[in J. Keim Campbell, M. O'Rourke, and D. Shier, eds., Meaning and Truth, New York: Seven Bridges Press (2002), pp. 284-292]
distinction between semantics and pragmatics has received a lot of bad press in
recent years. It has been claimed to be faulty, confused, or even nonexistent.
However, these claims are based on misconceptions of what the distinction is and
of what it takes to show there to be something wrong with it. As I see it, the
semantic-pragmatic distinction fundamentally concerns two types of information
associated with an utterance of a sentence. Semantic information is encoded in
the sentence; pragmatic information is generated by, or at least made relevant
by, the act of uttering the sentence. This explains the oddity of such pragmatic
contradictions as "I am not speaking" and "It is raining but I don't
believe it." In "The Semantics-Pragmatics Distinction: What It Is and Why It
Matters" (Bach 1999a), I develop this conception of the distinction and
contrast it with alternatives. Here I will to try clarify that conception by
showing how it avoids certain objections. Space will not permit going into much
detail on the various linguistic data and theoretical considerations that have
been thought to undermine the semantic-pragmatic distinction in one way or
Historically, this distinction has been formulated in various ways. These
formulations have fallen into three main types, depending on which other
distinction the semantic-pragmatic distinction was thought to correspond to:
linguistic (conventional) meaning vs. use
vs. non-truth-conditional meaning
independence vs. context dependence
of these distinctions does the job. The trouble with the first one is that there
are expressions whose literal meanings are related to use. The second
distinction is unhelpful because some expressions have meanings that do not
contribute to truth-conditional contents. And the third distinction overlooks
the fact that there are two kinds of context. This last point deserves
It is a platitude that what a sentence means generally doesn't
determine what a speaker means in uttering it. The gap between linguistic
meaning and speaker meaning is said to be filled by "context": what the
speaker means somehow "depends on context," or at least "context makes it
clear" what the speaker means. But there are two quite different sorts of
context, and they play quite different roles. What might be called "wide
context" concerns any contextual information that is relevant to determining
(in the sense of ascertaining) the speaker's intention. "Narrow context"
concerns information specifically relevant to determining (in the sense of
providing) the semantic values of context-sensitive expressions (and morphemes
of tense and aspect). Wide context does not literally determine anything. It is
the body of mutually evident information that the speaker exploits to make his
communicative intention evident and that his audience relies upon, taking him to
intend them to do so, to identify that intention.
Another source of confusion is the phrase "utterance interpretation."
Strictly speaking, sentences (and subsentential expressions), i.e. types not
tokens, have semantic properties. Utterances of sentences have pragmatic
properties. Also, the term "interpretation" is ambiguous. It can mean either
the formal, compositional determination by the grammar of a language of the
meaning of a sentence or the psychological process whereby a person understands
a sentence or an utterance of a sentence. Using the phrase "utterance
interpretation" indiscriminately for both tends to confound the issues.
My conception of the semantic-pragmatic distinction involves certain
asssumptions about semantics and a certain view of communication. I take the
semantics of a sentence to be a projection of its syntax. That is, semantic
structure is interpreted syntactic structure. Contents of sentences are
determined compositionally; they are a function of the contents of the
sentence's constituents and their syntactic relations. This leaves open the
possibility that some sentences do not express complete propositions and that
some sentences are typically used to convey something more specific than what is
predictable from their compositionally determined contents. Also, insofar as
sentences are tensed and contain indexicals, their semantic contents are
relative to contexts (in the narrow sense). Accordingly, the following
distinctions should be recognized:
between a sentence and an utterance of a sentence
between what a sentence means and what it is used to
between what a sentence expresses relative to a context
and what a speaker expresses (communicates) by uttering the sentence in a
between the grammatical determination of what a sentence
means and the speaker's inferential determination of what a speaker means (in
uttering the sentence)
for communication, when a speaker utters a sentence in order to convey
something, the content of the sentence provides the basis for his audience's
inference to what he is conveying and what attitudes he is expressing, e.g.,
belief in the case of assertion and desire in the case of requesting. In fact,
as Bach and Harnish (1979, ch. 3) argue, because types of communicative speech
acts may be individuated by the types of attitudes they express, their contents
are simply the contents of the attitudes they express. That is one reason why
the notion of the content of an utterance of a sentence has no independent
theoretical significance. There is just the content of the sentence the speaker
is uttering, which, being semantic, is independent of the speaker's
communicative intention, and the content of the speaker's communicative
intention. When one hears an utterance, one needs to understand the sentence the
speaker is uttering in order to figure out the communicative intention with
which he is uttering it, but understanding the sentence is independent of
context except insofar as there are elements in the sentence whose semantic
value are context-relative. Recognizing the speaker's communicative intention
is a matter of figuring out the content of that intention on the basis of
contextual information in the broad sense.
This information does not literally determine that content. In no case
does the semantic content of the uttered sentence determine what the speaker is
communicating or, indeed, that he is communicating anything. That he is
attempting to communicate something, and what that is, is a matter of his
communicative intention, if he has one. If he is speaking literally and means
precisely what his words mean, even that is a matter of his communicative
intention. Communicative intentions are reflexive in the sense discovered by
Grice: a communicative intention is one whose fulfillment consists in its
recognition by the audience, partly on the basis that it is intended to be
recognized. The role of Grice's maxims, or presumptions as they might better
be regarded (Bach and Harnish 1979, pp. 62-65), is to provide inference routes
across any gap between what the sentence means and what the speaker aims to be
communicating in uttering it.
