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Review of  The Semantics-Pragmatics Controversy

Reviewer: Zhen-Qiang Fan
Book Title: The Semantics-Pragmatics Controversy
Book Author: Kristin Börjesson
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Linguistic Theories
Issue Number: 25.4967

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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 context-(in)dependence.

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), 1823-1864.
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.