A Study Of Semantics Pragmatics Interface English Language Essay

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Grice suggests that there is an apparent division of labour between semantics and pragmatics in terms of saying and implicating. For every linguistically acceptable sentence of a language, a semantic theory delivers truth-conditions that have been transplanted onto a Gricean view of the semantics-pragmatics divide. As a result, many people conceive that truth-conditions can be put in a way that they are necessarily free from pragmatic considerations. Some argue by challenging the view for pragmatic intrusion into truth-conditional content while others insist preserving a pragmatically clean conception of semantics. Different proposals appear in supporting these controversial arguments. In this paper, I will focus on studying the boundary between semantics and pragmatics, and examining their interface.


Semantics and pragmatics are both involving sophisticated methods of studying meaning with different focuses where semantics focuses on the relation between signifiers, such as words, phrases, signs and symbols, and what they stand for, their denotata while pragmatics studies the ways in which context contributes to meaning. The key issue is whether their objects to be analyzed can be separated from each other or if each sub-discipline can give one individual object called 'meaning'.

Semantics was conventionally responsible for compositionally deduced sentence meaning, in which there is a combination of the meanings of lexical items and the structure involved. Unquestionably, the truth-conditional semantics is the best developed approach to sentence meaning. It appears that such formal methods allow the translation of vague and ambiguous sentences of natural language into a precise metalanguage of predicate logic with the provision of sense-making logical forms.

Pragmatics was recognized as a study of utterance intended meaning, and so it is the meaning in context, and was hence undertaking with a different aspect of field to be studied. It was also regarded as a separate enterprise with different object of study.

Yet, the so-called semantic underdetermination view was created as the boundary between semantics and pragmatics began to be blurred. This view was a revolutionary idea for the theory of language meaning in response to generative semantics that was prevalent in 1960s and 1970s where attempts of syntactic meaning were given to primarily pragmatic situations. The importance of the Oxford ordinary language philosophers should be noted to show the way to the study of pragmatic inference and its supplement to truth-conditional representation, now known as Gricean intended meaning with inherent truth-conditions.


Semantics / Pragmatics Distinction

By convention, we spoke of the distinction between semantics and pragmatics as differentiation between the meaning of words (semantics) on the one hand and how the speaker made use of words (pragmatics) on the other. This characterization is however loose and ineffective. For instance, the study of indexical expressions such as 'I' and 'yesterday' shows that different occasion of use can have different denotations in the word concerned. Notwithstanding, a definite traditional meaning is found from each indexical word type, that is, there is no variation in a meaning from context to context. In fact, more precision is required.

According to Richard Heck (2001), some terms such as the number determiners 'two' and 'three', or proper names such as 'Bill Clinton' and 'George Bush' are deemed as having a 'stable' standing meaning in such a way that they are referring to the same object or property. Other terms like 'I', 'here', or 'this' and so on have 'unstable' standing meanings in the sense that, in different contexts, they can be used to refer to different objects. For example, the traditional meaning of 'I' in English does not have variation across contexts; standard meaning is used in every context in agreement with the meaning of 'I' which is (roughly) the same as 'the speaker in the context'.

In a context, however, George Bush uses 'I' to refer to himself, when 'I' is in agreement with its standing meaning. In contrast, Gray Davis uses 'I' in agreement with its standing meaning to refer to himself as well, that is, Gray Davis. According to Perry (2001), however, we prefer applying the concept of 'referential content' which has a wider usage to just using referential expressions in contexts. In other words, standing meaning of a term is context-constant while referential content of a term is the object, property, or function that it has as its content in a context which is conceivably distinct from its standing meaning.

Semantics / Pragmatics Boundary

Rajman (2007) points out that the boundary between semantics and pragmatics is very critical in view of the constraint of linguistic processes. Traditionally, semantics is in charge of conventional or lexical, i.e. unvoidable meanings, as entailment and meaning are supposed to have (for example, Paul killed Peter  Peter is dead). And, pragmatics has taken charge of meaning in context in relation to conversational implicatures, which is presumably nonconventional. Metaphors and irony are two of the typical examples of nonconventional meaning (conversational implicatures) (Rajman, 2007). The Gricean view has challenged the classical view that the semantics-pragmatics boundary is not connected to the difference between conventional meaning and meaning in context. Actually, Grice has defined form and meaning of words as conventional implicatures. In (1.1)-(1.3) below, words like even, therefore, but are responsible for specific meanings (Ivan is not expected to like Iris, there is a semantic entailment between being an American and being outspoken, and there is a semantic contrast between having children and being a lawyer):

Even Ivan likes Iris. (1.1)

Joe is an American; he is, therefore, outspoken. (1.2)

Stephanie has five children, but she is a lawyer. (1.3)

The difference between truth-functional meaning (what is said) and non-truth-functional meaning (what is communicated) earmarks the boundary between semantics and pragmatics. Pragmatics is therefore defined meaning minus truth-conditions. The domain of pragmatics is therefore confined to two types of implicatures in Grice's perspective, namely, conventional implicatures and conversational implicatures.

