Basic ideas in semantics
UNIT 1 ABOUT SEMANTICS
Definition SEMANTICS is the study of MEANING in LANGUAGE.
Comment The rest of this book can be regarded as an example of how one goes about
investigating and understanding semantics. It may seem to you that meaning
is so vague, insubstantial, and elusive that it is impossible to come to any
clear, concrete, or tangible conclusions about it.We hope to convince you
that by careful thought about the language you speak and the way it is used,
deﬁnite conclusions CAN be arrived at concerning meaning. In the ﬁrst
exercise below, we ask you to start to get yourself into the habit of careful
thinking about your language and the way you use it, concentrating,
naturally, on instances of such words as mean, means, and meaning.
Practice Reproduced below is a well-known passage from Lewis Carroll’s Through the
Looking Glass. Pick out all the instances of the word mean (or means,or
meant), noting which lines they occur in. (Some line numbers are given in
the margin for convenience.) After the passage there are some questions for
you to answer.
1 ‘. . . that shows that there are three hundred and sixty-four days
when you might get un-birthday presents.’
‘Certainly,’ said Alice.
‘And only one for birthday presents, you know. There’s glory for
‘I don’t know what you mean by “glory,” ’ Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. ‘Of course you don’t –
till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knockdown argument for you.” ’
‘But “glory” doesn’t mean ‘a nice knockdown argument,’ Alice
‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful
tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.’
‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean
so many diﬀerent things.’
15 ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master –
UNIT 2 SENTENCES, UTTERANCES, AND PROPOSITIONS
Introduction This unit introduces some basic notions in semantics. It is important that
you master these notions from the outset as they will keep recurring
throughout the course.
Instruction Read the following out loud:
Virtue is its own reward
Now read it out loud again.
Comment The same sentence was involved in the two readings, but you made two
diﬀerent utterances, i.e. two unique physical events took place.
Definition An UTTERANCE is any stretch of talk, by one person, before and after which
there is silence on the part of that person.
An utterance is the USE by a particular speaker, on a particular occasion,
of a piece of language, such as a sequence of sentences, or a single phrase, or
even a single word.
Practice Now decide whether the following could represent utterances. Indicate your
answer by circling Yes or No.
(1) ‘Hello’ Yes / No
(2) ‘Not much’ Yes / No
(3) ‘Utterances may consist of a single word, a single phrase
or a single sentence. They may also consist of a sequence
of sentences. It is not unusual to ﬁnd utterances that
consist of one or more grammatically incomplete
sentence-fragments. In short, there is no simple relation of
correspondence between utterances and sentences’ Yes / No
(4) ‘Pxgotmgt’ Yes / No
(5) ‘Schplotzenpﬂaaaaaaargh!’ Yes / No
UNIT 3 REFERENCE AND SENSE
Entry requirements SENTENCES, UTTERANCES, and PROPOSITIONS (Unit 2). If you feel you
understand these notions, take the entry test below.
Entry test Answer the following:
(1) State which of the following represents an utterance (U) and which a
John sang wonderfully last night S / U
‘John sang wonderfully last night’ S / U
(2) Can a sentence be true or false? Yes / No
(3) Is an utterance tied to a particular time and place? Yes / No
(4) Is a sentence tied to a particular time and place? Yes / No
(5) Can a proposition be said to be in any particular language? Yes / No
(6) Can an utterance be true or false? Yes / No
Feedback (1) S, U (2) Yes (3) Yes (4) No (5) No (6) Yes
If you have scored less than 5 correct out of 6, you should review Unit 2.
If you have scored at least 5 correct out of 6, continue to the introduction.
Introduction This unit explains some further basic notions in semantics. It is important
that you master these notions from the outset as they will keep recurring
throughout the course.
Comment On this page and the following ones, you will learn the diﬀerence between
two quite distinct ways of talking about the meaning of words and other
expressions. In talking of sense, we deal with relationships inside the language;
in talking of reference we deal with the relationships between language and
Definition By means of reference, a speaker indicates which things in the world
(including persons) are being talked about.