the name given to the phenomenon when a language
has two different second-person pronouns.
The varying usage of these pronouns indicates
something about formality, familiarity, and/or
solidarity between the interactants, e.g. the T form
might be used when speaking to a friend or social
equal, whereas the V form would be used speaking to
a stranger or social superior - common in European
Honorifics are a much more complex form of
social deixis than T–V distinctions, though
they encode similar types of social
They can involve words being marked with
various morphemes as well as nearly entirely
different lexicons being used based on the
social status of the interactants.
This type of social deixis is found in a variety
of languages, but is especially common in
South and East Asia
Discourse deixis, also referred to as text
deixis, refers to the use of expressions within
an utterance to refer to parts of the discourse
that contain the utterance — including the
utterance itself: e.g. This is a great story
An exophoric reference refers to language outside of the
text in which the reference is found.
A homophoric reference is a generic phrase that obtains a
specific meaning through knowledge of its context, e.g.
the meaning of the phrase "the Queen" may be determined
by the country in which it is spoken.
An endophoric reference refers to something inside of the
text in which the reference is found.
- an anaphoric reference, when opposed to cataphora,
refers to something within a text that has been previously
identified, e.g. "Susan dropped the plate. It shattered
loudly" the word "it" refers to the phrase "the plate".
- a cataphoric reference refers to something within a text
that has not yet been identified, e.g. in "He was very cold.
David promptly put on his coat" the identity of the "he" is
unknown until the individual is also referred to as "David".
A. Do you see that baby girl over there? She is
When a word or phrase picks up its meaning
from some other piece of language nearby,
the relationship between the two – anaphora
A word which gets its meaning in this way –
an anaphor, and the piece of language which
gives the anaphor its meaning – its
Presupposition - when a speaker’s choice of
words shows that he is taking sth for granted
E.g.: John stopped crying at noon – makes
sense if it is assumed that John was crying
just before noon.
an implicit assumption about the world or
background belief relating to an utterance
whose truth is taken for granted, e.g.:
Jane no longer writes fiction.
◦ Presupposition: Jane once wrote fiction.
Have you stopped eating meat?
◦ Presupposition: you had once eaten meat.
Have you talked to Hans?
◦ Presupposition: Hans exists.
A presupposition must be mutually known or
assumed by the speaker and addressee for
the utterance to be considered appropriate in
Crucially, negation of an expression does not
change its presuppositions: I want to do it again
and I don't want to do it again both presuppose
that the subject has done it already one or more
times; My wife is pregnant and My wife is not
pregnant both presuppose that the subject has a
In this respect, presupposition is distinguished
from entailment and implicature, e.g. The
president was assassinated entails that The
president is dead, but if the expression is
negated, the entailment is not necessarily true
Presuppositions – often understood in terms
of the notion of common ground
The common ground – a set of propositions
which the participants in a conversation
mutually assume
The common ground - a major part of the
context of use, and helps us make explicit
the role of presupposition
Indexicality and presupposition – aspects of
pragmatics which have to do with the
relationship between context of use and
semantic meaning
Entailment is the relationship between two
sentences where the truth of one (A) requires
the truth of the other (B).
E.g., the sentence (A) The president was
assassinated. entails (B) The president is
If (B) is false, then (A) must necessarily be
false. To show entailment, we must show that
(A) being true forces (B) to be true, or,
equivalently, that (B) being false forces (A) to
be false.
Implicature -a term coined by H.P. Grice,
which refers to what is suggested in an
utterance, even though neither expressed nor
strictly implied by the utterance.
For example, the sentence "Mary had a baby
and got married" strongly suggests that Mary
had the baby before the wedding, but the
sentence would still be strictly true if Mary
had her baby after she got married.
Semantics views meaning from the compositional
perspective: the meaning of a sentence is built up from
the meanings of its parts
The smallest parts get their meanings from the
lexicon, and then these meanings get put together
according to rules which pay attention to the
grammatical structure of the sentence
Not all aspects of meaning can be explained by this
compositional “bottom-up” approach, and a
complementary “top-down” view of meaning has
focused on the intentions of language users: when A
says sth to B, A intends for B to be affected in a certain
H.G. Grice’s theory of conversational
Often, when someone says sth, she doesn’t
mean exactly what the words literally mean:
the speaker’s meaning differs from the
(semantic) meaning
“There’s a bear sneaking up behind you!” –
not just a report, but also a warning
This “extra” meaning which goes beyond what
the words literally say – an implicature
describes how people interact with one another.
"Make your contribution such as it is required, at the stage at
which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk
exchange in which you are engaged.„
Though phrased as a prescriptive command, the principle is
intended as a description of how people normally behave in
Listeners and speakers must speak cooperatively and mutually
accept one another to be understood in a particular way. The
cooperative principle describes how effective communication in
conversation is achieved in common social situations.
The cooperative principle: 4 maxims, called the Gricean Maxims,
describing specific rational principles observed by people to
enable effective communication. The Gricean Maxims are a way
to explain the link between utterances and what is understood
from them.
