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8) Introduction to Semantics and Pragmatics

So far in this series on the basis of linguistics, we have considered how words are constructed of morphemes, and how words are classified, and form groups known as phrases. We have, as well, considered how language is created through the human vocal apparatus. We have explored how phonemes are created through the place and manner of articulation.

What we have not yet considered, though, is the complex issue of meaning – and meaning is the purview of semantics, together with its fellow pragmatics. This is an area which is huge, complex and many-layered – and for this reason we will not be exploring it in any great depth here. Our purpose is more to understand what is meant by semantics, and what are some of the problems associated with meaning in language?

What are semantics and pragmatics?

Semantics is the study of the meaning of linguistic expressions. William Ladusaw writes:

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 (n.d.).

To summarise, semantics includes the study of:

  • How language creates words and how words create meaning (lexical semantics);

  • How meaning is created through sentence structure and grammar (compositional semantics);

  • How meaning is shaped by the context in which language is used (pragmatics).

Ferdinand de Saussure was one of the first – and arguably the most significant – of thinkers to begin to shape a specifically modernist view of language function. Traditionally (and this view is still probably the most common acceptance of how language actually functions) language has been considered a simple relationship between an object, and a word which is used to identify it.

For example, we have a small, cute furry object:

And a word which is attached to that object:


But actually, Saussure noted, it is not that simple. Words, we know, are composed of phonemes which go to make up the sound-elements of the word. But these sound elements relate to the physical movements of the mouth, tongue and throat as those words are formed orally. They do not explain that the word itself has distinctive associations for particular groups of people. As such, linguistics only goes so far as to describe the word-sound – but this does not explain how the word works in communicating meaning. Such sound-elements as phonemes are not present in words which are not articulated: words which are written down or (more significantly) words which are mentally rather than orally framed. Similarly, such a word can only communicate meaning if there are shared sets of assumptions from the community of people who use it.

In other words, the word ‘cat’ can only mean ‘small furry feline’ if a group of people have already agreed that this is what the word means. If I pointed at a small furry feline and began to exclaim ‘woogerdongo!’, it would make sense to nobody. I may have decided myself that ‘woogerdongo’ was a new word meaning small furry feline – but unless everyone else knows this too, it communicates no meaning.

So for Saussure, words themselves are more usefully thought of not as isolated systems, but as signs which communicate meaning by pointing towards it through interaction and shared assumptions among groups of people. These signs are composed of two parts: the signifier and the signified. The signifier is the vehicle of the sign – the word itself. The signified is the concept being pointed to by the signifier.

Using out example above, ‘cat’ acts as the signifier. It points to the concept – a small furry feline:

A linguistic sign, then, contains both the word itself and the concept which the word is pointing to. When somebody is giving directions and they say ‘take a left at the cat’, both the person giving the instructions and the person receiving the instructions share the understanding of what the sign ‘cat’ means. Both possess a mental image of a small feline which is automatically associated with the signifier ‘cat’.

The sign works because the signifier and the signified operate together. We as a group share the associations, and this makes the sign effective. If none of you spoke English, or knew what a car was, you could certainly define the word in terms of its sound patterns – but the word itself would communicate no meaning. Language communicates meaning through signs.

Hence semiotics – or, as Saussure preferred to call it, semiology – from the Greek semeion, meaning ‘sign’.

For example, take a look at these three signs:

Now answer this question:

You will probably find that your answers do not differ significantly from the answers of anybody else, because the idea of what is being signified is something which you all share.

In each of those three examples then, we can see that the symbol works equally as well as a word might as signifiers. Indeed, many languages are written in symbols rather than words (hieroglyphics):

Words can create meaning because they signify external objects, ideas or realities which we have learned to associate with them. However, this is not the only way in which meaning is created. As Geoffrey Finch writes, “[w]ords mean in relation to each other, as well as in relation to an external reality” (2003. p. 147), and it is this compositional semantics which we will look at next.

Compositional Semantics: Meaning through Sentence Structure

To begin with, consider the following sentence:

Colourful red umbrellas moved playfully

We can certainly analyse this sentence in terms of phraseology. It contains two distinct phrases – a noun phrase with a pre-modifying adjective, and a verb phrase with a post-modifying adverb:

In the noun phrase, the words ‘red’ and ‘colourful’ are both adjectives, but ‘red’ functions as a determiner and ‘colourful’ as a pre-determiner. The phrase structure of the sentence might thus be written:

The verb phrase, in the contexts of the sentence, is modifying the noun phrase, and as such we have a rather nice sentence with is both descriptive and figurative (umbrella’s cannot literally be ‘playful’. This adjective is a personification).

In many ways, this sentence represents 'good English'. It is descriptive and creative, while at the same time being grammatically sound. Now, though, let us consider another sentence which demonstrates exactly the same sentence structure:

Colourless green ideas sleep furiously

In terms of its phrase structure and its grammar, this sentence works in exactly the same way as the previous example. Again, there is a noun phrase and a verb phrase, each of which is modified by adjectives and an adverb respectively:

If we are thinking grammatically, the answer to the question above is probably 'yes'. It ‘works’ as a sentence, and indeed the grammatical strength of the sentence might actually make you feel like the sentence makes as much sense as ‘colourful red umbrellas moved playfully’.

But there is a difference. The sentence ‘colourful red umbrellas moved playfully’ might be fanciful, but it does make sense and it contains a discernable meaning. The sentence ‘colourless green ideas sleep furiously’ though, makes no sense at all. How can something be described as both ‘colourless’ and ‘green’? Surely this is a paradox? How can ‘ideas’ have a colour? How can ‘ideas’ ‘sleep’? Finally, to ‘sleep furiously’ as a paradoxical oxymoron (a phrase which contains two contradictory terms).

