LINGUIST List 25.4967

Mon Dec 08 2014

Review: Ling Theories; Neuroling; Pragmatics; Psycholing; Semantics: Börjesson (2014)

Editor for this issue: Sara Couture <>

Date: 03-Jun-2014
From: Zhen-qiang fan <>
Subject: The Semantics-Pragmatics Controversy
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Book announced at

AUTHOR: Kristin Börjesson
TITLE: The Semantics-Pragmatics Controversy
SERIES TITLE: Language, Context and Cognition 14
PUBLISHER: De Gruyter Mouton
YEAR: 2014

REVIEWER: Zhen-qiang Fan, Zhejiang Gongshang University

Review's Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


“The Semantics-Pragmatics Controversy” is a timely and comprehensive addition
to the growing literature on the subject of the semantics-pragmatics
interface. It offers a critical comparison and evaluation of numerous
theoretical and empirical approaches concerning the distinction between
semantics and pragmatics. The book aims to answer three questions (p. 7):

1) What is it that makes the standard notions of ‘literal meaning’ and
‘non-literal meaning’ inadequate and thus in need of revision?

2) What exactly are the properties that characterize and differentiate
‘literal meaning’ and ‘non-literal meaning’ and how are these particular types
of meaning related to other types of meaning identified in the
semantics/pragmatics literature (e.g., conversational implicature, implicit
meaning aspects)?

3) By which criteria should semantics and pragmatics be characterized and
differentiated, if not by the dichotomies traditionally used and under the
assumption that the two systems are involved in the determination of (at
least) three distinct meaning levels in interpretation?

The book contains five chapters. The first chapter is an introduction in which
the author illustrates some key pairs of notions for distinguishing semantics
and pragmatics, such as literal meaning vs. non-literal meaning, conventional
meaning vs. non-conventional meaning, and context-independent meaning vs.
context-dependent meaning. This chapter also presents the aims and the
organization of the book.

Chapter 2 argues against the traditional distinction of semantics and
pragmatics which is based on the dichotomy between literal and non-literal
meaning. More specifically, the author demonstrates the inadequacies of
viewing literal meaning as context-independent and conventional, and
non-literal meaning as context-dependent and non-conventional. It is pointed
out that (i) it is utterances (sentences used in context) rather than
sentences per se that may be used literally or non-literally; and (ii)
conventionality is not an ‘all-or-nothing’ concept but gradual, so neither
context-dependency nor conventionality are sufficiently precise for
distinguishing literal and non-literal meaning. Then the author discusses the
implications of these assumptions for the nature of lexical meaning by
reviewing a number of approaches to meaning in the lexicon, arguing for the
‘underspecification’ of lexical meaning. To support the assumption, empirical
evidence is reviewed. In the final section of this chapter, the author,
drawing on the notion of ‘stereotype’, explains why the traditional
distinction was assumed in the first place.

Having pointed out the context-dependency of literal meaning, Chapter 3 first
examines two approaches (namely those proposed by Grice and Bierwisch) which
distinguish two context-sensitive levels of meaning: the first level is ‘what
is said’ (Grice) or ‘utterance meaning’ (Bierwisch); the second level is ‘what
is meant’ (Grice) or ‘communicative sense’ (Bierwisch). Chapter 3 focuses on
the first level, while Chapter 4 of the book concentrates on the second level.
The main part of Chapter 3 discusses alternative approaches to the
characterization of ‘what is said’ or ‘utterance meaning’, offering a detailed
analysis of the processes involved in the interpretation of utterances as well
as the contexts used. Especially, this chapter explicates the controversy of
whether the processes contributing to what is said (utterance meaning) are
linguistically mandated and whether they should be taken to be independent of
speaker intentions. Besides theoretical discussion of the various views
concerning the nature of semantics and pragmatics components and their
interactions in utterance interpretation, the final part of this chapter also
present some empirical studies.

The first part of Chapter 4 concentrates on a series of phenomena (i.e.
metaphor, irony, conversational implicature, indirect speech act)
traditionally viewed as belonging to ‘what is meant’/ ‘communicative sense’,
aiming to find out which of these phenomena actually need a fully
propositional utterance meaning as their basis and what kind of contextual
information is required in the process of their interpretation. The author
argues that metaphor, along with metonymy, is related to sub-sentential parts
and belongs to utterance meaning, independent of the speaker’s intentions. In
contrast, the interpretation of irony needs an utterance level meaning as
basis. It also argues that similar to irony and different from metaphor,
conversational implicatures are based on some full utterance meaning and are
speaker intended. Moreover, the author argues against treating indirect speech
acts as conversational implicatures because they do ‘not seem to necessarily
involve a prior determination of a potential but non-fitting direct speech
act’ (p. 243). The second part of this chapter presents some debates on the
issue of whether it is necessary, possible or useful to differentiate between
the two pragmatically determined levels of meaning, i.e. ‘what is said’ vs.
‘what is meant’. The author argues that ‘such a differentiation is useful and
necessary’ (p. 9), although he admits that it is difficult to find the
criteria to be used in the differentiation.

