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Review of  Default Semantics

Reviewer: Alexander Onysko
Book Title: Default Semantics
Book Author: Kasia M. Jaszczolt
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Pragmatics
Cognitive Science
Issue Number: 18.324

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AUTHOR: Jaszczolt, Kasia M.
TITLE: Default Semantics
SUBTITLE: Foundations of a Compositional Theory of Acts of Communication
PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press
YEAR: 2005
ISBN: 0199261989

Alexander Onysko, University of Innsbruck, Austria

This book proposes an integrative semantic theory of acts of communication
by merging two distinct approaches to meaning construction and analysis:
dynamic truth-conditional semantics and truth-conditional pragmatics. Kasia
Jaszczolt specifically draws from the formal language of Discourse
Representation Theory (DRT), which she adapts to be able to encode
pragmatic information in her formal representations of Default Semantics
Theory. The theory offers a cognitively plausible account of how utterance
meaning is composed and interpreted in discourse.


The book is structured in two parts. Part 1 determines the theoretical
foundations of Default Semantics Theory and Part 2 discusses applications
of the theory for explaining the semantics of definite descriptions,
propositional attitude reports, futurity, anaphora, sentential connectives,
and number terms. The individual applications are exemplified from the
perspective of the English language.

In the introduction Kasia Jaszczolt comes straight to the point and
describes the essential claims of Default Semantics (repeated below in
abbreviated form of the original, cf. xvi-xvii):

- The theory of discourse meaning is truth conditional and dynamic.

- Pragmatic information contributes to truth-conditional content.

- The representation of truth-conditional content is a merger of
information from
(i) word meaning and sentence structure
(ii) conscious pragmatic processes
(iii) default meanings

- Default meanings are conceived of as
(i) cognitive defaults (properties of the human thinking process)
(ii) social-cultural defaults (stemming from the way society and
culture are organized)

- Default Semantics applies a dynamic approach to mergers in order to
represent the meaning of multi-utterance discourse.

-Default Semantics uses an adapted and extended formalism of DRT, which is
applied to the product of the merger, i.e. the merger representation.

- Merger representations are 'abstracts over thoughts'.

Thus, Default Semantics (hence DS) falls in line with the major views of
neo-Gricean pragmatics, relevance theory, and optimality theory pragmatics
that linguistic meaning underdetermines the content or proposition
expressed and that pragmatic information is necessary for meaning
completion. DS aims to achieve this holistic approach to meaning through
merger representations which unite information from word meaning and
sentence structure (WS), cognitive defaults (CD), social-cultural defaults
(SCD), and from conscious pragmatic processes (CPI).

Following the introduction Chapter 1 discusses some fundamental questions
that lie at the heart of DS. First of all, a merger of the
semantic/pragmatic, the pragmatic/syntactic and the syntactic/semantic
interfaces is postulated because in DS the interaction of the sources of
meaning formation (e.g. WS as contributing syntactic information) are part
of forming a compositional representation which appears as unified meaning
on the level of merger representation. So for Jaszczolt, the relevant
question in semantics is not what levels of meaning can be distinguished
but where does meaning come from? However, DS also operates on a set of
contributors to utterance meaning that is WS, CD, SCD, and CPI confined in
merger representations (MRs) so that the question arises as to what extent
these components contribute to the meaning of MRs. At the present stage of
the theory all sources of information are conceived to contribute to
meaning '''on an equal footing' that is by a 'conspiracy', an interaction
whose mechanism is for the moment beyond our interest'' (p. 8). To
investigate this interaction is actually a crucial question to solve within
the framework of DS.

Instead, the author moves on to contend that by putting the construction of
meaning on the level of MRs the dilemmas of ambiguity and
underspecification vanish in the theory of DS. This claim is partly
supported by the application of the modified Occam's Razor which denies the
formation of unnecessary ambiguities. In turn, this leads to the assertion
of parsimony of levels (PoL) meaning that ''levels of senses are not to be
multiplied beyond necessity'' (p. 14). To complement the basic outline of
DS, Jaszczolt touches upon the issue of why to apply a formal logical
language for semantic representations. Furthermore, she critically
discusses the notion of what is said and denounces the middle level of
meaning which for lack of evidence can be sacrificed by Occam's Razor. The
author also falls in line with proponents of direct communication (cf.
Recanati 2002) dispensing with the idea of constant inferencing in
communication. Alternatively, direct, i.e. literal, communication is the
default mode of utterance decoding and inferences are only made if there
are signals that diverge from a default utterance interpretation.