The sentence ‘colourless green ideas sleep furiously’ was first coined by the linguist Noam Chomsky in his book Syntactic Structures (first published in 1957). The point he was trying to make was that there is a complex relationship between grammar and meaning which can often be deceptive (2002, p.15). Because the sentence makes grammatical sense

Generative grammar

Nigel Fabb of Strathclyde University writes that generative grammar “can be thought of as a collection of generalizations which can be used to decide whether a particular sentence is grammatical” (1994, p. 113). Fabb illustrates this with a simple example.

Let us, for a moment, imagine we have invented a very, very simple language, in which there are only four possible sentences. Each sentence is composed of a variation of three components (just as English sentences are composed of an object, noun, verb, etc.). We shall call these components X, Y and Z.

Recognising the components of the sentences, we can now describe the four sentences in our language as:
1. Y
2. XY
3. YZ
4. XYZ

From these patterns we can determine certain rules. Let us unpick them:

Observation: We can see that Y is a component of every sentence.
Rule: Therefore a sentence must include Y. A sentence with XZ is ungrammatical.

Observation: We can see that while Y is a constant, the sentences can either include or exclude X and Z.
Rule: X and Z are optional components in a sentence.

Observation: We can see, as well, that while X may appear before Y, Z only ever appears after Y.
Rule: Sentences which include ZY or YX are ungrammatical.

Indeed, we can now summarise these rules as follows:

Every sentence in the language fits into the following pattern:

(X) Y (Z)

A letter in brackets is optional

Generative grammars refer to the various theories which attempt to define a similar set of rules for the structure of the English language. As you can surely imagine, this is a far more complicated task for English than for our 4-sentence imaginary language above, and includes such dizzying observations as “a noun that is chosen to be the head of the subject in a clause is often likely to perform the action of the predicator, and to affect the referent of the object in some way” (Jeffries, 2006. p. 156). Indeed, the task is so enormously complex it can only ever remain theoretical.

There are many different kinds of generative grammars which have been proposed, such as the Government-Binding Theory, Generalised Phrase Structure Grammar, Relational Grammar and Lexical-Functional Grammar (Fabb, 1994. p. 113). Indeed, Chomsky’s Syntactic Structures, from 1957, was the first formal attempt at creating a generative grammar – and the achievement is one of the things which has made Chomsky regarded by many as “arguably the most important intellectual alive” (New York Times Book Review, 25 February, 1979).

Is Grammar more important than Words?

Because language is in a constant state of flux, theories of generative grammar constantly need to be modified and re-invented. After all, the association of words to objects in any given language is to a large extent arbitrary:

The fact that the sounds /tri:/ (‘tree’) are used to indicate the object growing in the ground is simple because this is the way out language works, but there is no reason why any other string of sounds wouldn’t do, providing other people could understand us (Finch, 2003. p. 132).

Words carry meaning because we learn to associate meaning with them. However, words can also carry meaning because the grammatical structure which surrounds them generate that meaning.

Words signify through a complex web of relationships by means of which they establish their own individual semantic space (Finch, 2003. p. 147).

As Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote, “the meaning of a word is its use in the language” (1957).

For example, consider the following poem from Lewis Carrol. Although the words included in it are literal non-sense, it is impossible not to somehow sense that there is a meaning there because although the words are invented, the grammatical structures they sit within are established.

An Example of Meaning through Grammar

Try reading this poem, and whenever you come to a word you do not recognise ask yourself whether you can classify it as a noun, a verb, an adjective, etc..

Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

"Beware the jabberwock, my son.
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!"

He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought --
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.

And as in uffish thought he stood,
The jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

"And has thou slain the jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!"
He chortled in his joy.

'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe

Lewis Caroll

You have (hopefully) discovered from this poem that even though it makes no sense in terms of a rational and knowable meaning (or 'truth value'), it does make sense grammatically.  You can actually quite easily distinguish the nouns from the verbs simply in terms of their relationships to each other and to the grammatical identifiers around them.

Pragmatics: The Importance of Context

Here is an illustration from linguist William Ladusaw (n.d.).

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 … the fundamental pragmatic difference between what is actually said and what is implied by the saying of it.

In this example, the meaning is shaped by the contexts in which language is being used. This is a meaning which is entirely separate from the sign (or the word), and from the grammar of the language being used. It is a meaning shaped by the pragmatic use of language – hence pragmatics (Saussure referred to this function as parole).

Words can have multiple meanings. The word ‘cat’ can have a simple signification, but depending on its contexts it can mean:

• Look out, there’s a cat!

• Ah! Look at that lovely cat!

• You are like a cat!

Most of the time we make unconscious decisions about how to determine which of the many different possible meanings to attribute to any particular word. Occasionally though, we are reminded of the problems which can occur through misinterpreting the contexts of language. These kinds of problems are a common source of humour. Consider, for example, the following extract from The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy:

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: Ask a glass of water.

Again, Ladusaw provides a useful analysis:

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.


Finch, G. (2003). How to Study Linguistics, 2nd edn.. Basingstoke: Palgrave.

Jeffries, L. (2006). Discovering Language: The Structure of Modern English. Basingstoke: Palgrave.

Fabb, N. (1994). Sentence Structure. London: Routledge.

Caroll, L. (1872). Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There [internet]. University of Virginia Library. Available from: [Accessed: 14th March 2010].

Chomsky, N. (2002). Syntactic Structures, 2nd edn.. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Ladusaw, W. (n.d.). Meaning [internet]. Linguistic Society of America. Available from: [Accessed: 14th March, 2010].

Wittgenstein, L. (1953). Philosophical Investigations, ed. Anscombe, G.E.M. and Rhees, R. Oxford: Blackwell

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