A friend told me :

"The syntax is different from semantics. Semantics are concerned with the meanings of single words, not the structure of the sentence"

Is that true ? If not, how can the structure of a sentence influence its semantics ? Could you please provide some exemples to illustrate all this ?

Thanks in advance

  • 1
    Rather than asking for verification of your friend's opinion, you could improve the question by reading some good resources (i.e. books) and then asking about your own understanding.
    – prash
    Dec 20, 2014 at 23:46
  • To my knowledge, it isn't true. There is such a thing as sentential semantics, such that some grammatical arrangements of words, each meaningful, make sense and others don't. So, for example, we have the hoary old example from Linguistics 101, "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously." The grammar is correct. Each word carries a meaning. But the entire sentence fails to make any sense. I strongly recommend following Prash's advice, and researching Semantics yourself. Maybe this book would help. amazon.com/Meaning-Guide-Semantics-Oxford-Linguistics/dp/… Dec 21, 2014 at 2:43

1 Answer 1


An example of sentence structure affecting semantic interpretation is via word order: "The cat bit the dog" has a different interpretation (refers to a different real-world situation) than "The dog bit the cat". Another example is that "Sharp knives and nails" is ambiguous, in identifying a subset of knives which are sharp, plus any nails, vs. identifying a subset of knives which are sharp plus a subset of nails which are sharp. However, "nails and sharp knives" only means a subset of knives which are sharp, plus any nails. Similarly "He kicked me like a mule" could mean either "He kicked me like he would kick a mule" or "He kicked me like a mule would kick me" (i.e. "like a mule" can refer to either the subject or object (syntactic) function).

The problem you're facing is that semantics is not just concerned with the meanings of individual words, so your friend is wrong on that point. Compositional semantics is the study of how interpretations are assigned to word combinations (clauses, sentences). But, semantics is not concerned with whether adjectives come before nouns of after; whether verbs go before objects or after; with whether you can say "This violin is easy for John to play" or "*John is easy to play this violin" (AFAIK all native English speakers reject the second). Those are the concerns of syntax.

A simple characterization of the difference is that syntax is about the grammatical system for combining words, and semantics is about assigning an interpretation to any utterance.

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