LINGUIST List 10.1596

Sat Oct 23 1999

Review: Turner: The Semantics/Pragmatics Interface

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  1. Francisco Yus, Turner: Semantics Pragmatics Interface

Message 1: Turner: Semantics Pragmatics Interface

Date: Mon, 4 Oct 1999 09:35:16 +0200
From: Francisco Yus <>
Subject: Turner: Semantics Pragmatics Interface

Ken Turner (ed.) The Semantics/Pragmatics Interface from 
Different Points of View. (Current Research in the 
Semantics/Pragmatics Interface, vol. 1). Oxford: Elsevier, 
1999. x + 491 pages, 90.50 USD, 178 NLG.

Reviewed by Francisco Yus, University of Alicante, Spain.

	"We human beings are odd compared with our nearest 
	animal relatives. Unlike them, we can say what we want, 
	when we want. All normal humans can produce and 
	understand any number of new words and sentences. 
	Humans use the multiple options of language often 
	without thinking. But blindly, they sometimes fall into 
	its traps. They are like spiders who exploit their 
	webs, but themselves get caught in the sticky strands" 
	(Aitchison, 1996).

This quote may well be applied to the study of language from 
a semantic or pragmatic point of view. As speaking animals, 
we could have just packed our messages in carefully word- 
wrapped containers and send them out to be opened easily by 
our addressees. As linguists, we could have built up only 
idealized models of languages as transparent reflections of 
people's thoughts. But, of course, that would have been too 
easy. Instead, as human beings we have developed an ability 
to speak figuratively, be ironic, understate, speak loosely, 
create metaphors... and as linguists we have undertaken the 
task of explaining how all these 'special effects' are 
produced and understood, have taken the path of a context- 
or use-bound pragmatic research and have finally got 
trapped in its sticky strands, in "an area of linguistic 
research with fuzzy boundaries - spreading like an 
uncontrollable oil slick" (Parret, Sbis and Verschueren, 
1981, quoted in Turner, this volume, Introduction, p. 14). 
So many aspects of language production and comprehension 
have had to be taken into consideration that eventually 
pragmatics has ended up with no clear-cut research program 
apart from a manifest interest in the study of context and 
language in use.

 However, at the same time, many researchers have 
finally realized that no serious analysis of language can 
be carried out without appealing to (at least some of) its 
pragmatic aspects. This has put analysts of context-free 
semantics in a difficult position, faced with an 
increasingly ubiquitous body of pragmatic research. Exactly 
how many (purely) semantic and (context-or-use-bound) 
pragmatic aspects are there in ordinary language use? The 
fifteen articles included in the volume under review (plus 
the editor's introduction) aim at establishing where this 
interface may be located. As the title of the book 
indicates, the reader will find no 'philosopher's stone' to 
satisfy everyone but, rather, "different points of view" 
illustrating where in a hypothetical semantic/pragmatic 
continuum this interface lies. It is precisely this 
multiplicity of perspectives and instructive lack of 
agreement that I find most interesting in the book.

 Turner, in his introduction to the volume 
("Introduction -from a certain point of view (seven inch 
version)", 1-18) briefly discusses different proposals of 
where (if ever) semantics and pragmatics meet, concluding 
that the aim of the volume is "to take some steps to 
reducing the heat of some of these discussions and to begin 
to increase the light that might profitably be shed on some 
of the problems of interdigitating content and context" (p. 
14). In this book these steps are definitely taken, and 
should lead the way to forthcoming volumes in the series.

 Below, I will sketch the different views of the 
semantics/pragmatics interface that are proposed in the 
volume. In general, the reader will find not only general 
accounts of theories dealing with this interface (as it 
would be expected in a first volume in the series), but also 
very specific research on sentential particles which shows 
that a purely semantic analysis is limited or inadequate.

 1. Semantics // Pragmatics = dynamic semantics // dynamic 

 N. Asher ("Discourse structure and the logic of 
conversation", 19-48) reconsiders Gricean and Searlian 
approaches to communication from a new dynamic point of view 
relying on the claim "that discourse structure is an 
essential component in discourse interpretation and results 
from integrating pragmatic and semantic information 
together" (p. 20). The outcome of his analysis is a 
cognitive modeling in which discourse structure and 
speakers' beliefs and goals interact in a more fine-grained 
theory than Grice's (1975) Cooperative Principle and 
Searle's account of illocutionary force attached to 
propositional content.

