997 words (limit of 1,000)

To appear in the Cambridge Encyclopedia of the Language Sciences


Christopher Potts
University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Final draft, March 2, 2007
[Capital letters cross-reference other entries.]

It seems unlikely that there will ever be consensus about the extent to which we can reliably distinguish semantic phenomena from pragmatic phenomena. But there is now broad agreement that a sentence's meaning can be given in full only when it is studied in its natural habitat: as part of an utterance by an agent who intends it to communicate a message. Here, we document some of the interactions that such study has uncovered. In every case, to achieve even a basic description, it is necessary to pool semantic information, contextual information, speaker intentions, and general pragmatic pressures.

Space limitations preclude discussion of PRESUPPOSITIONS and SPEECH-ACTS, two important classes of phenomena for which semantics and pragmatics are so thoroughly intertwined that analyses of them invariably draw information from both domains.

In a broad range of cases, pragmatic information is required just to obtain complete and accurate meanings for the words and phrases involved. Indexical expressions (see INDEXICALS) are clear examples (Kaplan 1971). In order to determine what proposition is expressed by an utterance of (1), we must look to the context to fix the speaker.

(1) I am here.

We must also appeal to the context to obtain the intended meaning of here (in this room, in this city, ...). Which meaning we select will be shaped by considerations of informativity and relevance (see PRAGMATICS). (For example, (1) is likely to be trivially true if here is construed as picking out planet earth, and speakers will therefore avoid that interpretation until interplanetary travel becomes routine.)

Similar factors influence anaphora resolution. If a speaker utters (2), his addressees will be guided to a referent for she by their assumptions about his intentions as well as discourse coherence.

(2) She left on a bicycle.

The interpretive steps resemble those for indexicals, but pronouns tend to be more ambiguous in practice, and, perhaps as a result, languages depend on complex systems of conventions to narrow their referents (Karttunen 1976, Heim 1983, Bittner 2001).

This kind of context dependency is so widespread in language that one might feel hard-pressed to find an example that lacked it. We do not know what is expressed by It's cloudy until we fix a time and place (and a standard for cloudiness). We can't be sure of the truth or falsity of counterfactual If kangaroos had no tails, they would fall over unless we know which possibilities to consider (Kratzer 1989). (Suppose they had crutches, or jet packs.) If a politician says ``Many people support my proposal'', we need to know whether there are additional implicit restrictions (people in the city, people who own cats), and we need to have a sense for the current numerical standards for many. The sentence Wood is strong enough can be evaluated only if we can flesh out its meaning so that it specifies what wood is claimed to be strong enough for (Bach 1994). Comparable examples can be constructed for just about any area of natural language.

Pragmatic information can enrich a speaker's message in ways that extend far beyond determining its central descriptive content. The primary meaning classification here is the CONVERSATIONAL IMPLICATURE. The dialogue in (3), based on one from Grice 1975, illustrates.

(3) A: Does Smith have a new girlfriend?
B: He's been spending a lot of time in New York lately.

From a semantic perspective, B fails to answer A's question. We do not, though, perceive the answer as irrelevant. We posit conversational implicatures that successfully address A's query. If it is shared knowledge that B keeps track of Smith's personal life, then B's answer will convey something like ``Yes, and she lives in New York''. If it is shared knowledge that B never dates New Yorkers, then it might convey ``No, his trips prevent him from finding companionship.''

As this example indicates, conversational implicatures are highly malleable. Changes to the context can deliver subtle meaning changes, even as the utterance remains the same and the core semantic content stays fixed. This malleability is not shared by semantic meanings, so it provides a reliable method for diagnosing a meaning as semantic or pragmatic. Theorists have occasionally posited conversational implicatures that lack this malleability (e.g., Sadock 1978, Blutner 1998), but there remains broad agreement that it is a distinguishing feature (Levinson 2000).

Conversational implicatures might sometimes play a direct role in determining semantic content. For instance, it seems generally true that the semantic meaning of and does not impose a temporal ordering on its conjuncts. We tend to interpret sentences like Ali fell out of bed and woke up as conveying that Ali first fell out of bed and then woke up, but we can cancel this meaning (``but not in that order!'') without contradicting ourselves. This suggests conversational-implicature status, as does our ability to derive the meaning from general pragmatic pressures. What, then, are we to make of (4), in which this pragmatic meaning must be construed as part of the semantic content?