Specific expressions may initiate the entailment of conventional implicatures which, as Rajman (2007) suggests, they have separable (the implicature is attached to a specific word), non-deletable (a conventional implicature cannot be negated) and non-truth-functional (the content of the implicature does not involve in the truth-conditions of the sentence) meanings. In (1.1), even initiates at least two conventional implicatures, given in (1.4) and (1.5):

Even Ivan likes Iris. (1.1)

People other than Ivan like Iris. (1.4)

Among these people, Ivan is the less expected to like Iris. (1.5)

Obviously, these meanings do not provide the truth-conditions for what is mentioned, that is the proposition (1.6):

Ivan likes Iris. (1.6)

Conversational implicatures resulting from a linguistic expression initiates in the use of one conversational maxim (generalized conversational implicature) or not (particularized conversational implicature). The conversational implicatures are non-conventional (resulting from conversational maxims), non-separable (the implicature is attached to a meaning), deletable (implicatures can be canceled) and as conventional implicatures, non-truth-functional. A conventional generalized conversational implicature have a temporal meaning of and ('and then'), as in (1.7):

Michael pushed Daniel and Daniel fell. (1.7)


Grice (1978) noted that there is a need to take into consideration of pragmatic processes of disambiguation and reference assignment to indexical expressions before assessing the sentence's truth conditions. In addition, Kempson (1975, 1979, 1986) and Atlas (1977, 1979, 1989) believe that negation in English should not be recognized as ambiguous between narrow-scope and wide-scope, yet, it was semantically underdetermined instead. That means, on the basis of the recovery of the speaker's intentions, the widely known example (2.1) is not semantically ambiguous between (2.2) and (2.3) but the range of negation is applied pragmatically in each particular utterance instead.

(2.1) The queen of England is not bald.

(2.2) ∃x (QoE(x) ∧ ∀y (QoE(y) → y = x) ∧ ¬Bald (x))

(2.3) ¬∃x (QoE(x) ∧ ∀y (QoE(y) → y = x) ∧ Bald (x))

(2.2) is a presupposing reading: the person who fulfils as the property of the queen of England contains only one person and whoever satisfies this requirement is not bald. The reading in (2.3) is non-presupposing: the queen of England is not bald as no such person ever exists. It is because (2.2) entails (2.3) that the semantic underdetermination (sense-generality) view has both formal and cognitive support in which the boundary has become more and more unclear. According to this view, semantic analysis uncovers only part of the utterance meaning which pragmatic enrichment may complete this process. For instance, sentence (3.1) is naturally developed with the outcome sense before being put under the test of the truth-conditional analysis as in (3.2).

(3.1) Timothy dropped the camera and it broke.

(3.2) Timothy dropped the camera and as a result it broke.

Major concern goes to delimitation of the scope of such an enhanced, truth-conditional representation, called what is said (Recanati, 1989) or explicature (Sperber & Wilson, 1986; Carston, 1988) opposite to implicatures. Carston (1988) reasons that as long as the enhanced meaning has reached an optimal relevance level under the Relevance Theory of Sperber and Wilson (1986), such enhancement process can be stopped accordingly.

Another post-Gricean boundary dispute provides with a so-called 'middle level' of meaning. For Bach (1994, 2001) and Horn (2006), both what is said and what is implicated count. People often speak blurredly and non-literally; and it is more quickly to do so since inference is fast, while utterance is relatively inefficient. For instance, (4.1) may be spoken by a father comforting his little son who cut his finger (Bach, 1994). But what the father meant was not the content of the sentence alone (the minimal proposition in (4.2)) but instead an extension in (4.3).

(4.1) You are not going to die, George.

(4.2) There is no future date at which you will die, George.

(4.3) You are not going to die from this cut, George.

Under the same condition, spoken sentences which are incomplete semantically, although they correspond to complete syntactic forms, like (5.1), are further completed to show the utterance meaning, as from the example in (5.2).

(5.1) Tom is not good enough.

(5.2) Tom is not a good enough singer to be a star in Hong Kong.

They are implicitures as they are implicit in what is uttered, under such extension and completions, which are neither what is said nor implicatures as perceived. The middle level of meaning is formed, while the label 'what is said' is designated for what is explicitly said.

Default semantics (Jaszczolt, 2005) represents an opposite view, in which a representation of spoken meaning is created as a combination of various output linguistic and non-linguistic sources. The combined representation comprises word meaning and sentence structure, cognitive assumptions, social-cultural assumptions, and conscious pragmatic inference, which is the mere level of meaning and its construction, does not give preference to any of the sources mentioned above. If that implicit proposition is the fundamental intended meaning, the logical form of the spoken sentence may uncommonly be replaced by an implicit form, for example, (4.4).

(4.4) There is nothing to worry about, George.

According to the principles of pragmatic compositionality (Recanati, 2004), the formation of meaning is continuing even if the explicit/implicit distinction may cause many theoretical disputes and much experimental research to be conducted. The field was mainly divided into those who accepted the default semantics (e.g., Levinson, 2000; Horn, 2004; Recanati, 2004, 2007; Jaszczolt, 2005), and those in whom pragmatic additions are always inferential (Sperber & Wilson, 1995; Carston, 2002, 2007). Up to that time period, post-Griceans more or less followed contextualism in a way that pragmatic processes might affect the truth conditions of the spoken meaning.


