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Semantics and pragmatics

The Semantics-Pragmatics Distinction: What It Is and Why It Matters


Department of Philosophy

San Francisco State University

San Francisco, CA 94132 USA

The distinction between semantics and pragmatics is easier to apply than to explain. Explaining it is complicated by the fact that many conflicting formulations have been proposed over the past sixty years. This might suggest that there is no one way of drawing the distinction and that how to draw it is merely a terminological question, a matter of arbitrary stipulation. In my view, though, these diverse formulations, despite their conflicts, all shed light on the distinction as it is commonly applied, in both linguistics and philosophy. Although it is generally clear what is at issue when people apply the distinction to specific linguistic phenomena, what is less clear, in some cases anyway, is whether a given phenomenon is semantic or pragmatic, or both. Fortunately, there are other phenomena that are uncontroversially semantic or, as the case may be, uncontroversially pragmatic. Their example will help us get clear on what the semantics-pragmatics distinction is.


Perhaps the main reason for introducing the semantics-pragmatics distinction is to provide a framework for explaining the variety of ways in which what a speaker conveys can fail to be fully determined by the (conventional) linguistic meaning of the sentence he utters:



vagueness (and open-texture)

semantic underdetermination




non-truth-conditional content

illocutionary force

The null hypothesis is that there is always some pragmatic explanation for how, in any given case, sentence meaning can underdetermine what the speaker means. For example, the null hypothesis about controversial claims of ambiguity (on tests for ambiguity see Atlas 1989, ch. 2) is that diverse uses of an expression are best explained not by different pieces of linguistic information (several conventional meanings) but by one piece of linguistic information combined with extralinguistic information. As Green has written,

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