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Review of  Meaning

Reviewer: Demet Corcu Gül
Book Title: Meaning
Book Author: Paul D. Elbourne
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Philosophy of Language
Issue Number: 23.2157

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AUTHOR: Paul D. Elbourne
TITLE: Meaning: A Slim Guide to Semantics
PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press.
YEAR: 2011

Demet Gül, Department of Linguistics, Mersin University, Mersin, Turkey.


‘Meaning: A Slim Guide to Semantics’, by Paul Elbourne, is an introductory book
for students of semantics. This book is divided into 9 chapters, which follow an
inductive pattern. Elbourne discusses the basic arguments in semantics, from the
meaning of words, to meanings of utterances in contexts.

In the preface, Elbourne limits the content of the book to natural language
semantics. However, he does not limit semantics to semantics in linguistics by
also including psychological and philosophical aspects of semantics in the
discussion. He promises the reader that he will not avoid touching on difficult
and/or controversial components of semantics.

In Chapter 1, Elbourne discusses what meaning is, or better put, what meaning is
not. In this chapter, the reader evaluates the dictionary definitions of the
word 'chair' in the Collins Pocket Dictionary and the Oxford English Dictionary.
Elbourne shows the reader that it is not possible for a dictionary to cover all
of the items in the world to which the word ‘chair’ may refer. Furthermore, he
introduces the terms ‘extension’ and ‘intension’. The extension of a concept or
expression sign consists of the things to which it applies, in contrast with its
intension, which consists very roughly of the ideas, properties, or
corresponding signs that are implied or suggested by the concept or expression
in question. Elbourne also shows how difficult it was to define the word
'knowledge', even for philosophers. Likewise, he shows that metallurgists could
not agree on the definition of the word 'metal'. Furthermore, he explains the
Gettier problem, which defines knowledge as 'justified true belief' (Gettier,
1963). Elbourne shows what a complicated process it is to define a word by
exemplifying Chomsky's (2000) understanding of ‘definition’. Chomsky (2000)
claims that meanings of words for physical objects are determined by human
intension. For instance, a stick lying on the ground is named as a 'thing' only
if a human left it there (Chomsky, 2000). At the end of Chapter 1, Elbourne
states that the definition of a word and the meaning of it are two distinct
terms. After making sure that the reader knows how he defines the term
‘meaning’, Elbourne delves into discussions on the study of meaning in
subsequent chapters.

Chapter 2 deals with how the relation between words and the real world is
treated by philosophers, linguists and psychologists. Elbourne distinguishes
between referential and internalist theories of meaning. He presents discussions
for and against the Referential Theory of meaning (i.e. Platonism) and starts
outlining how the Internalist Theory of meaning approaches problems with the
former. Referential Theory defines meanings of words as things in the world. The
Internalist Theory (also referred to as nominalism), on the other hand, takes
meaning as thoughts, ideas, or concepts in the mind of speakers, which means
that every human has his/her own language in his/her mind. Elbourne traces the
Internalist Theory of meaning back to Aristotle. He introduces Chomsky's (2000)
concepts of mental lexicon, language faculty, numerical difference, qualitative
difference, and qualitative identity. To illustrate differences between
approaches, he shows how Referential and Internalist Theories of meaning
approach problems like the meaning of ‘Santa Claus’. Prototype Theory,
categorization criterion, and compositionality are also defined in the chapter.
Elbourne closes the chapter by representing the results of test runs by the
psychologists McCloskey & Glucsberg (1978), which support the Internalist Theory
of meaning.

Chapter 3 is a further step in covering the word ‘meaning’, where semantic
properties of words and the relation between word meanings are defined and
discussed. In this unit, synonymy, ambiguity, and vagueness are defined,
explained, and discussed in terms of Referential and Internalist Theories of
meaning. Terms like phonological inhibition, semantic priming and repeating
priming are introduced while Elbourne presents evidence from neuroscientific
experiments (e.g. Pylkkänen and Murphy, 2006; Pylkkänen et al., 2006)
questioning how polysemy and homonymy are treated in the brain. The latency
results achieved at the end of said experiments present physical evidence of the
fact that polysemy and homonymy are two distinct operations in the brain.

Chapters 4 and 5 focus on semantic theories of sentence meaning. Chapter 4
starts the discussion by compositionally defining semantic meaning. The
Internalist Theory defines the meaning of a sentence as a mental structure
formed by the meanings of words in the sentence and their syntactic structure.
In other words, the Internalist Theory takes sentences as sets of possible
worlds. The Referential Theory of meaning, on the other hand, sees sentence
meanings as abstract objects which can be used as mathematical models of
internal mental structure. Elbourne presents the discussion on possible world
semantics starting from Leibniz (in Kenny, 2006) and Arnauld and Lewis (Mason,
1967). Leibniz (in Kenny 2006) offers the term 'possible world' in his work ‘The
Problem of Devil’, where he claims the world that God created is the best of all
possible worlds. Arnauld (Mason, 1967) also uses the term 'possible worlds' in
his theological and philosophical discussions. Alternatively, Lewis (Mason,
1967) claims that all possible worlds exist, nevertheless, the world we live in
is called the ‘actual world’ because we are living in this one, not in another.
Lewis (1970), Stalnaker (1970) and Davidson (1967) define ‘sentence meaning’ as
truth conditions which are determined by related possible worlds. Barwise and
Perry's (1999) term 'situation' is also introduced as another version of the
concept of possible worlds. Situations are defined as spatiotemporally delimited
parts of the world or sets of possible worlds. Finally, Elbourne explains how
Ladusaw (1980) uses negative polarity items (NPI) to show that some part of our
brain uses the possible worlds notion to find meanings of sentences. Elbourne
ends the chapter with a comment that says that possible world semantics can be
used to define sentence meanings, but that there is much further discussion that
should be considered.