 However, his analysis also minimizes of the role of 
hearers' recognition of speakers' intentions in 
communication (e.g. pp. 25-26), currently essential in post-
Gricean approaches like 'relevance theory' (Sperber and 
Wilson, 1986/95), which sounds a bit extreme to me. For 
Asher, not recovering the speaker's intention in 
communicating certain information "may not stop me from 
understanding the story itself and assigning it a coherent 
discourse structure and acquiring as part of the meaning of 
the text the truth-conditional implications of that text 
structure. In many cases, interpreters may not exactly be 
sure of the speaker's intentions and beliefs, but they are 
irrelevant to the content of what's said" (p. 26). In my 
opinion, intentions may not be essential to determine what 
sentences literally mean, but they certainly are essential 
to recover what speakers are trying to communicate with 
these sentences, which often differs drastically from the 
literal truth-conditional content of the utterance.

 2. Semantics // Pragmatics = polyfunctional semantics // 
polyfunctional pragmatics

 J. van der Auwera ("On the semantic and pragmatic 
polyfunctionality of modal verbs", 49-64) addresses a very 
specific linguistic item: modals. He sketches a general 
typology of context- dependent meaning or 
"polyfunctionality". There can be 'semantic 
polyfunctionality', covering such cases as vagueness, 
polysemy, homonymy and ambiguity, and 'pragmatic 
polyfunctionality: "what we find when a word is meant in a 
way that flouts the semantics. Either the intended meaning 
is more general than the semantics, as when one uses 
'grandfather' for any old man... or it is related 
metaphorically, as when one uses 'mother' to characterize a 
certain node in a generative grammar tree... or 
metonymically, when one uses 'pamper' to denote a pamper-
wearing baby" (p. 53). He then goes on to analyze modals in 
this dual- polyfunctionality view.

 3. Semantics // Pragmatics = what is said // impliciture / 

 K. Bach ("The semantics-pragmatics distinction: what it is 
and why it matters", 65-84) develops a concept somewhere 
between 'what is said' (i.e., the purely linguistic content 
of the utterance), which also includes some processes such 
as reference assignment and disambiguation, and 'what is 
implicated' (in the Gricean sense). The concept, called 
'impliciture', integrates several pragmatic processes, 
especially expansions of what is said (i.e., fleshings out 
of the logical form of the utterance) in order to get a 
'proposition expressed' intended by the speaker, as in (1a-
b) below (see Vicente, 1998 for a critical assessment):

 (1) a. I haven't eaten [this morning]. b. She has 
nothing [appropriate] to wear.

 There is also another kind of pragmatic support -
completion- required in those cases in which the utterances 
are semantically incomplete and not yet propositional, as in 
(2a-b) below.

 (2) a. The princess is late [for the party]. b. Tom 
has finished [speaking].

 Besides, Bach postulates two different degrees of 
contextual support: one playing a limited role in 
determining context (affecting such variables as the 
determination of the speaker's identity or the spatial-
temporal location of interlocutors), and a broad notion of 
context covering anything that the hearer can or has to 
take into account in determining the speaker's 
communicative intention (p. 72). Hence, Bach assumes a much 
more important role of intentions in communication than 
Asher does: "Pragmatic information concerns facts relevant 
to making sense of a speaker's utterance of a sentence (or 
other expression). The hearer thereby seeks to identify the 
speaker's intention in making the utterance" (p. 74). This 
leads to a clear-cut demarcation of semantics and 
pragmatics, the former being associated with the linguistic 
material uttered and the latter related to the (intentional) 
'act' of uttering that material (p. 75).

 4. Semantics // Pragmatics = logical form // explicature / 
(higher-level) explicature / implicature

 Recognizing intentions is also basic in the relevance 
theoretic framework (Sperber and Wilson, 1986/95), the one 
R. Carston sets out to explain in her article ("The 
semantics/pragmatics distinction: A view from relevance 
theory", 85-125). A basic assumption in this theory is that 
language is decoded -logical forms- but it has to be 
enriched pragmatically in order to reach a proposition 
supposedly intended by the speaker (semantics/pragmatics is 
decoding/inferring within relevance theory). Thus the 
theory relies heavily on the importance of pragmatic import 
in understanding, since "the decoded 'semantic' 
representation is seldom, if ever, fully propositional; it 
functions merely as a kind of template or assumption schema, 
which necessarily requires pragmatic inference to develop 
it into the proposition the speaker intended to express" 
(p. 86).

