Week 1

About Semantics

Semantics is the study of meaning.

1. What is meaning?

    What does tree mean?

            Palm tree, olive tree etc. (speaker)

Any large perennial plant with a trunk and branches. (word/dictionary)

  • The word mean can be applied to people who use the language, i.e. to speakers in roughly the sense of ‘intend’

            e.g. “That man lives in a little house” 

What would the underlined expression mean in your opinion if said by:

  1. The king of Spain
  2. The general manger of a big company
  3. A school teacher
  • The word mean can also be applied to words and sentences in a different sense, roughly expressed as ‘be equivalent to’.

‘little’ is the equivalent of ‘small’

‘house’ is the equivalent of ‘a place where one can live’

Speaker meaning: what a speaker intends to convey when he uses a piece of language.

Sentence/Word meaning: what a sentence or word means, i.e. what counts as the equivalent of in the language concerned.

2. Can meaningfulness be equated with informativeness?

Read the following conversation between two people at a bus stop one morning, then answer the question below (1)-(7).

  1. A: “Nice day”
  2. B: “Yes, a bit warmer than yesterday, isn’t it?”
  3. A: “That’s right – one day fine, the next cooler”
  4. B: “I expect it might get cooler again tomorrow”
  5. A: “May be – you never know what to expect, do you?”
  6. B: “No. Have you been away on holiday?”
  7. A: “Yes, we went to Spain”
  8. B: “Did you? We’re going to France next month”
  9. A: “Oh. Are you? That’ll be nice for the family. Do they speak French?”
  10. B: “Sheila’s quite good at it, and we’re hoping Martin will improve”
  11. A: “I expect he will. I do hope you have a good time”
  12. B: “Thank you. By the way, has the 42 bus gone by yet? It seems to be late”
  13. A: “No. I’ve been here since 8 o’clock and I haven’t seen it”
  14. B: “Good. I don’t want to be late for work. What time is it now?”
  15. A: “Twenty-five past eight”

1) Does speaker A tell speaker B anything he doesn’t already know in lines 1, 3, 5?

2) Does A’s statement in line 7 give B any new information?

3) When B says “Did you” in line 8, is he really asking A to tell him whether he (A) went to Spain?

4) Is there any indication that A needs to know the information that B gives him about traveling to France?

5) Does A’s “That’ll be nice for the family”: in line 9 give B any information?

6) Do A’s statements in lines 13 and 15 give B any information that he (B) needs?

7) At what point does this conversation switch from an exchange of uninformative statement to an exchange of informative statement?

Sentences, utterances and propositions

Utterance: The use by a particular speaker, on a particular occasion, in a particular way, of a piece of language, such as a sequence of sentences, or a single phrase, or even a single word.

– context-dependent

– characteristic use as assertions, requests, commands, queries, complaints, etc., etc.

– N.B. written as well as spoken

Could the following represent utterances?

  1. “Hello”
  2. “Not much”
  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 single correspondence between utterances and sentences”
  4. “Pxgotmgt”
  5. “Schplotzenpflaaaaaargh”

Sentence: A grammatically complete string of words expressing a complete thought.

– a rule-based grammatically complete string of words

– context-independent

– characteristic use as declaratives and interrogatives

To illustrate the idea of sentence, answer the following:

  1. Do all performances of ‘Macbeth’ begin by using the same sentence?
  2. Do all performances of ‘Macbeth’ begin with the same utterance?
  3. Does it make sense to talk of the time and place of a sentence?
  4. Does it make sense to talk of the time and place of an utterance?
  5. Can one talk of a loud sentence?
  6. Can one talk of a slow utterance?

NB: Any change in the words, or in their order makes different sentences.

  1. a. Helen rolled up the carpet.

b. Helen rolled the carpet up.

            2)   a. Sincerity may frighten the boy.

                  b. Sincerity may frighten the boy.

Proposition: That part of the meaning of the utterance of a declarative sentence which describes some state of affairs.

– either true or false

– may be asserted, denied or queried

– are translatable from one language to another without change of meaning.

The notion of truth can be used to decide whether two sentences express different propositions. If there is any conceivable set of circumstances in which one sentence is true, while the other is false, we can be sure that they express different propositions.

Say whether there are any circumstances of which one member of the pair could be true and the other false (assuming in each case that the name refers to the same person).

  1. Harry took out the garbage

Harry took the garbage out

  • John gave Marry a book

Marry was given a book by John

3)   Isobel danced with John

       Isobel didn’t dance with John

Note: the orthographic convention concerning the writing of utterances and sentences:

“Double quotation marks” for utterances

‘Single quotation marks’ for quoted sentences, phrases or words

Italics for propositions



What do (1) to (10) below mean?

Say in what way they are strange.

Find a context in which you could utter, and understand them.


2. War is war.

3. Henry Dobbins is an old woman.

4. The next sentence isn’t a sentence.

5. Nie mowie po polsku                                  (Trans. I don’t speak Polish)

6. Elephants are people too.

7. They are done whether they are or not.

8. Boys will be boys.

9. I’m not myself today.

10. It’s better than our best.


What semantic relations do the following sentences illustrate?

1.         His word processor has bad intentions.

2.         My unmarried sister is married to a bachelor.

3.         Flying planes can be dangerous.

4.         (a) The needle is too short.

            (b) The needle is not long enough.

5.         (a) Many of the students were unable to answer your question.

            (b) Only a few students grasped your question.

  • (a) Julian took his driving test again.
  • This was not the first time that Julian took his driving test.


Consider the following pairs of sentences. In each case say whether there are any circumstances in which one member of the pair could be true and the other false (assuming in each case that the same name, e.g. ‘Julian’, in a pair refers to the same person).

  1. (a) Julian ran up a huge bill.

(b) Julian ran a huge bill up.                                       Yes/No

  • (a) Caesar invaded Britain in 43 A.D.

(b) Britain was invaded by Caesar in 43 A.D.            Yes/No

  • (a) I own this alligator.

(b) This alligator belongs to me.                                Yes/No

  • (a) Julian loves Julia.

(b) Julia loves Julian.                                                  Yes/No

  • (a) John Smith is unmarried.

(b) John Smith is a bachelor                                       Yes/No

  • (a) The Mafia killed Kennedy.

(b) The Mafia caused Kennedy to die.                       Yes/No

Now say which pairs express one and the same proposition, and which ones different propositions.

  • same/different
  • same/different
  • same/different
  • same/different
  • same/different
  • same/different


 Fill in the chart below with ‘+’ or ‘-‘ as appropriate.

  utterances sentences propositions
Can be loud or quiet      
Can be grammatical or not      
Can be true or false      
In a particular regional accent      
In a particular language