Essay about Semantic Phenomena versus Pragmatic Phenomena


It seems unlikely that there will ever be consensus about the extent to which we can reliably distinguish semantic phenomena from pragmatic phenomena. But there is now broad agreement that a sentence’s meaning can be given in full only when it is studied in its natural habitat: as part of an utterance by an agent who intends it to communicate a message. Here, we document some of the interactions that such study has uncovered. In every case, to achieve even a basic description, it is necessary to pool semantic information, contextual information, speaker intentions, and general pragmatic pressures.

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Space limitations preclude discussion of PRESUPPOSITIONS and SPEECH-ACTS, two important classes of phenomena for which semantics and pragmatics are so thoroughly intertwined that analyses of them invariably draw information from both domains.

In a broad range of cases, pragmatic information is required just to obtain complete and accurate meanings for the words and phrases involved. Indexical expressions (see INDEXICALS) are clear examples (Kaplan 1971). In order to determine what proposition is expressed by an utterance of (1), we must look to the context to fix the speaker.

(1) I am here.

We must also appeal to the context to obtain the intended meaning of here (in this room, in this city, …). Which meaning we select will be shaped by considerations of informativity and relevance (see PRAGMATICS). (For example, (1) is likely to be trivially true if here is construed as picking out planet earth, and speakers will therefore avoid that interpretation until interplanetary travel becomes routine.)

Similar factors influence anaphora resolution. If a speaker utters (2), his addressees will …

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Sadock, Jerrold M. 1978. On testing for conversational implicature. In Peter Cole, ed., Syntax and Semantics, Vol. 9: Pragmatics, 281–297. New York: Academic Press.


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