Semantics and pragmatics


Each one of these topics contains more than enough material for an entire course, so today's introduction cannot do much more than skim the surface of what linguists mean by semantics and pragmatics.

Both semantics and pragmatics have to do with the meaning of language, and link language to the world. For lack of time within the space of one lecture, we will deal mostly with Pragmatics, but you should read carefully Crystal's section on Semantics as well (section 17, pp. 100-107), and these notes will hit the high points of what you are responsible for in semantics. Feel free to treat sections 18 and 19 (pp.108 - 115) as background reading, but pay close attention to sections 20 "Discourse and Text" (pp.116-119) and 21 "Pragmatics" (pp. 120-121). They are essential background to today's lecture.


The most general definition of semantics is that it is "the study of linguistic meaning", according to Crystal, or "the study of the meaning of words and sentences", according to Language Files.

Though we may find it easier to think of words as relating to "things" in the world (as Crystal discusses under the heading of 'reference'), semanticists point out that many words do not in fact refer to the extermal world at all. In using the term sense rather than reference, Crystal explains that "the focus of the modern subject [of semantics] is on the way people relate words to each other within the framework of their language" (p.102).

In discussing semantics, linguists normally use the term lexeme (as opposed to word), so that word can be retained for the inflected variants. Thus one can say that the words walk, walks, walked, and walking are different forms of the same lexeme. There are several kinds of sense relations among lexemes. First is the opposition between syntagmatic relations (the way lexemes are related in sentences) and paradigmatic relations (the way words can substitute for each other in the same sentence context). Important paradigmatic relations include:
(1) synonymy - a relation of "sameness", e.g pavement and sidewalk;
(2) hyponymy - a relation of "inclusion", e.g a cat is a type of animal;
(3) antonymy - a relation of "oppositeness", e.g big vs. small or buy vs.sell; and
(4) incompatibility - mutual exclusiveness within the same superordinate category, e.g. red and green.

We already discussed homonymy in the morphology lecture, but in thinking about lexemes as dictionary entries, it is important to distinguish homonymy from polysemy. Although it is not always easy to make the distinction, homonymy means that there are two different lexemes that, as Crystal puts it, "have the same shape", by which it seems he is trying to be neutral as between spelling and pronunciation. He gives the example of bank1, 'an area of ground'; and bank2, 'a building'. In contrast, polysemy means one lexeme that has several meanings, and here he gives the example of chip, which can be either of wood, of food, or electronic crcuit. Personally (GS), I am not so convinced about the electronic chip, which I think I would list as a separate word in the dictionary! In distinguishing polysemy from homonmy, understanding the concept is easier than putting it into practice.

Word semantics is given some attention by Crystal, but he has little to say about the semantics of sentences, which is in fact the area in which most semanticists concentrate their energies. This usually called propositional semantics, and it is, as Crystal notes, related to philosophy and logic. We cannot elaborate on this rich topic here, but it is clear that Penn has many resources in this area should you care to follow it up. Interested parties should probably have a look at the home page for the Institute for Reseach in Cognitive Science.


Pragmatics is the study of "how to do things with words" (the name of a well known book by the philosopher J.L. Austin), or of the meaning of language in context. Crystal considers it to be part of the wider field of discourse analysis. Language Files takes pragmatics to be "the study of the contribution of context to meaning". Pragmatics starts from the observation that people use language to accomplish many kinds of acts, broadly known as speech acts (as distinct from physical acts like drinking water or mental acts like thinking about drinking water). Speech acts include asking for a glass of water, in addition to making promises, issuing warnings or threats, giving orders, making requests for information, and many others. Most introductions to pragmatics divide speech acts into two categories: direct and indirect.

Direct Speech Acts

There are three basic types of direct speech acts, and they correspond to three special syntactic types that seem to occur in most of the world's languages. The following table is based on the way Language Files organizes its discussion, with the addition of some material from other languages (French and Buang) to demonstrate the cross-linguistic nature of this three-way distinction.

Speech Act Sentence

Function Examples
Assertion Declarative. conveys information; is true or false "Jenny got an A on the test"
"Les filles ont pris des photos."('The girls took photos')
"Biak eko nos." ('Biak took the food')
Question Interrogative elicits information " Did Jenny get an A on the test?"
"Les filles ont-elles pris des photos?"('Did the girls take photos')
"Biak eko nos me? "('Did Biak take the food')
Orders and Requests Imperative causes others to behave in certain ways "Get an A on the test!"
"Prenez des photos!"('Take some photos!')
"Goko nos! "('Take the food!')

Although assertions, questions and orders are fairly universal, and most of the world's languages have separate syntactic constructions that distinguish them, other speech acts do not have a syntactic construction that is specific to them. Consider the English sentence,

(a) If you cross that line, I'll wipe that smile right off your face!