Chapter 2 expands on the notion of default meaning and establishes a basic
distinction in cognitive and social-cultural defaults. Cognitive defaults
are tied to the intentionality of mental states. Based on the principles
that ''intentions allow for degrees'' and that ''the primary role of intention
in communication is to secure the referent of the speaker's utterance'' (p.
51-52) three main scenarios of intentionality are distinguished. These
correspond with three readings as demonstrated in the following sentence:

The author of Oscar and Lucinda is a very good writer (p. 50)

The strongest intentionality reading is captured by reference to the
extension in the real world, i.e. the specific individual that has written
Oscar and Lucinda (Peter Carey). The dispersed intentionality reading is
essentially a misattribution of the referential extension in the real
world, e.g. the speaker refers to Roddy Doyle while Peter Carey is the real
author of the novel. Finally, the weak intentionality reading relates to
the fact that the extension in the real world remains empty but categorial
reference is made in the sense of 'whoever wrote the novel is a very good
writer'. From these possible scenarios of intentionality, Jaszczolt
concludes that strongest intentionality is the communicative norm and thus
the cognitive default in utterance interpretation.

As far as social-cultural defaults are concerned, they can have an effect
on the formation of merger representations dependent on the degree of
cultural ingrainedness. Thus, the sentence ''Pablo's painting is of a crying
woman'' will trigger, according to common cultural knowledge in westernized
cultural areas, an interpretation that reference is made to a painting by
Pablo Picasso. This example shows that such an interpretation is dependent
on an individual's socially and culturally determined belief system and
encyclopaedic knowledge which can be easily overruled by contextually
imbued inferences. In fact, the notion of social-cultural defaults appears
to work on a cline of contextual specification, where inferences based on
general knowledge, i.e. social-cultural defaults, are inversely
proportional to contextual specification of the utterance. Similarly,
Jaszczolt observes that ''the boundary between […] social-cultural defaults
and social-cultural inferences can only be assumed as methodologically
desirable and psychologically plausible'' (p. 56). This leads her to
conclude that DS has little to say about social-cultural defaults because
their investigation lies outside the scope of semantic analysis and is an
issue of anthropological linguistics and sociolinguistics.

After discussing defaults, Chapter 3 illustrates the central claim of
Default Semantics Theory: the formation of meaning in merger
representations. The basis of merger representations is the compositional
nature of utterance meaning. In detail ''the meaning of the act of
communication is a function of the meaning of the words, the sentence
structure, defaults, and conscious pragmatic inference'' (p.72). These
sources of meaning form the level of merger representation which is the
unit of meaning analysis in the processing of truth conditional content and
which is also the formalizable level of meaning analysis. Since
compositionality of meaning only holds at the level of merger
representation, compositionality is not expected on the level of sentence
structure alone. This postulate differentiates Default Semantics Theory
from Discourse Representation Theory (DRT, cf. Zeevat 1989) and
Optimality-theory pragmatics (cf. Blutner and Zeevat 2004). According to
the model of utterance interpretation in DS, a model hearer will in the
first stage process truth-conditional content from a merger of information
of (a) combination of word meaning and sentence structure, (b) conscious
pragmatic inference, (c) cognitive defaults, and (d) social-cultural
defaults. At a second stage in the process of utterance interpretation the
hearer will resort to the processing of implicatures based on
social-cultural defaults and conscious pragmatic inference.

The formal language of merger representations is based on an adaptation of
the code of DRT with the caveat that formalization of the sources of
meaning information applies only at the level of merger representations,
i.e. to the output of the individual sources. Thus, ''formalization is
always epiphenomenal on something that is in itself not formalizable'' (p. 87).

The chapters on applications of the theory in Part 2 follow the same basic
outline. Different natural language phenomena are analyzed as merger
representations following a differentiation of DS from the approach of
discourse representation structure (DRS). Chapter 4 focuses on an analysis
of definite descriptions. According to the degree of intentionality
(strong, dispersed, and weak) expressed in the utterance ''the best
architect designed this church'', separate MRs are given that exemplify
default reading (e.g. Antoni Gaudi designed Sagrada Familia), non-default
referential reading (e.g. Simon Guggenheim designed Sagrada Familia) and
attributive reading (whoever designed Sagrada Familia is the best
architect). Chapter 5 extends the formalization of MRs to propositional
attitude reports as in ''Tom believes that the best architect designed this
church''. DS tries to account for the discrepancies in knowledge between the
holder of the belief and the reporter, as well as between the reporter and
the hearer of the belief. Accordingly, a tripartite classification of MRs,
in analogy to definite descriptions, account for different readings of the
belief report: 'de re' which is the default reading relating to the proper
referent in the real world, 'de dicto' which combines default reading with
dispersed extension, and 'de dicto proper' in which both the believe and
the attributive reading are bound to CPI.