After discussing in Chapters 3 and 4 a range of meaning aspects which do not
fit into the traditional literal/non-literal dichotomy, the fifth chapter
turns back to the basic question that Chapter 2 ends with, i.e. how literal
meaning and non-literal meaning should be best characterized if we want to
capture the various uses the two terms are put to. In this chapter, the author
gives a critical assessment of the alternative characterizations of literal
meaning and non-literal meaning before he presents his own proposal. It is
indicated that previous characterizations (Recanati and Ariel’s) of
literal/non-literal meaning trying to capture the various problematic
phenomena covered in Chapters 3 and 4 are inadequate in that they assume that
lexical meanings have full-fledged readings, somehow ignoring the
context-dependency of literal meaning. The chapter also discusses the nature
of contextual information in utterance interpretation and evaluates the
usefulness of contextual-dependence in distinguishing semantics from
pragmatics. Specifically, it is argued that the dichotomy of
context-dependence and context-independence can only be used to differentiate
‘linguistic semantics’ from ‘pragmatics’. The process of semantic
interpretation actually only applies to meaning representations that have
already been pragmatically enriched since the output of the
context-independent linguistic semantics component is only sub-propositional.
So what really distinguishes pragmatics and real semantics is the nature of
the processes constituting them: monotonic reasoning with non-defeasible
output in the case of real semantics, while non-monotonic reasoning with
defeasible output in the case of pragmatics (p.306). Finally, the author
claims that although both ‘what is said’/ ‘utterance meaning’ and ‘what is
meant’/ ‘communicative sense’ are context-dependent levels of meaning, they
should be differentiated from each other in that the latter take into
consideration assumptions concerning the speaker’s intentions in making the
particular utterance.

Finally, the last chapter summarizes the main general conclusions drawn from
each of the chapters of the book.


Researchers interested in the semantics-pragmatics interface will undoubtedly
find this book to be a useful resource. This monograph stands out among the
numerous books or collections on the semantics-pragmatics distinction in that
it offers a comprehensive comparison and critical assessment of a wide range
of major approaches to this topic.

In terms of theory, the book not only argues against the role of some
traditional notions such as the literal/non-literal in distinguishing
semantics from pragmatics, but also critically evaluates various crucial
topics in the fields of both semantics and pragmatics, e.g. ‘what is said’ vs.
‘what is meant’, minimalism vs. contextualism, unarticulated constituents, ad
hoc concept, and free enrichment. Most importantly, the author explains how
these notions fit into the whole picture of the semantics/pragmatics
controversy. Apart from reviewing existing approaches, the author also makes
his own theoretical contribution to the issue at hand. For example, in the
final part of Chapter 5 he presents his own characterization of the semantics
vs. pragmatics distinction, which does not refer to (non-)literal meaning or

Moreover, besides covering some traditional pragmatic phenomena (speech act,
conversational implicatures, generalized implicatures, etc.), the issues of
metaphor and metonymy are also addressed. As is known, metaphor and metonymy
are the common research concern of both pragmatics and cognitive linguistics.
It is argued elsewhere that relevance theory and cognitive linguistics are
complementary in explaining the mechanisms of metaphor and metonymy (Tendahl
and Gibbs 2008; Tendahl 2009; Ruiz de Mendoza Ibanez and Hernandez 2003). This
book goes beyond relevance theory and once again shows the cross-fertilization
between pragmatics and cognitive linguistics by giving a broader picture of
the semantic or pragmatic relevance of metaphor and metonymy.

Another strength of the book is that, in addition to theoretical speculations
and linguistic or discursive methods, the book also considers empirical data
in disciplines such as psycholinguistics and neurolinguistics. For instance,
in Chapter 2, a whole section is dedicated to empirical studies to prove that
lexical meaning should be characterized by underspecification and that
‘semantic processes of meaning construction should be differentiated from
pragmatically based plausibility checks’ (p. 8). And chapter 3 draws on some
experimental research in discussing ‘minimal proposition’ vs. ‘propositional
proposition’ (pp.147-154). In the future we would like to see more empirical
studies concerning his own proposals.

Overall, this book is a valuable resource and highly recommended to
researchers and novices in the areas of semantics, pragmatics, discourse
analysis, cognitive linguistics, and philosophy of language.


Ruiz de Mendoza Ibanez, F. J. and Hernandez, L. P. (2003). Cognitive
Operations and Pragmatic Implication. In K. Panther and L. Thornburg (Eds.)
“Metonymy and Pragmatic Inferencing” (23-49). Amsterdam: John Benjamins
Publishing Company.

Tendahl, M. (2009). “A Hybrid Theory of Metaphor: Relevance Theory and
Cognitive Linguistics”. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Tendahl, M. & Gibbs, R. W. (2008). Complementary perspectives on metaphor:
Cognitive linguistics and relevance theory. “Journal of Pragmatics” 40(11),


Fan Zhen-qiang is a lecturer in linguistics at Zhejiang Gongshang University
in Hangzhou, China. He obtained his doctoral degree in the Center for the
Study of Language and Cognition, Zhejiang University, China. In 2008, he was a
visiting PhD at the Utrecht Institute of Linguistics (Uil-Ots), Utrecht
University, the Netherlands. His research interests lie in the areas of
cognitive linguistics and pragmatics.

Page Updated: 08-Dec-2014