Having read the following, I know that 'semantics' is a hyponym of semiotics, and semiotics a hyponym of 'meaning'. But the semblance of interchangeability between 'meaning' and 'semantics' in certain uses exposes my failure to comprehend the differences totally. So what finer distinctions have I neglected?

Optional Reading and Supplement:

Source: An Introduction to Language (10 ed, 2014) by V Fromkin, R Rodman, N Hyams

[p 571:] meaning   The conceptual or semantic aspect of a sign or utterance that permits us to comprehend the message being conveyed. Expressions in language generally have both form—pronunciation or gesture—and meaning. See extension, intension, sense, reference.

[p 578:] semantics   The study of the linguistic meanings of morphemes, words, phrases, and sentences.

Source: The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Linguistics (Oxford University Press, 3rd ed, 2014), by Matthews, P. H.

meaning = Traditionally of something said to be ‘expressed by’ a sentence. E.g. I hate parsnips would express the thought, judgement, or proposition ‘I hate parsnips’. Forms that express something are meaningful, ones that do not are meaningless. Thence also of the words, constructions, etc. that make up a sentence: e.g. parsnip means ‘parsnip’ [...]

semantics = The study of meaning. Seen by Bréal, in the late 19th century, as an emerging science (French ‘sémantique’) opposed to phonetics (‘phonétique’) as a science of sounds: similarly, for Bloomfield in the 1930s, it was a field covering both grammar, as one account of meaningful forms, and the lexicon. Also seen more narrowly, in a tradition lasting into the 1960s, as the study of meaning in the lexicon alone, including changes in word meaning. Later, in accounts in which the study of distributions was divorced from that of meanings, opposed either to grammar in general; or, within grammar and especially within a generative grammar from the 1960s onwards, to syntax specifically. Of the uses current from the end of the 20th century, many restrict semantics to the study of meaning in abstraction from the contexts in which words and sentences are uttered: in opposition, therefore, to pragmatics. Others include pragmatics as one of its branches. In others its scope is in practice very narrow: thus one handbook of ‘contemporary semantic theory’, in the mid-1990s, dealt almost solely with problems in formal semantics, even the meanings of lexical units being neglected.

  • I don't understand how you're still having trouble with this. Don't you understand the parallel distinction between optics and light or arithmetic and numbers?
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Feb 21, 2016 at 13:31

3 Answers 3


Semantics is the study of meaning, as, for instance, optics is the study of light, or arithmetic is the study of numbers. They are just different sorts of things -- it's hard to explain. Your study of something is different from the thing that you're studying. If I'm trying to figure out how to add numbers, my figuring that out is not the same as addition.


My attempt at explaning semantics is as follows. As a pupil I was aghast that a Latin word as ratio could have about twenty meanings and even more. I wondered how someone might get such a list into their head.

Of course, no one told me that in dictionaries the meanings of a word are arranged as the editor likes, i.e. without any logic. I didn't know yet that a word has a central meaning like the trunk of a tree and that sometimes a word can develop several meanings just as a tree has several branches. And of, course I had no idea how words can develop several meanings. A word can take on meanings that are very near the original basic meaning. It can take the meaning of the consequences, it can adopt various meanings if the word is transferred into various branches of science such as mathematics, law, literature, music and so on. The ways how words develop meanings are various, but they are logical and follow mostly the same patterns which one can understand easily.

Semantics is an interesting study and I think it is worthwhile having a look into such a book. If someone had shown me that the twenty meanings of ratio could be arranged in a way that shows how the word developed so many meanings I would have got an idea that it is possible to get twenty meanings into one's head.

At the moment I don't know what good books are available on semantics as I have no need for this sector. If nessessary I do the semantics of a word on my own. But I know from my time as a university student that the books of Stephen Ullmann are good. Link to one title: Stephen Ullmann, The principles of semantics, with a review of the book.


  • +1. I thank you not only for your substantive content, but your practical advice!
    – user5306
    Commented Feb 19, 2016 at 20:51
  • This answer does not seem to be about semantics as I understand the term, but instead something like 'semantic shift'. Commented Feb 20, 2016 at 9:09

I think that this really boils down to level of analysis. (Formal) semantics asks: are there atomic units of meaning, and if so, how do they combine to form linguistic meaning? Of course, this is not a full explanation of linguistic meaning, as not all meaning in a sentence can be explained by reducing it to its atomic units. There are other studies of meaning, such as pragmatics that aim to address dimensions of meaning that is non-compositional. So you can consider "semantics" to be a disciplinary term within linguistics, and "meaning" to refer to the broad phenomena of meaningfulness.

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