The analysis of futurity in English is one of the core chapters of Part 2.
The diverse functions of 'will' are based on the interface of modality and
futurity encapsulated by 'will' as epistemic modality, as dispositional
modality, and as future reference. Abstracting from Aristotle's
classification of future as modal (cf. 1928), DS operates on an
understanding of future as a bundle of time lines, representative of
various undecided options that lie ahead of the present moment of an
utterance. In order to cater for different degrees of modality in future
time expressions, Jaszczolt introduces the Acc operator which is modelled
on Grice's Acc operator (Grice, 2001). In analogy to the tripartite
distinctions in previous chapters, the Acc operator is indexed in DS
according to three degrees of modality/intentionality ranging from 'tf' as
futurity and little modality, to 'fp' as reduced commitment on part of the
speaker, i.e. increased modality, and to 'rf' showing the lowest degree of
intentionality and the highest degree of modality. Since the essence of
future is modality, the default is the most modal of the three forms,
depicted in MRs as the regular future. These formalized states of
modality/intentionality are also modelled in MRs on four other ways of
expressing futurity/modality in English: futurative progressive ('fp'),
tenseless future ('tf'), epistemic necessity 'will' ('rf'), and
dispositional necessity ('rf'). Despite the plausible treatment of
futurity, DS is still lacking integration of other modal expressions such
as 'would', 'could', 'can', 'may', and 'might'. It also needs to solve the
question of how formalized states of modality and intentionality can be put
into a gradable relation to each other.

The remaining chapters deal with DS for presupposition as anaphora,
sentential connectives, and the semantics of number terms. Binding and
accommodation are central to the discussion of DS for presupposition as
anaphora. Following the basic logic of equating default with the highest
degree of intentionality, Jaszczolt argues that binding is the default
choice in regular unstressed reference to topics while stressed anaphora,
i.e. focus, leads to ambiguity resolution via accommodation in the context
of the speech situation. The chapter on sentential connectives determines
that conjunctions in English acquire enriched semantic meaning
post-propositionally through CPI and by way of shortcuts through inference
by SCD. Thus, 'and' in the sentence ''I dropped the glass and it broke''
evokes the interpretation of a causal and sequential event according to
real world experience, i.e. by social-cultural default. In the same
chapter, the author contradicts a dogmatic view of the restricted
conditional reading 'iff' (if and only if) as being the only condition upon
which the proposition in the main clause becomes true. For example, the
condition expressed in ''if you mow the lawn, you'll get 5 dollars'' only
holds true in the immediate space set up by the condition and is not the
only way to get 5 dollars from the speaker in the real world. This
observation ties in with recent approaches to conditionals in terms of
mental spaces (cf. Dancygier and Sweetser 2005).

The applications of Default Semantics Theory come to a close with an
investigation of the meaning of number terms. In general, number terms are
scalar concepts that allow for different readings of at most, at least, and
exactly. Arguing in terms of intentionality, the exact reading appears to
be the default interpretation of number terms. However, the actual meaning
of number terms is very much dependent on conventionalized utterance
contexts as when number terms occur together with units of measurement,
e.g. 2 km, 2 weeks. In such cases number terms acquire an approximative
quality. To expand on these observations, the degree of approximation seems
dependent on the precision of the units of measurement which also function
as scalar concepts. Thus, 2 mm generally evokes a more exact reading than 2
km by sheer subordination of the unit of measurement.


As the summary indicates, Jaszczolt's book is a very complex and dense
piece of work. With her theory of Default Semantics she successfully
ventures into new ground of semantic territory. Her advance is cognitively
plausible and the particular strength of the theory is its holistic
approach merging pragmatic, social-cultural, syntactic, and lexical
components of meaning. However, her exploration also stirs up new questions
which are left unanswered at the present stage of the theory, as the author
herself remarks. Some of these problematic issues are broached below.