Elbourne goes on to present the debate, as he names it, between Referential and
Internalist Theories in Chapter 5, on the semantic properties of sentences. In
this chapter, entailment, presupposition and two types of ambiguity, namely
lexical and structural, are explained and analyzed. Ambiguity is analyzed in
terms of Chomsky's (1976) surface structure and Baker and Shan's (2008) Mental
Representation Theories. Elbourne explains Chomsky's (1976) explanation as
complicated in syntax but simple in semantics, whereas he judges Baker and
Shan's (2008) explanation as simple in syntax but complicated in semantics. He
does not pick one theory over the other and, again, leaves the decision to the
reader. Elbourne closes the chapter by giving an example of the consequences of
ambiguity in a court to show that meaning is not only an abstract discussion,
but also a vital part of daily life that can at times even be a matter of death
and life.

Chapter 6 opens with an example given to clarify how compositionality helps
linguists explain the meaning of a sentence. Elbourne shows that the grammatical
structure of a sentence may be the key to its meaning. He displays how
Russellian propositions and possible worlds are used to do so. Russel (1903)
defines proposition as a complex consisting of the very objects which are the
values of words which express propositions. Frege's (1960) functional
application, function argument, value, mapping, implementation of functions with
respect to Russellian propositions, and possible world semantics are explained
in the chapter.

In Chapter 7, dealing with meaning and context, Elbourne defines ‘context of an
utterance’ (i.e. the sum of circumstances that bear on reference and truth) and
‘indexicals’ (i.e. contextually- dependent references). He mentions Kaplan's
(1989) content and character terms, which directly deal with the referential use
of indexicals. He shows that Kaplan's (1989) theory is not capable of explaining
various uses of indexicals. Further, Elbourne defines 'implicit content' as the
content derived from the audible words of sentences. He explains Sperber and
Wilson's (1986) proposal to explain implicit content. Although he states that it
is not possible to explain with certainty how we understand the implicit content
of an utterance, he shows how important it is by giving an example from a court
in 1993, where the lack of clarity about the implicit content of the phrase 'use
a firearm' could have decreased a thirty year sentence to five years. In the
final part of the chapter, Elbourne defines Grice's (1975) Cooperative Principle
and conversational maxims, concluding that conveyed meaning is effective in
communication through language.

Chapter 8, on meaning and thought, presents a critical analysis of the
Saphir-Worf Hypothesis (Pinker, 1994). Elbourne shows in this chapter that a
strong Saphir-Worf Hypothesis and a restricted Saphir-Worf Hypothesis are
invalid, whereas a watered Saphir-Worf Hypothesis can be supported to some
extent. A strong Saphir-Worf Hypothesis argues that human language imposes
conceptual distinctions on our sense data. On the other hand, a restricted
Saphir-Worf Hypothesis imposes conceptual distinctions on relevant sense data
only in some topics. Finally, a watered Saphir-Worf Hypothesis claims that the
way human beings stereotypically or habitually think about some topics is
influenced by language.

In the conclusion, Elbourne states that he is in favor of the Internalist
Theories of meaning and encourages the reader to read and question other
semantic theories.

Elbourne does not include a references section in his book. Rather, he uses a
whole section at the end of the book to detail the sources he used, as well as
items for further reading. He introduces the material that he uses in each
chapter and informs the reader about how to access the referenced studies.


“Semantics: A Slim Guide to Semantics” is the perfect title for the book by
Elbourne, since it really guides the semanticist during the beginning of his/her
studies. The book is a well-written guide for anyone who wants to get a complete
picture of what semantics is about.

Elbourne starts his discussion with the question, “What is meaning?”. He does
not ask it directly nor answer it openly. He tells the reader what it is not and
leaves the definition open to debate for the reader. The debate between
Referential and Internalist Theories of meaning is introduced in the second
chapter. Throughout the chapters, he keeps adding on different levels to the
debate, which makes the reader get engaged in the discussion at different
levels, and as such, he/she easily gets a full picture of what semantic theories
are about and why they exist. Overall, Elbourne inspires the reader to think
about problems in semantics. Additionally, he shows that semantics is not a
subject only for a scientists, but rather a daily matter with consequences
concerning life and death.

Surprisingly, Elbourne does all of this without boring the reader. The examples
that he uses are presented such that they are unexpectedly easy to follow. In
addition, his language is “crystal-clear”, as the back cover of the book states.
Elbourne succeeds in making the reader laugh out of the blue while reading about
the most serious problems in semantics. This not only eases the reading process,
but also helps the reader feel safe because he/she can see that the writer
empathizes with him/her.