(4)Driving home and drinking three beers is better than drinking three beers and driving home. (Levinson 2000)

Here again, we seem to require high-level pragmatic information just to determine the denotation of the sentence. For a variety of responses, see Levinson 2000, Chierchia 2004, Russell 2006 and Bach 2004.

The facts discussed here are important for the principle of COMPOSITIONALITY (Partee 2004, Barker and Jacobson 2007), which says that the meaning of a complex expression is a function of the meanings of its parts and their mode of composition. In order to fix the meaning of here in an utterance of (1), for instance, we had to look far beyond the item itself. We gathered information from the context, and we drew inferences about the speaker's intentions. Compositionality thus demands that the context itself be one of the parts involved in the construction of complex meanings. The example is not especially remarkable; we find intricate context dependency of this sort throughout the compositional semantic system.

—Christopher Potts

Works cited

Bach, Kent. 1994. Conversational impliciture. Mind and Language9:124–162.

Bach, Kent. 2004. Context ex machina. In Zoltán Szabó, ed., Semantics vs. Pragmatics, 15–44. New York: Oxford University Press.

Barker, Chris and Pauline Jacobson, eds. 2006. Direct Compositionality. Oxford University Press.

Bittner, Maria. 2001. Surface composition as bridging. Journal of Semantics 18(2):127–177.

Blutner, Reinhard. 1998. Lexical pragmatics. Journal of Semantics15(2):115–162.

Chierchia, Gennaro. 2004. Scalar implicatures, polarity phenomena, and the syntax/pragmatics interface. In Adriana Belletti, ed., Structures and Beyond: The Cartography of Syntactic Structures, Volume 3, 39–103. New York: Oxford University Press. [The manuscript began circulating in 2001].

Grice, H. Paul. 1975. Logic and conversation. In Peter Cole and Jerry Morgan, eds., Syntax and Semantics, Volume 3: Speech Acts, 43–58. New York: Academic Press.

Heim, Irene. 1982. The Semantics of Definite and Indefinite Noun Phrases. PhD thesis, University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Kaplan, David. 1989. Demonstratives: An essay on the semantics, logic, metaphysics, and epistemology of demonstratives and other indexicals. In Joseph Almog, John Perry, and Howard Wettstein, eds., Themes from Kaplan, 481–614. Oxford University Press. [Versions of this paper began circulating in 1971].

Karttunen, Lauri. 1976. Discourse referents. In James D. McCawley, ed., Syntax and Semantics, Volume 7: Notes from the Linguistic Underground, 363–385. New York: Academic Press.

Kratzer, Angelika. 1989. An investigation of the lumps of thought. Linguistics and Philosophy 12(6):607–653.

Levinson, Stephen C. 2000. Presumptive Meanings: The Theory of Generalized Conversational Implicature. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Partee, Barbara H. 2004. Compositionality in Formal Semantics: Selected Papers of Barbara H. Partee, Volume 1 of Explorations in Semantics. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Russell, Benjamin. 2006. Against grammatical computation of scalar implicatures. Journal of Semantics 23(4):361–382.

Sadock, Jerrold M. 1978. On testing for conversational implicature. In Peter Cole, ed., Syntax and Semantics, Vol. 9: Pragmatics, 281–297. New York: Academic Press.

Suggestions for further reading

Bach, Kent. 1999b. The semantics–pragmatics distinction: What it is and why it matters. In Ken Turner, ed., The Semantics–Pragmatics Interface from Different Points of View, 65–84. Oxford: Elsevier. http://online.sfsu.edu/ kbach/spd.htm.

Horn, Laurence R. 2005. The border wars. In Klaus von Heusinger and Ken P. Turner, eds., Where Semantics Meets Pragmatics, 21–48. Oxford: Elsevier.

Kadmon, Nirit. 2001. Formal Pragmatics. Oxford: Blackwell.