In pragmatics, a speaker can express a thought without really putting it into words. He can say one thing but may mean something else. For communicating something to someone, the speaker has to make clear the utterance even if it does not convey what he intends to express. The hearer has a task of understanding the speaker to the extent that he has to recognize the communicative intention of the speaker in producing the utterance and in particular, to identify the meaning of speaker. The hearer also needs to figure out what has happened in the given situation that the speaker spoke that sentence with that meaning.

An utterance 'Mary has beautiful handwriting and her English is grammatical' may be used as an evaluation of Mary's philosophical ability - to implicate that Mary is no good at philosophy (Grice, 1961). Moore (1942) gives a pragmatic contradiction of an utterance 'Snow is white, but I don't believe it,' which may mean 'you are denying what you have just maintained (snow is white)'. A capable hearer grasps the semantic contents of a sentence by understanding that the language acts as a function of its constituents in relation to syntactic structure. Bach (2010) suggests that there should not be any intermediate level of meaning existed between the semantic contents of a sentence and the speaker's communicative intention in uttering it. Rather, the speaker's act of uttering that sentence may invoke additional information to help hearer understand its contents.

Bach (2010) further remarks that it is utterances rather than sentences that contain the primary linguistic items with truth-conditional contents. Utterances are the only available subject matter for truth-conditional semantics as what Recanati (2004) prefers as 'truth-conditional pragmatics'. In communication, as Bach (2010) points out, the job for pragmatics is not to offer a representative for semantics but to explain how incomplete sentences in semantics can be used to convey complete meaning.


There are three major questions requiring further exploration: 1) what chances are given in language classroom for developing L2 pragmatic ability; 2) can pragmatic ability be developed in a classroom setting without teaching pragmatically; and 3) what effects do different instructional approaches have on the development of pragmatics. Classroom research can be called upon to address the first and third questions, including the resources, processes, and limitations of classroom learning, with exploration be done through data-based studies in classroom settings. Those who are beginners to the field can draw relevance from the 'sea' of literature on educational research in general and second language classroom research in specific. Hence, we can gain insight acquired for the research of classroom-based interlanguage pragmatics (e.g., Chaudron, 1988; Allwright & Bailey, 1991). Literature search on question one and question three shows the deficiency as to the provision of direct teaching strategies in pragmatics that uncovers at least two limitations, for example, teacher-fronted teaching and potentials for pragmatic development over time (Kasper, 2006).

As for the answers to the second question, it is related to whether pragmatic ability can be developed without classroom instruction where such relevance can be drawn from the pragmatics and interlanguage pragmatics literature. It is free of charge for the adult learners to get a certain amount of L2 pragmatic knowledge because of the universal property of some pragmatic knowledge (e.g., Blum-Kulka, 1991; Ochs, 1996), and other aspects of pragmatic knowledge may be learnt from L1 users. Theories and research studies in recent years provide plenty of universal features in discourse and pragmatics. Through taking turns and sequencing of contributions, conversational organization is a universal property of spoken interactive discourse, which may vary in cultural and contextual implementations, among others. Making use of cues in the utterance, context information and different kinds of knowledge origins, speakers and listeners are able to transport indirect pragmatic intent and implicit meaning to each other (Gumperz, 1996).


The use of semantic underdetermination and the recognition of pragmatic inference about the speaker's intentions have become more and more popular. The same applies to the conversion of some of the context-bound information into the semantic content. As a result, two disciplines which are originally separate in nature, namely, the formal study of sentence meaning and the informal study of speech acts have become indistinguishable. The centre of attention has thus been focused on the utterance rather than the sentences. Throughout the past three decades, however, the direction of change has not been consistent. There are a number of suggestions that maintain semantics and pragmatics as two separate disciplines where one school of thought suggests keeping the objectives of semantics and pragmatics distinguishable.

Regarding pragmatics learning, Kasper (2006) appeals for more classroom research on pragmatics teaching that could relate learning outcomes to classroom processes. It may include longitudinal observation of classroom discourse as well as explorations of students' and teachers' subjective theories about L2 pragmatics; and how pragmatics competence could best be developed in pedagogical context (e.g., target-based teaching on complimenting, conversational closings and so on), thus enabling ongoing exploration of substantive and methodological issues.


The study of semantics / pragmatics interface can tell the difference between what is said and what is communicated within the context in question, which can be supplemented by pragmatic intrusion at their interface to achieve the purpose of disambiguation and reference making to indexical expressions. Hence, the job of pragmatics is intended to convey near-complete meaning in communication. Learning of pragmatics definitely can help learners to understand the utterance intended meaning that goes beyond what is given by the language form. More classroom research can be done on pragmatics teaching to address the questions of learning opportunities for the development of L2 pragmatic ability in language classroom, and effects of different instructional approaches that can help develop such pragmatic ability.