Most English speakers would have no trouble identifying such an utterance as a threat, but it is clear that if-constructions are not specific to the speech act of threatening. Such a construction might also express a promise, as in:

(b) If you work hard all week, I'll give you a bonus!

or simply a cause and effect relationship between physical events:

(c) If you heat water to 212 degrees Fahrenheit, it will boil.

A consideration of the syntactic means available for expressing the various speech acts leads us to see that even for the three basic speech acts laid out in the table above, speakers may choose means of expression other than the basic syntactic type associated with the speech act in question. In other words, speakers may use indirect rather than direct speech acts.

Indirect Speech Acts

Returning to the direct speech act of questioning, we can easily come up with a number of alternate ways to ask the same question by using sentence types other than interrogative. Let's look again at the interrogative sentence:

(d1) Did Jenny get an A on the test?

A positive answer ("yes") to that question would give the questioner the actual answer she wanted, but now consider (d2)

(d2) Do you know if Jenny got an A on the test?

Here, the normal answer we would expect in real life would be "Yeah, she did", or "No, she only got a B", or something of the sort. But notice that in this case, the reply is directed to the speech act meaning, not the literal meaning. A simple "yes" answer that responds to the literal meaning would usually be taken for an uncooperative answer in actual social life (for example "Yes, I do") would be heard as "Yes, I do, but I'm not necessarily going to tell you". So, (d2) functions as an indirect question.

Other indirect ways of asking that same question are listed in (d3) and (d4), but insofar as these are indirect, addressees may always choose to take the literal, rather than the conventional reading, and not provide the answer speakers are looking for.

(d3) I'd like to know if Jenny got an A on the test
(d4) I wonder whether Jenny got an A on the test

In the case of the speech act of requesting, speakers can be even more indirect. As in the case of questions, conventional indirect requests may, taken literally, be questions about the addressee's knowledge or ability. Here is a direct request:

(e1)( Please) close the window.

Conventional indirect requests may be expressed as questions as in (e2) and (e3), or as assertions (e4). In context, (e5) may also be immediately understood as a complaint, meant as an indirect request for action.

(e2) Could you close the window?
(e3) Would you mind closing the window?
(e4) I would like you to close the window.
(e5) The window is still open!


One subtype of direct speech acts exists in English and in many other languages, and allows us to expand the kinds of direct speech acts we can make beyond the three basic types that have their own special syntax. These are the direct speech acts that use performative verbs to accomplish their ends. Performative verbs can also be used with the three basic speech act types as exemplified in (f) - (h), associated with making statements, requests and commands respectively:

(f) I assert that Jenny got an A on the test.
(g) I ask you who took the photos.
(h) I order you to close the window.

To these can be added performative verbs that allow us to directly convey promises, threats, warnings, etc.

(i) I advise you to keep up the payments on your car.
(i) I warn you not to step across this line.
(j) I promise you that I will pay the money back by the end of the month.
(k) I bet you a dollar that it'll rain on the parade.

In the last sentence, the utterance of the sentence actually accomplishes the act of betting (possibly along with setting aside the money for the bet), and as such, it belongs to the class of ceremonial utterances that accomplish other kinds of changes in the world:

(l) I now pronounce you husband and wife.
(m) I name this ship Sojourner.
(n) I dub thee Sir Galahad.

It is clear that not all uses of verbs that can be performative are actually performative in particular utterances. For example, if we change the person or the tense in any of the last seven sentences, they are no longer performative:

(i2) He advises you to keep up the payments on your car.
(m2) I named this ship Sojourner.

In both these cases, the utterance simply reports, and does not accomplish the act of advising or of naming.

The hereby test.

A test of whether or not a particular sentence is a performative utterance is whether or not you can insert hereby before the verb. If the resulting sentence doesn't make sense, it is not a performative:

(m3) I hereby name this ship Sojourner; but
(m4) *I hereby named this ship Sojourner.

Felicity Conditions

In order to "do things with words", certain things must be true of the context in which speech acts are uttered. In other words, a sentence must not only be grammatical to be correctly performed, it must also be felicitous. Crystal discusses three types of felicity conditions:

Preparatory conditions, such as that the person performing the speech act has the authority to do so, that the participants are in the correct state to have that act performed on them, and so on -- the marriage performed by an utterance like (l) cannot happen unless the participants are of age, and not already married, and unless the person who says the words has the authority to marry people.

Conditions on the manner of execution of the speech act, such as touching the new knight on both shoulders with the flat blade of a sword while intoning the words in (n); and

Sincerity conditions, obviously necessary in the case of verbs like apologize and promise.

According to Language Files, some of the felicity conditions on questions and requests as speech acts are as follows, where "S" = speaker; "H" = hearer; "P" = some state of affairs; and "A" = some action.