 The hearers' pragmatic import, supplied when enriching 
linguistic content, varies according to a basic, 
cognitively rooted search for relevance in the incoming 
information, which amounts to finding the first 
interpretation which offers the greatest interest -cognitive 
effects- in exchange for the least mental effort. 
Inferential mechanisms involved in the development of a 
logical form include reference assignment, disambiguation, 
enrichment, and loosening. The outcome is an explicature 
which, when embedded in a higher-level (metarepresentative) 
description (basically including the speaker's 
attitude/belief in producing the utterance) results in a 
higher-level explicature. The difference between 
explicatures and implicatures lies in the amount of 
inference and reliance on the logical form: "An explicature 
is derived by inferentially developing the logical form of 
the utterance. All other communicated assumptions are 
implicatures; they are derived by inference alone, inference 
in which the explicature is one of the premises" (p. 113).

 5. Semantics // Pragmatics = what is said // proposition 

 B.S. Gillon ("English indefinite noun phrases and 
plurality", 127-147) studies noun phrases such as those in 
(3) and (4) below, in which some puzzling interpretations 
result from singular/plural number in (b) examples when 
embedded in (a) situations:

 (3) a. [William, Dan and Reed pool their resources to buy a 
single house]. 
 b. The men bought a house.

(4) a. [William, Dan and Reed each buy their own house].
 b. The men bought houses.

 Surprisingly, (3b) can reflect the circumstance in (4a) 
despite the singular number in 'a house'; and (4b) can also 
reflect the circumstance in (4a) despite the fact that each 
of them bought only one house and the sentence includes a 
plural noun phrase 'houses'. These are the "two horns of 
the dilemma" that Gillon sets out to explain.

 His analysis is mainly centered upon isolated 
sentences, and little pragmatic support (i.e., language-in-
use) is taken into consideration (apart from the fact that 
certain arrangements of linguistic items -noun phrases- 
tend to be understood in specific ways), or shown that 
context plays any basic role in the determination of what 
interpretation of singular/plural noun phrases is intended 
-or eventually selected- in interaction. His analysis is, 
rather, in a similar wavelength to pragmatic analyses of 
scalar implicatures or referential/attributive 
interpretations of definite descriptions.

 6. Semantics // Pragmatics = what is said // 
interpretation of situated and goal-oriented discourse

 Y. Gu ("Towards a model of situated discourse analysis", 
149-178) embarks on a very ambitious project (quite 
different from Gillon's) of studying highly contextualized 
and goal- oriented interactional discourse, and assuming a 
wide-margin concept of 'situation'. Gu intends "to come to 
terms with the actual use of language by actual people doing 
actual things with language in actual social situations 
[and] to advance... the view of the actual use of language 
as goal-directed social process" (p. 150).

 By actual use, Gu means all the spontaneous talk 
produced by ALL the adult native users of a language for a 
period of time and across all social situations 
(comprehensive-all use) or at a particular time and social 
situation (sample-all use); and some talk produced by TWO 
OR MORE adult native users of a language for a period of 
time and across all social situations (comprehensive-some 
use), or at a particular time and social situation (sample-
some use). This starting-point terminology is then used in 
a review of the bibliography on (the importance of) 
language use (pp. 151-154), which is contrasted with one of 
Gu's aim in the paper: To examine "the way actual users use 
language to attain communicative and extra-communicative 
goals in real-life social situations, with a full 
recognition of actual users as discourse 
developers/managers". A good number of pages are devoted to 
this aim, which involves the inclusion of many contextual 
parameters in the analysis of discourse.

 7. Semantics // Pragmatics = semantics // semanticized 

 M. Hand's paper ("Semantics vs. pragmatics: ANY in game-
theoretical semantics", 179-198) focuses on a very specific 
linguistic item: "any". He pictures straightforward cases 
deserving purely semantic or pragmatic analysis and others 
in which the semantics/pragmatics distinction is fuzzy, to 
the extent that "[c]ompeting theoretical frameworks may 
treat these borderline problems in different ways, so that 
a linguistic problem that is treated by purely semantical 
means in one theory is treated pragmatically by the other" 
(p. 180).

