Like in the title, are concepts expressed only by some parts of the speech: nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs ? In sentence: The cat ate food - all words are concepts or only the noun ? All those words have its own meaning. Is concept equal to meaning ?

What about expressions with prepositions, in sentence: The keys are on the floor, 'on the floor' phrase has a meaning, is this the concept or does it describe concept of 'position' ?

1 Answer 1


It depends on how you define "concept" and "meaning". Which is to say, neither term is uncontroversially and unambiguously defined, even limiting the discussion to technical linguistic usage. (Or, "especially if you limit the inquiry to technical linguistic usage"). The most difficult part is figuring out what a "concept" is. We clearly have to avoid the senses exemplified in expressions like "I really like open concept" (home renovation), "Whadda concept!" (general talk). The Oxford Dictionaries philosophical definition is a reasonable definition (not theory of) "concept".

An idea or mental image which corresponds to some distinct entity or class of entities, or to its essential features, or determines the application of a term (especially a predicate), and thus plays a part in the use of reason or language.

To get a deeper understanding of "concept", I would recommend a scholarly philosophical treatment of the term, such as the Standford Encyclopedia entry, especially section 1 on the ontology of concepts.

One would need to inspect the linguistic literature to see how the word "concept" is used, qua technical term. The Routledge Dictionary of Language and Linguistics punts, by pointing "concept" to "notion" which it defines as

Idea which is conceived through abstraction and through which objects or states of affairs are classified on the basis of particular characteristics and/or relations. Notions are represented by terms. They can be defined like sets: (a) extensionally, by an inventory of the objects that fall under a particular concept; and (b) intensionally, by indication of their specific components. The current equating of ‘notion’ with ‘meaning’ or with Frege’s ‘sense’ (‘Sinn’) rests upon an intensional definition of ‘notion.’ (also definition, intension)

That constitutes one vote that meaning and concept are the same, if we assume that concept and notion are indeed equivalent.

I do not think that "concept" is a technical term in linguistics, any more than "sound" is one. To determine whether "concept" and "meaning" are really the same thing, one would devise substitution frames to see if the terms are interchangeable. The syntax of the terms is different, of course: you would say something like "The concept of 'liberty' refers to ...", but "The meaning of 'liberty' is...". At the level of sentences, it is clearest that meaning and concept are not the same. You can say "The meaning of 'All of the arrows didn't hit the target' is that ...", but you would not say "The concept 'All of the arrows didn't hit the target' refers to...", because a sentence is not / does not (re)present a concept, it represents a proposition.

"Keys are on the floor" is ungrammatical, but "The keys are on the floor" does not contain any pronouns. "On the floor" has a meaning, which relies on at least two concepts (the relational one "on" and the referential one "floor"). The relational concept behind "on" is a specific kind of positional concept, which includes "in", "by", "under" and so on. "On the floor" does not describe the concept "position", it exemplifies one kind of position relationship. "Cat ate food" is ungrammatical (unless this is the person "Catherine"), but "The cat ate food" is okay. It is a proposition which relies on at least three concepts, namely "cat", "food" and the action "eating".

  • So concepts can be expressed by many (all?) different parts of speech, right ? Prepositions like 'in', 'for', 'of', 'with' etc. doesn't refer to any particular concept in general, but they do when they are used in the sentence. I think that each word/group of words in the sentence refer to some concept, even words which are called functional words: prepositions, articles, etc., right ? For me it is difficult to find any word without meaning or playing some role in the sentence - such a word make no sense. Interesting article
    – Adrian
    Commented Oct 15, 2018 at 17:25
  • I halfway agree with his account of concepts, and the half that I agree with is the "more basic" stuff. The part that I disagree with is that he doesn't say what the ontology of a concept is – it's a cognitive thing.
    – user6726
    Commented Oct 15, 2018 at 20:06

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