A. S questions H about P.
1. S does not know the truth about P.
2. S wants to know the truth about P.
3. S believes that H may be able to supply the information about P that S wants.

B. S requests H to do A.
1. S believes A has not yet been done.
2. S believes that H is able to do A.
3. S believes that H is willing to do A-type things for S.
4. S wants A to be done.

We can see what happens when some of these conditions are absent. In classrooms, for example, one reason that children may resent teachers' questions is that they know that there is a violation of A.1: the teacher already knows the answer. A violation of B.2 can turn a request into a joke: "Would you please tell it to stop raining?"

Gricean Conversational Maxims

The work of H.P. Grice takes pragmatics farther than the study of speech acts. Grice was a student of conversation, and he enunciated the basic principle that, outside of the theater of the absurd, most conversationalists seem to hold to: the Cooperative Principle. It has four sub-parts or maxims, that conversationalists are enjoined to respect.

(1) The maxim of quality. Speakers' contributions ought to be true.

(2) The maxim of quantity. Speakers' contributions should be as informative as required; not saying either too little or too much.

(3) The maxim of relevance. Contributions should relate to the purposes of the exchange.

(4) The maxim of manner. Contributions should be "perspicuous -- in particular, [they] should be orderly and brief, avoiding obscurity and ambiguity" (Crystal, p. 117).

Grice was not acting as a prescriptivist when he enunciated these maxims, even though they may sound prescriptive. Rather, he was using observations of the difference between "what is said" and "what is meant" to show that people actually do follow these maxims in conversation. We can see how this works in considering the maxim of quantity at work in the following made-up exchange between parent and child:

Parent: "Did you finish your homework?"

Child: "I finished my algebra".

Parent: "Well, get busy and finish your English, too!"

Further proof is that when people "violate" or "flout" these maxims, particular meanings are conveyed. It is certainly possible that the child could come back and (typically in a teasing tone) say that he had also finished all his other subjects. After all, he did not say he had not finished the rest of his homework. If you were to hear someone described as having "one good leg", you would be justified in assuming the person's other leg was bad, even though nothing particular had been said about it. Conversationalists are justified in making the inferences they typically do, because they as well as Grice have understood the difference between "what is said" and "what is meant".

Given and New

It was once thought in linguistics that the largest unit of structure that could be described was the sentence (i.e., that nothing useful could be said about, say, paragraphs). A corollary of this is that nothing beyond the sentence should be required to describe sentence-internal phenomena.

We can immediately see problems with this when we look at the use of pronouns. In order to analyze a text fragment like the one Crystal discusses on p.119, we have to understand that the pronoun 'they' in the second sentence is coreferential to 'several people' in the first sentence: "Several people approached. They seemed angry."

This co-reference relation is called anaphora, the noun phrase 'several people' being the anaphor of the pronoun 'they'. In discussing coreference, Crystal also mentions the opposite process, cataphora, by which the thing referred to come after the pronoun, but this is a much rarer process, mainly because of the way that the given-new principle operates in language. Normally, information that is "old" in terms of the particular discourse (what conversationalists have been discussing up to this point in a conversation, for instance) is referred to using a pronoun, and occurs early in a sentence. What is "new" typically occurs as a noun, and occurs later in the sentence:

"When John appeared at the party, he was introduced to Pearl.
She had arrived with her friend Julie."

In this text fragment, John turns into 'he' when John is "known", and this pronoun occurs at the beginning of the clause that introduces Pearl as new. When she becomes known, she also gets converted to the pronoun 'she' in the next sentence, occupying a slot at the beginning of the next sentence, which in turn introduces the new character, Julie, in the typical sentence-final position.

Another way to understand how pragmatics can locate order in linguistic organization above the level of the sentence is to consider sentences that seem to have the same meaning, like (o) - (r):

(o) I need a nickel.
(p) It's me that needs a nickel.
(q) What I need is a nickel.
(r) A nickel is what I need.

Now, imagine yourself standing next to a phone booth fishing for change. If someone came to help you out, they might say something like:

(s) What are you looking for?

Would (o) - (q) be equally likely as an answer?

Here are some more things a person might ask, depending on the circumstances:

(t) What do you need?
(u) Here's a dime.
(v) Who's the one that needs a nickel?

Studying how these potential questions and answers pair up shows us that (o) - (r) are not pragmatically equivalent, even though they may be to a large extent semantically equivalent. This is because language has many devices for indicating what is given and what is new, and questions set up expectations that are respected in the answers. (q) would be a very strange answer to (v), because what is given in (v) is that someone needs a nickel, whereas (q) assumes that the person is given, and what is needed is at issue. Further, we can see that (r) functions as a refusal to the offer made in (u) -- in itself an indirect speech act.