 His analysis fits "game-theoretical semantics" (GTS) 
(initiated back in the early 70s) "with an eye toward 
showing how the GTS apparatus can 'semanticize' a pragmatic 
insight into the semantics of the notorious English 
quantifier any" (ibid.). Basically, he proposes a 
semantics-centered unitary account of the two traditional 
uses of 'any' (universal and existential quantifier) that 
shows why it manifests semantically in such dissimilar ways.

 At first sight, this study seems to pay less attention 
to contextualized pragmatic uses of language than to its 
semantics. However, some aspects of GTS such as the 
reference to the presence of two players who must make 
selections when quantifiers are interpreted (even if these 
players are not to be identified with actual flesh-and-blood 
users) indicate some interest in how 'any' is understood 

 8. Semantics // Pragmatics = intentions intruding into 
semantic representation // context arranging 
interpretations in scale of salience

 K.M. Jaszczolt, one of the editors (together with K. 
Turner) of the series "Current Research in the 
Semantics/Pragmatics Interface" (CRISPI), to which this 
first volume belongs, proposes an interesting hypothesis in 
her paper ("Default semantics, pragmatics, and intentions", 
199- 232) and applies it to definite descriptions. Apart 
from three previous approaches to the interface (semantic 
ambiguity, Grice's unitary semantics supplemented with 
conversational implicatures, and semantic 
underdeterminacy), Jaszczolt suggests a fourth view of "non- 
ambiguous semantics achieved through the interaction of the 
speaker's intention with the logical form of the 
expression... There is one, discourse-level representation, 
to which syntax, semantics and pragmatics contribute" (p. 
201). Besides, the resulting interpretations of the 
utterance, instead of being treated as equally possible 
(context-free), are pragmatically ranked on a scale of 
salience and predictability.

 9. Semantics // Pragmatics = semantic model of entities // 
contextual constraints

 A. Kehler and G. Ward ("On the semantics and pragmatics of 
'identifier so'", 233-256) focus on the establishment of 
reference in discourse. Traditional studies have dealt with 
reference to entities (a broad term used here to denote the 
class of things that can be referred to linguistically) 
through the use of lexical and pronominal noun phrases, and 
much less often through the use of verb phrases.

 In this paper, the authors present "an analysis of 
identifier so based on the informational structure of the 
discourse in which it is used... anaphoric expressions 
containing so impose a set of constraints on the 
information status of their referents that is not found for 
any of the various types of NP anaphora in English" (p. 

 Interestingly, the authors give context an important 
role in the determination of reference, since during 
comprehension hearers "build up a semantic model 
representing the entities that have been introduced thus 
far and the relationships that hold between them" (p. 235) 
and in order to achieve this goal, they resort to various 
contextual sources of entity-fixing including their 
knowledge store, previous discursive strings, context of 
utterance, immediate surroundings, etc., all of which may 
vary the outcome of the referent-signaling procedures.

 10. Semantics // Pragmatics = sentence meaning // scalar 

 M. Krifka ("At least some determiners aren't determiners", 
257-291) presents a formal- semantics analysis of 
determiners that sheds light on classical problems such as 
the scope of quantifiers (for example 'three' versus 'at 
least three') and their scalar implicatures.

 11. Semantics // Pragmatics = lexical meaning // 
contextual meaning

 S. Kubo ("On an illocutionary connective datte", 293-315) 
studies this Japanese connective aiming at a unified view 
of its semantic and pragmatic functions within speech act 
theory. Previous research on the connective regards it as 
being (a) an exponent of the speaker's intention to declare 
his/her speech action in conversation; and (b) an 
'explanation of reasons' at the propositional level 
describing 'assertion' against a partner's intention. Kubo 
develops this research in a proposal of datte as "compound 
speech acts consisting of two consecutive speech acts, 
namely the speech act with assertive illocutionary force of 
'objection', and that with assertive illocutionary force of 
'supplementary explanation' or 'justification'" (p. 294).