While an inferentialist approach to utterance interpretation is disclaimed
on grounds of a lack of cognitive evidence, the postulate of direct
communication as the basic mode of utterance production and processing
seems similarly unfounded and merely based on a belief in cognitive
economy. This belief is also at work in the understanding of the modified
Occam's Razor, leading to the postulation of parsimony of levels (PoL).
Even though the claim of direct communication seems currently preferable
due to empirical reasons, the lack of adequate investigations thus far
should not suffice to deny prima facie the existence of intricate
inferential patterns in utterance processing. This is certainly an area
where our understanding is in dire need of appropriate psycholinguistic

The depiction of merger representations as the central element of Default
Semantics also calls for future refinements. Despite aptly delineating the
individual contributors to meaning (WS, SCD, CD, and CPI) and proposing
that they principally contribute to meaning on an equal basis, the latter
claim brings up the issue of how possible interactions of these components
can be operationalized in different discourse situations. This is
particularly evident in the category of social-cultural defaults, which,
even though integrated into the model of merger representations, lack an
adequate definition within the framework of DS. In the applications, SCDs
only surface in the interpretation of 'and' as temporal and causal.

Furthermore, in the model of utterance interpretation, SCD and conscious
pragmatic inference apply both at the stage of merger representations and
at the stage of processing implicatures. This reflects a scale of SCD and
CPI from deeply ingrained, i.e. largely invariant, to contextually
dependent. The dividing line between SCD1/CPI1 and SCD2/CPI2 remains fuzzy
in the present conception of the model which leads to an erosion of Stage
II. This is emphasized in the applications of DS which focus on the
building and interpretation of merger representations (Stage I) only. Thus,
for future research it would be interesting to see the interrelation
between the processing of truth-conditional content (Stage I) and the
processing of implicatures (Stage II) at work in diverse communicative

According to DS, default is related to the degree of intentionality of
mental states whereby the highest degree of intentionality translates into
the default state of interpretation. Again the basic understanding seems
cognitively plausible and is in sync with earlier claims of direct
communication, i.e. parsimony of levels and the principle of primary
intention. However, the current depiction of three stages of intentionality
which lead to three different types of reading, proper extensional
reference, dispersed extension, and categorial reference or attributive
reading (empty extension), stand vaguely connected with strong
intentionality, weaker intentionality, and weakest intentionality. An
operationalization of degrees of intentionality and its mapping onto
default and other types of readings seems essential in order to put the
understanding of default as strong degree of intentionality on more solid
grounds and render this principle applicable for further research.

Finally, a note on the presentation of the arguments is necessary. Due to
the fact that the author summarizes the essence of the theory in the first
chapter, the remaining chapters serve to develop these initial claims. This
presupposes a certain amount of repetition which is generally welcome
considering the complexity of the approach. However, tedious repetition of
the main arguments (e.g. ''merger representations are abstracts over
thoughts'', or ''DS offers a truth-conditional compositional theory of
meaning of acts of communication'') in the theoretical part and in almost
every single chapter of Part 2 appears as counterproductive to making a
convincing case for the theory. In fact, this might give the impression
that the author herself is not really sure of the foundations she
convincingly argued for in the initial chapters of the book.

This argumentative dissonance should not cloud the interest in Default
Semantics and its obvious advance in the analysis and understanding of
utterance meaning. Constructed on credible cognitive foundations and
successfully drawing a holistic picture of meaning interpretation, Default
Semantics does not shy away from laying bare the limits of our current
understanding of utterance semantics. This is why Default Semantics is a
particularly stimulating and thought provoking theory that will continue to
shape our vision of meaning.


Aristotle. 1928. The Works of Aristotle, Oxford University Press, London

Blutner, R. and H. Zeevat. 2004. Optimality Theory and Pragmatics.
Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Dancygier, Barbara, Eve Sweetser. 2005. Mental Spaces in Grammar:
Conditional Constructions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Grice, P. 2001. Aspects of Reason. Richard Warner (ed.) Oxford: Oxford
University Press

Recanati, F. 2002. ''Does linguistic communication rest on inference?'' Mind
and Language 17: 105-26.

Zeevat, H. 1989. ''A compositional approach to Discourse Representation
Theory''. Linguistics and Philosophy 12: 95-131.

Alexander Onysko is working as post-doctoral researcher and lecturer of
linguistics at the English Department of Innsbruck University, Austria. His
research interests lie in the fields of language contact, multilingualism,
and cognitive semantics.

Format: Hardback
ISBN: 0199261989
ISBN-13: N/A
Pages: 304
Prices: U.K. £ 45.00