Maxim of Quality
Do not say what you believe to be false.
Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence.
Maxim of Quantity
Make your contribution as informative as is required (for the current purposes of
the exchange).
Do not make your contribution more informative than is required.
Maxim of Relevance
Be relevant.
With respect to this maxim, Grice writes, "Though the maxim itself is terse, its
formulation conceals a number of problems that exercise me a good deal:
questions about what different kinds and focuses of relevance there may be, how
these shift in the course of a talk exchange, how to allow for the fact that subjects
of conversations are legitimately changed, and so on. I find the treatment of such
questions exceedingly difficult, and I hope to revert to them in later work."
Maxim of Manner
Avoid obscurity of expression.
Avoid ambiguity.
Be brief (avoid unnecessary prolixity).
Be orderly.
Grice explained how speaker’s meaning can
be determined in such cases by positing a
Cooperative Principle that speakers and
hearers assume when speaking to each other:
Cooperative Principle: speaker’s meaning can
be calculated on the basis of semantic
meaning and the assumption that speakers
are behaving rationally and cooperatively
1. The speaker deliberately flouts a
conversational maxim to convey additional
meaning not expressed literally, e.g. a speaker
responds to the question: „How did you like the
guest speaker?” with the following utterance:
„Well, I’m sure he was speaking English”.
If the speaker is assumed to be following the
cooperative principle in spite of flouting the
Maxim of Quantity, the utterance must have an
additional nonliteral meaning, such as: „The
content of the speech was confusing.”
2. The speaker’s desire to fulfil two conflicting
maxims results in his flouting one maxim to
invoke the other, e.g. when he responds to the
question „Where is John?” by saying: He’s either
in the cafeteria or in his office
The Maxim of Quantity and the Maxim of Quality
are in conflict: a cooperative speaker doesn’t
want to be ambiguous but also doesn’t want to
give false information by giving a specific answer
in spite of his uncertaity. By flouting the Maxim
of Quantity, he invokes the Maxim of Quality
3. The speaker invokes a maxim as a basis
for interpreting the utterance:
Do you know where I can get some gas?
There’s a gas station around the corner.
The 2nd speaker invokes the Maxim of
Relevance, resulting in the implicature that
„the gas station is open and one can probably
get gas there”
Cultural assumptions can be crucial in
determining speaker’s meaning
Example: if two Chinese people are looking at the
dessert display in a French restaurant, and one
says to the other, “That tart is not too sweet”, she
intends this comment as praise of the tart. She
might intend to implicate that her dinner partner
should order the tart. This meaning arises, in
part, from the fact that it is common knowledge
among Chinese people that most of them find
western desserts too sweet. Among some other
groups, the same comment could be interpreted
as a criticism, rather than a compliment
The cultural specificity of the speaker’s
meaning is not a fact about the Chinese
The implicature could arise regardless of the
language they are speaking
John Austin pointed out that when people use
language they are performing a kind of action
These actions: speech acts
Example: “I now pronounce you man and
wife” in a wedding ceremony
All speech acts rely on the speaker using an
utterance to signal his intention to
accomplish some action and the hearer
inferring that action from the utterance: bets,
threats, promises, congratulations, apologies,
orders, threats
A) I promise to visit tomorrow
B) She promised to visit tomorrow
Sentences which perform actions –
performatives (A); other sentences (B) –
A good test of whether a sentence is a
performative is whether you can insert the
word hereby before the verb (I hereby
promise; *I hereby walk)
Austin pointed out that even constatives
perform actions of a sort; B performs the
action of reporting
The distinction between performatives and
constatives may not be as important as the
idea that all sentences can be used to
perform actions
Three levels:
Locutionary acts: grammar-internal actions like
articulating a certain sound, using a certain
morpheme, referring to a particular person
Illocutionary acts: actions of communication like
asserting a fact, asking a question, requesting an
action, making a paromise, or giving a warning
Perlocutionary acts: actions which go beyond
communication, like annoying, frightening, or
tricking someone by what you tell them
There’s a bear sneaking up behind you!
At the locutionary level, A utters the word
there and refers to the addressee with the
word you, etc.
At the illocutionary level, A asserts a fact and
warns B.
At the perlocutionary level, A frightens B and
causes B to run away
Illocutionary force – the type of
communicative intention that the speaker has
The bear example: the illocutionary force of
The context in which the sentence is uttered –
crucial in interpreting the illocutionary force
of a speech act (if a loan shark to whom you
owe money says “I promise to visit
tomorrow”, the speech act may be a threat
(disguised as a promise)
Pragmatics – about how the context of use
contributes to meaning, both semantic
meaning and speaker’s meaning
Core topics: indexicality, presupposition,
implicature, speech acts
Semantic meaning – the literal meaning of a
word, phrase or sentence
The speaker’s meaning - what a language
user intends to communicate
Semantic meaning - derived in accordance
with the Principle of Compositionality through
the interplay of lexical meaning, grammatical
structure, and the context of use

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