This is a question similar to the question about the semantics/pragmatics divide, but I have a more specific interest.

I'm thinking of two different ways of conceiving of the way statements come to have a range of admissible interpretations within a context:

  1. Semantics generates an abundance of possible interpretations and pragmatics serves to cut down this stock to those interpretations admissible in the context.

  2. Semantics generates a stock of admissible interpretations and pragmatics adds additional interpretations.

Thinking of conversational implicature, for example, I could see either view as plausible. For instance, take the Gricean example:

A is writing a testimonial about a pupil who is a candidate for a philosophy job, and his letter reads as follows: 'Dear Sir, Mr. X's command of English is excellent, and his attendance at tutorials has been regular. Yours, etc.'

This suggests that Mr. X is a rather poor philosopher, and this can be explained by appeal to Grice's Principle of Quantity (i.e., "If the speaker uttered F, F is optimally informative within a class (to be defined) of alternative utterances."; this formulation is taken from this Phillipe Schlenker survey article on the pragmatics/semantics interface). I could see this reading as either being already generated by the semantics and made salient by the context, or as being unavailable outside of a range of similar contexts (e.g., writing recommendation letters) where the context serves to introduce the implicated claim to the meaning of the sentence. These correspond to (1) and (2), respectively.

I know that the semantics/pragmatics distinction is a very thorny one, but is there reason to favor one of these views over the other? Does my thinking here even make sense?

3 Answers 3


You prejudice the question in your second sentence when you append "... within a context". Implicatures tell you something about what the context is -- it must be such as to make a conversational sentence meaningful. Taking this into account, pragmatics adds to the information conveyed. If the context were taken as fixed in advanced, pragmatics couldn't tell you anything about it, so context could only limit the possible interpretations.

  • I'm a little bit confused by your answer. Can you clarify what you mean by "context" here? The set of beliefs in the common ground, or something like that?
    – P Elliott
    Mar 8, 2016 at 13:44
  • @PElliott Not necessarily common. Things that a speaker supposes or wants to be taken as supposing. I could attempt to mislead someone into thinking there is a king of France by saying that the present king of France is bald. If my attempt failed, the contextual proposition would be something not believed by either me or the hearer.
    – Greg Lee
    Mar 8, 2016 at 15:34

Here is the view that makes sense to me, although I'm not sure if it's the standard: Semantics provides us with a meaning (say for example, truth-conditions), which is typically relatively weak, i.e., there are many different circumstances which would make the sentence true. Take the (Gricean) example of disjunction:

(i) Jeff is at the cinema, or eating ice cream with Shirley.

Assuming that the semantics gives us classical (inclusive) disjunction, (i) is true in any circumstance except for one in which Jeff is neither at the cinema nor eating ice cream. Plausibly, the pragmatics strengthens these truth-conditions to exclusive disjunction, via a scalar implicature (with "and" as the relevant alternative). The consequence is that pragmatics strengthens meanings - it takes a meaning compatible with many different circumstances, and cuts down the number of circumstances it is compatible with.


when studying linguistics I enjoyed looking at syntax, semantics and pragmatics. However, the more I learnt, the more difficult it was for me to see these as separate areas of study. After all, they are all connected.

It sounds to me that you might be interested in engaging with a functional perspective. In systemic functional linguistics (SFL), language is a social semiotic, i.e. it is used to create meaning, and it has developed an elaborate and robust explanation of text in context. At the level of language, it can be stratified into three levels: phonology, lexicogrammar (so called because lexis and grammar are two ends of the spectrum) and discourse semantics. Each of the strata is said to "realise" and "be realised" strata both above and below. This means that language 'realises' meaning (semantics), and that meaning can only be understood as it is realised by context (roughly pragmatics). This is not something that can be rather complex to explain and I encourage people to look at some references - See https://books.google.com.au/books?hl=en&lr=&id=Q_kQBs1nfs4C&oi=fnd&pg=PA3&dq=JR+Martin+SFL&ots=csPShDhWtH&sig=02L-wYJ8Z-kFr4QD9bzRQUtvBzs#v=onepage&q=JR%20Martin%20SFL&f=false Or perhaps http://functionallinguistics.springeropen.com/articles/10.1186/2196-419X-1-3

In answer to your question, perhaps semantics can be seen as a bottom-up perspective, from language to meaning, while pragmatics can be seen as a top-down perspective, i.e. from context to meaning. They cannot be separated.


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