Meaning seems at once the most obvious feature of language and the most obscure aspect to study. It is obvious because it is what we use language for—to communicate with each other, to convey 'what we mean' effectively. But the steps in understanding something said to us in a language in which we are fluent are so rapid, so transparent, that we have little conscious feel for the principles and knowledge which underlie this communicative ability.

Questions of 'semantics' are an important part of the study of linguistic structure. They encompass several different investigations: how each language provides words and idioms for fundamental concepts and ideas (lexical semantics), how the parts of a sentence are integrated into the basis for understanding its meaning (compositional semantics), and how our assessment of what someone means on a particular occasion depends not only on what is actually said but also on aspects of the context of its saying and an assessment of the information and beliefs we share with the speaker.


Research in these areas reveals principles and systems which have many applications. The study of lexical (word) semantics and the conceptual distinctions implicit in the vocabulary of a language improves dictionaries which enable speakers of a language to extend their knowledge of its stock of words. It also improves materials which help those acquiring a second language through instruction. Studying the rules governing the composition of word meanings into sentence meanings and larger discourses allows us to build computer systems which can interact with their users in more naturalistic language. Investigating how our understanding of what is said is influenced by our individual and cultural assumptions and experience, which are much less visible than what is explicitly said, can help make us more aware and effective communicators. The result of all of these (sometimes very abstract) investigations is a deeper understanding and appreciation of the complexity and expressive elegance of particular languages and the uniquely human system of linguistic communication.

The Importance of Context

We can appreciate how someone can mean more than they `strictly speaking' say by considering the same thing said in two different contexts. Consider two people, Pat and Chris, who are getting to know each other on a first date. If Chris says to Pat at the end of the evening, "I like you a lot.", Pat will likely feel good about the situation. But imagine that Pat and Chris have been dating for some weeks, and Pat asks, "Do you love me?" Now if Chris says, "I like you a lot," the reaction will likely be quite different, as Chris' statement is taken as a negative answer! The difference does not come from the content of what is said but from the operation of a general pragmatic principle: When evaluating something on a scale of values, putting it at a certain point on the scale implies that all the higher values on the scale are inappropriate. It is our background assessment that positive feeling is ranked on a scale with 'love' higher than "like" which makes Chris' reply in the second context convey "No, don't love you." We apply this scalar principle so automatically that it is easy to overlook the fundamental pragmatic difference between what is actually said and what is implied by the saying of it.

A close examination of most words reveals that they have many different senses and the rules which combine them into sentence meanings will frequently yield several possibilities for interpretation. Usually we resolve potential ambiguity unconsciously—unless someone carefully constructs a joke which turns on an ambiguity. Consider for example this joke, taken from Douglas Adams' The hitchhiker's guide to the galaxy. Ford and Arthur, are stowaways on a space ship.

Ford: You should prepare yourself for the jump into hyperspace; it's unpleasantly like being drunk.
Arthur: What's so unpleasant about being drunk?
Ford: Just ask a glass of water.

The passage turns on the ambiguity of the word 'drunk', which can be an adjective, meaning 'affected by alcohol', or the passive form of the verb 'drink'. Arthur takes Ford as intending the first sense of 'drunk'—with good reason: he's unlikely to mean that someone would drink him. But Ford reveals that the bizarre interpretation is what he intends. The art of the image is the metaphorical treatment of a person as a liquid; the joke turns on the sleight of hand which makes our semantic interpreter lean in one direction before pulling us back in an unexpected way with a disambiguation.

These examples illustrate our semantic and pragmatic abilities in action. The goal of linguistic research into meaning is to illuminate the processes and knowledge involved.

by William Ladusaw

Suggested Readings

Chierchia, Gennaro, and Sally McConnell-Ginet. 1990. Meaning and grammar.Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Clark, Herbert H. 1996. Using language. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Jackendoff, Ray. 1983. Semantics and cognition. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Allen, James. 1995. Natural language understanding. Redwood City, CA: Benjamin Cummings, Pub. 2nd edn.