LINGUIST List 10.1596

Sat Oct 23 1999

Review: Turner: The Semantics/Pragmatics Interface

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  • 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 pragmatics

    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 / implicature

    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 expressed

    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 pragmatics

    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 pragmatically.

    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. 234).

    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 implicatures

    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)