One of the distinguishing facts about the book is that it covers semantics in
philosophy, linguistics, and psychology, which gives the reader the ability to
evaluate any piece of information from various perspectives.

All of the terms and concepts in the book are defined from scratch for
beginners. At times, when the reader has a question like “What is X in the first
place?”, he/she comes across a clear and simple definition of whatever that X
is. Even the term ‘set’ is defined before discussing what Set Theory is about,
which is not a common format. Elbourne makes it impossible for the reader not to
understand what he describes. He makes sure that the reader knows what he is
talking about by repeating (sometimes paraphrasing or updating, if necessary)
the definitions of terms. One further note is that Elbourne succeeds in
explaining the most complex terms and concepts in a simple manner. For instance,
the way he exemplifies the concept of ‘possible worlds’ through a TV series in
Chapter 7 (pp. 120-121) is extremely clever.

However, one does not find subtitles, or highlighted definitions in the book.
This is not a book to be used to find a list of terms in semantics and/or their
definitions. Rather, it is a book which clearly and simply shows the reader what
terms are about and how previous studies approach said terms or concepts. The
reader enjoys coming across definitions as he/she sifts through the book from
beginning to end. He/she questions what basic semantic terms and theories are,
which problems each theory solves and which problems each causes, and/or what
kinds of discussions are caused by these terms. By the end of the book, the
reader finds him/herself at a point where he/she is encouraged to do research on
the two main semantic theories covered in order to find out which one he/she

Although the book includes beginning level discussions on semantics, it may well
be used in graduate courses. Namely, this is because Elbourne raises study
questions about semantics and does not answer the questions that he raises.
Instead he guides the reader to some possible answers, so that reader is
encouraged to research the subject in order to find answers to questions.
Instructors may use any chapter of the book as an introduction on how to make
students ask questions about the subject, followed by an assignment requiring
detailed research on the terms, concepts and/or theories in question. The book
will make a perfect introduction to semantics if used in this way.

Finally, including a sources and further reading section to an introduction book
is beneficial for learners. Readers are encouraged to further research what they
have read. Nevertheless, the readers could really use a references section at
the end. I hope Elbourne considers including a references section in upcoming


Barwise, J. and Perry, J. (1999). Situations and Attitudes (2nd Edition). CSLI

Baker and Shan, C. (2008). Donkey anaphora is in-scope binding. Semantics and
Pragmatics 1(1), 1-46

Chomsky, N. (1976). Conditions on rules of grammar. Linguistic Analysis 2, 303-51.

Chomsky, N. (2000). Language and Mind. CUP

Davidson, D. (1967). Truth and meaning, Synthese 17, 304-23.

Frege, G. (1960). Function and concept. In M. Black and P. Geach (eds.)
Translations from the Philosophical Writings of Gottlob Frege, 21-41. Blackwell.

Gettier, E. (1963). Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?. Analysis 23, 121-123.

Grice, H. P. (1975). Logic and Conversation. In P. Cole and J. Morgan, Syntax
and Semantics 3: Speech Acts, 41-58. Blackwell Academic Press.

Kaplan, D. (1989). Demonstratives. In J. Almong and J. Perry and H. Wettstein
(eds) Themes from Kaplan, 481-63. Blackwell.

Kenny, A. (2006). The Rise of Modern Philosophy. OUP.

Ladusaw, W. (1980). On the Notion of “Affective” in the Analysis of Negative
Polarity Items. Journal of Linguistic Research 1, 1-16.

Lewis, D. (1970). General Semantics. Synthese 22, 18-67.

Mason, H. T. (1967). The Leibniz-Arnauld Correspondence. Manchester University

McCloskey, S. and Glucsberg, M. (1978). Natural Categories: Well defined or
fuzzy sets?. Memory and Cognition 6, 467-72.

Pinker, S. (1994). The Language Instinct: How Mind Creates Language. William
Morrow and Company.

Pylkkänen, L. and Murphy, G. (2006). The representation of polysemy: MEG
evidence. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 18, 1-13.

Pylkkänen, L. and Stringfellow, A. and Marantz, A. (2002). Neuromagnetic
evidence for the timing of lexical activation: An MEG component sensitive
phonotactic probability but not to neighborhood density, Brain and Language 81,

Russel, B. (1903). The Principles of Mathematics. COUP

Sperber, D. and Wilson, D. (1986). Relevance: Communication and Cognition.

Stalnaker, R. C. (1970). Pragmatics. Synthese 22, 272-89.

Demet Gül completed her PhD in linguistics in Ankara University’s Faculty of Letters in 2010. Her main research interests lie in the semantics and morphosyntax of modality, especially modality in Turkish. Her M.A. dissertation focuses on grammatical and lexical expressions of modal necessity in Turkish. For her PhD project, she analyzed native speaker judgments to reach a semantic description of evidentiality in Turkish. She is currently teaching in the Linguistics Department at Mersin University, Mersin, Turkey.

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