 12. Semantics // Pragmatics = contrastive topic expressed 
// pragmatic effects created by the contrast

 C. Lee ("Contrastive topic: A locus of the interface 
evidence from Korean and English", 317- 342) studies Korean 
data for the determination of the semantic/pragmatic status 
of Contrastive Topic. That variety occurs when the topic in 
discourse is divided into parts, one of them contrasting 
with the rest of the parts and the speaker has the 
alternative contrast in mind. Typically, Contrastive Topic 
-due to its cancellative function- gives rise to an 
implicature concerning the alternative in contrast (often 
accompanied by a marked accent). These effects, together 
with the speaker's reliance on background and/or common 
knowledge are typically analyzable within pragmatics.

 13. Semantics // Pragmatics = semantics --><-- pragmatics

 F. Nemo ("The pragmatics of signs, the semantics of 
relevance, and the semantics/pragmatics interface", 343-
417) provides a lengthy and ambitious study of the 
semantics/pragmatics interface. I find some of his claims a 
bit extreme, but he is to be congratulated for a daring 
attempt to shed light on this interface.

 The paper (strikingly) starts with its final 
conclusion, namely, that "even if semantics and pragmatics 
are two disciplines with two clearly distinct objects and 
separate goals... what they actually find - and not what 
they search - is often very similar" (p. 345). This is why 
in the above heading semantics and pragmatics converge (--
><--): "the main interface between the two disciplines 
could be their own results" (ibid.).

 Nemo initially distinguishes two types of semantics 
(S) and pragmatics (P): S1 (what is directly attached to 
signs), S2 (what is truth-conditional), P1 (a 'cognitive 
approach' centered on communication, implicitness and 
inference), and P2 (a 'biotic approach' with emphasis on 
action, conversation, interaction). These four ends cover 
many areas of linguistic research (as illustrated on p. 
349). After that, he goes on to show how similar semantics 
and pragmatics are despite the traditional debate on their 
different scope of analysis and sometimes he arrives at 
surprising conclusions. In general, a certain bias towards 
pragmatics is felt, as shown by these sample quotes:

 (a) Semantics and pragmatics share a not directly 
accessible object and explore more or less the same fields 
and data (p. 352); (b) "it is not only the origin of the 
semantic meaning which is pragmatic, but the semantic 
meaning itself" (p. 355); (c) "[pragmatics] has gradually 
become [semantics] car handyman mechanic, with so many 
reparations to be paid for as to pretend becoming the owner 
of the car" (p. 356); (d) "human languages just cannot point 
to a people-free world... not only because there are 
relations between signs and their users, but mainly because 
there are direct relations between the latter and the 
objects" (p. 357); (e) "semantic meaning must explain use 
in general, and not primarily (apparently) conventional 
uses" (p. 364); (f) "the semantic content of a word is not a 
description of what it conventionally refers to, but a 
comparison of different things or states to isolate the 
specificities of something" (p. 376); (g) "a word can be 
used to refer to anything, as soon as it locally has a 
sufficient discriminative capacity... its semantic content 
will depend on the discriminative scene" (p. 377). These 
are but a few in-between claims in the article.

 The general conclusion of this long study is that 
semantic content has a marked pragmatic motivation, and 
that pragmatics is closely dependent on semantic 
representations, which means that rather than looking for 
an interface between semantics and pragmatics we should 
rather accept (a) that semantics cannot find purely semantic 
answers to purely semantic questions, and (b) that 
pragmatics cannot find purely pragmatic answers to purely 
pragmatic questions: "whatever affects the saying process 
actually leave (sic) traces in semantic in semantic 
content, which allows semantic contents to produce pragmatic 
effects" (p. 414).

 14. Semantics // Pragmatics = invariant meaning // 
indexical meaning / meaning as interpretational construct

 J. Peregrin ("The pragmatization of semantics", 419-442) 
criticizes the three-fold (and clear- cut) Carnapian 
distinction between syntax (expressions-expressions), 
semantics (expressions- meaning) and pragmatics 
(expressions-users). Several challenges to this division 
include the 'internal challenge' ("development of 
linguistics and logic which extends Carnapian semantics far 
beyond its original boundaries to swallow up much of what 
originally counted to pragmatics", p. 420) and 'the 
external challenge' ("questioning the whole model, a 
development... which casts doubt on the entire Carnapian way 
of viewing language", ibid.).

