How do pro-forms get their meaning? For example, does the word 'he' in the sentences

Harry got a toy. He was happy.

get it's meaning from the context, or what the speaker meant by "he"?

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    What the speaker thinks is part of context. It might not be shared context, but it is context nevertheless. If morose Harry got a happy rent-boy, we can assume "he" refers to the toy.
    – user6726
    Commented Sep 5, 2016 at 20:05
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    If someone utters that completely out of context, the sentence just doesn't make sense. If he utters it successfully, then it must have received its meaning by context. Whether that is the same sentence, a neighbouring sentence or even a referent that was not explicitely mentioned in conversation but is clear from the speaker's background assumptions doesn't matter. Commented Sep 5, 2016 at 20:07
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    @GFD1998 This is what is commonly referred to as the "common ground", the set of shared beliefes between all interlocuters of a converation (and what they believe that the other believes such that they both believe that...). As long as what is said is part of the common ground, i.e. already part of what all speakers know, a proposition, a pronoun referent etc. doesn't need to be introduced explicitely to be understood successfully. It is still utterance context then. Whether such a "common ground" can be precisely defined (I doubt it) is a different question. Commented Sep 5, 2016 at 20:21
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    @Mitch Pronouns always receive their meaning by context (whether this be visible syntactically or only there in speaker's background assumptions), and if the speaker fails to encode the meaning he intended in such a way that it is mutually understandable, I'd say then he just didn't make a successful meaningful utterance. Commented Sep 5, 2016 at 20:53
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    I think if someone says that a proform's meaning is based on intent, that would be like saying that someone said "I like cats" because they intended to say "I like cats", but that someone had actually said "I like dogs".
    – GFD1998
    Commented Sep 5, 2016 at 20:54

2 Answers 2


One can't answer the question without knowing the intonation of the spoken form. If we know only the written form, we just have to guess how it would be said. Using numbers to indicate pitch and stress in the fashion of SPE, with 1 highest, 2 next highest, and so on, and unmarked meaning lowest pitch and stress, my first reactions to the following examples are given below.

A. "2Harry 3got a 1toy. 2He was 1happy."  
B. "2Harry 3got a 1toy. He was 1happy."  
C. "2Harry 3got a 1toy. 1He was happy."  

For A., the two sentences do not make a coherent discourse, and "he" refers to some other person. In B., "he" refers back to Harry. C. has contrastive stress, and "he" refers back to Harry, but the implication is that although Harry was happy, he was the only one, and others concerned who did not get toys were not happy.

D. "2Harry 3got a 1toy. The silly little boy was 1happy."  

There is no pronoun in D, but the low pitch and stress of "the silly little boy" tells us that it is (what has been called) a pseudo-pronoun, and refers back to Harry, as in example B.

  • Particularly with pronouns, which are just grace notes in the melody of the sentence, the intonation and stress pattern is crucial for determining reference, as well as pragmatics.
    – jlawler
    Commented Oct 28, 2021 at 19:12

easy-peasy: context. what you meant is completely irrelevant once you utter your sentence. you could have meant -in your mind - anybody when you said "he". since your interlocutor cannot read your mind, all she has to go on is context - which includes conventions like "he" refers to the most recent "thing" mentioned to which "he" could reasonably apply.

Edited per comment from @user6726: touche! proforms do not "get" or "have" a "meaning". But they do have significance, or if you prefer a functional role. strictly speaking they do not "get" their significance from "context", either - they get it from the norms of linguistic practice, which in turn always involve an interaction with the context.

  • I agree that context is the key, but you seem to be accepting the idea that pro-forms "get a meaning". Which means what? The problem with answering a question containing a false presupposition is that there is no correct answer.
    – user6726
    Commented Sep 9, 2016 at 1:36
  • responding to comment
    – mobileink
    Commented Sep 9, 2016 at 19:01

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