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Review of  Meaning and Argument

Reviewer: Alice G. Ter Meulen
Book Title: Meaning and Argument
Book Author: Ernest Lepore
Publisher: Wiley
Linguistic Field(s): Semantics
Subject Language(s): English
Language Family(ies): New English
Issue Number: 13.3354

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Date: Wed, 27 Nov 2002 17:42:57 +0100
From: Alice G.B. ter Meulen
Subject: Semantics: Review of Lepore (2000), Meaning and Argument

Lepore, Ernest (2000) Meaning and Argument. An introduction to logic through language. Blackwells Publishers Inc. 418 pp.

Alice G.B. ter Meulen, Center for Language and Cognition, University of Groningen, NL

This first introduction to logic, written by a renowned philosopher on the faculty of Rutgers University, caters to a general audience of undergraduate students with no special background in mathematics or computation, nor in linguistics. The comprehensive textbook consists of 17 chapters and an appendix (55 pp.) offering many interesting insights into the relation between linguistic structure and logical form, as well as a very useful, exhaustive list of answers to the exercises. For linguists, the appendix may well present the most interesting part of the book, as it discusses the need for event arguments, the semantics of adverbs, anaphora, comparison and alternative semantics of conditionals, conjunction, negation and relative clauses.

The main tenet of the author is the claim (p. 39) that translating ordinary English to truth-conditional logical formulas often requires thoughtful reflection on possible meanings in context, which will never be reducible to a mere matter of automatically applying computational algorithms. Although this categorical statement as such may not be controversial, it could have served the intended audience if references had been included to the semantics of natural language, in spite of its limitations to only smaller fragments of English. The index mentions logicians of historical repute as Quine, Russell and Carroll, though Donald Davidson is absent, surprisingly so, given his formative influence over the author, admitted in the acknowledgements (p. xiv). Given the subtitle of this book, it is truly regrettable that no systematic references are provided to more contemporary logicians and the semantics of natural language in the wake of Richard Montague’s pioneering research in the early 1970s, though references at the end of some chapters do include a few selected papers by contemporary semanticists.
Early on the student is made aware of the important distinction between conversational inference, which is non-monotonic, i.e. cancellable when information is added, and monotonic, non-cancellable logical deductions, including analytically necessary truths. Accordingly, the chapters on the logic of statements (propositional logic) pay lots of attention to detecting deductive arguments in actual English texts, while developing truth tables and the nice tree style presentation of tableau techniques, which often appeals to students and trains their analytic insights considerably.

Linguists may find that sometimes odd views are proclaimed: only NPs can be the subject of sentences (p. 20), dismissing clausal subjects as in ‘That John smokes bothers Mary’, and the really misleading claim that ‘is a dog’ is a common noun, and ‘is brown’ an adjective (p. 135). Property predicates are defined as the result of omitting a singular term from a statement (p. 135), but this is later not generalised to allow for quantified statements. In fact, variables are not introduced until binary relational predicates are (p. 198). Lepore’s language of monadic predicate logic is at first unusually limited without variables, although individual constants are admitted, but with superscripts indicating the number of arguments a predicate requires. Accordingly, ‘John drinks water’ is translated to D1j , whereas ‘Someone drinks water’ is symbolized as $D1 and ‘Everybody drinks water’ (p. 181) as "(P1 … D1 ). This logic at once confusingly indicates argument structure, but does not analyze object NPs, departing radically from linguistic syntactic structure, and it makes monadic predicates syntactically ambiguous. As teacher of logic classes you would like to have seen a justification of this peculiar choice of notation, intended perhaps as a simplification serving a pedagogical purpose.
Another matter of considerable importance to linguists is the issue whether indefinite NPs are referential or quantificational. Although it certainly is commendable that this book addresses it so explicitly, and offers an account of unselective binding, the arguments adduced to convince the reader that they are quantificational are shaky at best. Lepore claims (p. 138) that ‘something’ is quantificational because the two statements ‘something is a dog’ and ‘something is not a dog’ do not constitute a contradiction, as they would, had their subjects been singular referring terms. The student must be puzzled when this argument would lead one to conclude erroneously that universal quantifiers, introduced on the following page, must hence also be referential. But then a more convincing test is presented, appealing to the fact that universal quantifiers cannot be referential like singular terms, since they cannot be substituted for reflexive pronouns, salve veritate. This would have been a natural point to introduce variables as contextual names or symbolization of deictic pronouns, but for this to happen the student must live with this at best awkward logical language for another 54 pages. The semantic notion of a variable assignment function and a proper definition of truth and satisfaction are regrettably beyond the scope of this introductory textbook.

The key advantage of this book over other logic textbooks resides it its appendix, where Lepore shows remarkable breadth and awareness of linguistic research. He presents interesting analyses of comparatives, inviting the student to reflect on a choice between a pragmatic account where uniqueness of definite descriptions with superlatives is not required and a semantic one which does require uniqueness. His discussion of gerunds and infinitives, different kinds of adjectives, bare infinitives in perception reports, and non standard quantifiers present some important developments of the semantics of natural language that have taken place over the past 40 years. It would have been appropriate here to include the proper references to the original sources.


Alice ter Meulen is the co-author of Mathematical Methods in Linguistics (Partee, ter Meulen and Wall, Studies in Linguistics and Philosophy, Kluwer Academic Publ. 1990). She has a Ph.D. in Philosophy of Language from Stanford University (1980), is currently working on the dynamic semantics of tense, aspect and temporal reasoning, and is appointed as chair of English Linguistics at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands and research member of the Center for Language and Cognitiono