 Peregrin shows how semantics in the 50s could not 
cling to a logic-based null-context view of content and at 
the same time analyze natural language phenomena such as 
indexicals, which the author calls "context consumers". 
Even traditional notions such as 'subject' and 'predicate' 
demand a dynamic approach (p. 422). This evidence led 
semanticists to see meanings of natural language sentences 
as 'context-change potentials'. Indeed, "the very working 
of language is essentially oversimplified if meanings are 
explicated in a way which does not account for how 
utterances interact with each other via contexts" (p. 424). 
Later, this evidence leads to Peregrin's view of meaning as 
an 'interpretational construct': "Assigning meaning is 
specifying a role, or possible roles, within a co-operative 
enterprise; it is to state how an expression could be 
useful for the purposes for which we use language" (p. 432).

 However, this emphasis in language use sounds like a 
rest-in-peace approach to semantics. Later in the article, 
Peregrin restates the role of semantics by proposing a 
concept of 'invariance': "Meaning of an expression is, 
roughly speaking, that which is invariant among various 
cases of employment of this expression... Thus when I say 'I 
am hungry' and you say 'I am hungry too', the fact that the 
first I refers to me, whereas the second to you, is a 
pragmatic matter. What is invariant is that it always refers 
to the speaker" (p. 436-37).

 15. Semantics // Pragmatics = literal meaning // 
contextualized implicit information compatible with 
interlocutors' beliefs

 A. Ramsay ("Does it make any sense? Updating = consistency 
checking", 443-478) aims at a computational explanation of 
how users of language extract meaning from what they say. 
The emphasis is on significance as 'entailed' by utterances 
in the contexts in which they are uttered. This provides a 
picture in which "some of the apparent content of an 
utterance will emerge from interactions between its literal 
meaning, the information embodied in general knowledge... 
and information available in the current discourse 
situation" (p. 444).

 The author's picture sounds very pragmatic, but it is 
also very content-centered, stressing the importance of 
information 'already' contained in a proposition in order to 
build up further information, that is, "to obtain new 
propositions from old ones" (p. 445). In general, the paper 
combines an interest in the semantic representation of what 
speakers say and also pragmatic factors (e.g. 
interlocutors' common ground - despite the problematic 
status of this notion nowadays -) influencing 
interpretation. This is reflected in the three-fold task of 
a hearer H when the speaker S utters U: (a) Construct a 
representation of what U says about S's view of each 
participant's beliefs and their common ground; (b) check 
that this representation is consistent with H's own view of 
each participant's beliefs and common ground in order to 
construct a model; (c) take this model to be H's view of the 
new common ground.


 This volume is, no doubt, highly recommendable reading for 
anybody interested in the roles that semantics and 
pragmatics play in the production and comprehension of 
language. The book avoids reductionist views of semantics 
and pragmatics and acknowledges a more adequate role of 
pragmatics beyond the cliche "wastebasket" of semantics. It 
offers fifteen interesting views of where a hypothetical 
interface between them might possibly occur, and no claim is 
made (by the editor) about the superiority of any of these 
views upon the rest. The reader is thus invited to take a 
personal position in this on-going debate. If, after reading 
the book, some readers think that the semantics/pragmatics 
interface should be located elsewhere, they are also invited 
to take part in this discussion and contribute to this 
series (by entering the official page at which has just 
- and fortunately - been initiated.


 Aitchison, Jean (1996). "Word traps and how to avoid them". 
The Independent, 6 March 1996.

 Grice, Paul (1975). "Logic and conversation", in P. Cole 
and J. Morgan (eds.), Syntax and Semantics, Vol. 3. London: 
Academic Press, 41-58.

 Sperber, Dan and Deirdre Wilson (198695). Relevance Theory. 
Communication and Cognition. Oxford: Blackwell.

 Vicente, Bego´┐Ża (1998). "Against blurring the 
explicit/implicit distinction". Revista Alicantina de 
Estudios Ingleses 11: 241-258.

 Francisco Yus teaches linguistics at the Department of 
English Studies of the University of Alicante, Spain. He 
has specialized in the application of pragmatics to media 
discourses, but his latest research has had to do with the 
application of relevance theory to the analysis of 
misunderstandings and irony in conversation.

Dr. Francisco Yus
University of Alicante
Department of English Studies

Tel: +34 9653400 Extension: 3027 (university)

e-mail: (university)
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