This Gricean view of linguistic communication (it is developed in detail
in Bach and Harnish 1979) lends itself to a certain conception of the
semantic-pragmatic distinction. This distinction can be drawn with respect to
various items, such as ambiguities, contradictions, implications,
presuppositions, interpretations, knowledge, processes, rules, and principles,
and, of course, "semantics" and "pragmatics" are also names for the
study of these phenomena. For me the distinction applies fundamentally to types
of information. Semantic information is information encoded in what is
utteredóstable linguistic features of the sentenceótogether with any
extralinguistic information that contributes to the determination of the
references of context-sensitive expressions. Pragmatic information is (extralinguistic)
information that arises from an actual act of utterance, and is relevant to the
hearer's determination of what the speaker is communicating.
This way of characterizing pragmatic information generalizes Grice's
point that what a speaker implicates in saying what he says is carried not by
what he says but by his saying it and sometimes by his saying it in a certain
way (1989, p. 39). The act of producing the utterance exploits the information
encoded but by its very performance creates new and otherwise invokes
extralinguistic information. This extralinguistic information includes the fact
that the speaker uttered that sentence and did so under certain mutually
evident circumstances. This is context in the broad sense. Importantly,
nonsemantic information is relevant to the hearer's inference to the
speaker's intention only insofar as it can reasonably be taken as intended to
be taken into account, and that requires the supposition that the speaker is
producing the utterance with the intention that it be taken into account. There
is no such constraint on contextual information of the semantic kind, which
plays its role independently of the speaker's communicative intention.
Contextual information in the narrow, semantic sense is limited to a short list
of parameters associated with indexicals and tense, such as the identity of the
speaker and the hearer and the time of an utterance. I may think I'm Babe Ruth
and be convinced that it's 1928, but if I say, "I hit 60 home runs last
year," I am still using "I" to refer to myself and "last year" to
refer to the year 1999.
Now let us consider some reasons that might be suggested for rejecting
the semantic-pragmatic distinction. To the extent that the debate about it
isn't entirely terminological (e.g., many years ago "pragmatics" was the
name for indexical semantics), the main substantive matter of dispute is whether
there is such a thing as "pragmatic intrusion," whereby pragmatic factors
allegedly contribute to semantic interpretation. Here is an assortment of
objections that are based on supposed pragmatic intrusion of one sort or
another. Each of these objections is predicated on some misconception, as the
1. Semantic phenomena are
context-independent, whereas pragmatic phenomena are context-sensitive. But the
meanings of certain expressions are context-sensitive. Therefore, their meanings
are not exclusively semantic.
objection assumes that anything pertaining to the use of an expression is
automatically not semantic. However, the fact that the contents of certain
expressions, notably indexicals and demonstratives, are context-sensitive does
not show that their meanings vary with context. How their contents vary with
context is determined by their fixed meanings, and that is a semantic matter.
These variable contents are their semantic values.
2. There are aspects of
linguistic meaning that concern how a sentence is used, not its
truth-conditional content. So linguistic meaning is not merely a semantic
objection alludes to the fact that the meanings of certain expressions, what I
call "utterance modifiers," such as "to conclude," "frankly," and
"to be precise" (for a catalog of them see Bach 1999b, sec. 5), as well as
grammatical mood, concern how a sentence is being used. However, all this shows
is that semantics is not limited to what is relevant to truth-conditional
content. There is no reason to assume that the linguistic meaning of a sentence
cannot include information pertaining to how the sentence is used.
3. Since language is rife
with semantic underdetermination and vagueness, there is no such thing as
literal meaning: sentence "semantics" is adulterated with pragmatics.
phenomena show only that sometimes the literal meaning of a sentence does not
determine a complete proposition or a precise proposition. They do not show that
there is no purely linguistic information on which language users rely. Take the
case of semantically underdeterminate sentences, which do not express complete
propositions, even modulo ambiguity and indexicality. Even though the following
sentences do not express complete propositions,
still have determinate semantic contents. However, these are not complete
propositions. The semantics of (1) does not specify what Muggsy is too short or
not tall enough for, and the semantics of the sentences in (2) do not specify
whether Kurt finished painting, writing, reading or, for that matter, eating.
However, what the speaker means must include some such thing. So the completion
of what the speaker means involves the insertion of something that does not
correspond to any constituent of the sentence. This does not show that there is
something wrong with the semantic-pragmatic distinction but only that utterancs
of semantically incomplete sentences require pragmatic supplementation.
4. There are many
sentences whose typical use is not what, according to the compositional
semantics of the sentence, the sentence means. Therefore, pragmatic information
somehow blends into semantic information.
objection is illustrated by likely utterances of (3) and (4).
(3) Jack and Jill went up the
(4) Jack and Jill are married.
is likely to be used to assert that Jack and Jill went up the hill together and
(4) that they are married to each other, even though this is not predictable
from the meanings of the sentences. Nothing adverse to the semantic-pragmatic
distinction follows from this, however. These examples show merely that some
sentences are typically not used to mean what the sentences themselves mean.
This is clear from the fact that the analogous uses are not typical for
sentences like (3') and (4'),
(3') Jack and Jill went up the
hill separately/on different days.
(4') Jack and and his sister
Jill are married.
5. There are certain
expressions that are generally not used strictly and literally, such as
"empty," "everybody," and "circular". Therefore, their semantics
does not determine how they are standardly used and pragmatics enters in.
is also true, but the existence of a distinction between semantics and
pragmatics does not imply or even suggest that expressions must standardly be
used literally. There may be a presumption of literality, but this presumption
can easily be overridden, especially with words like the ones above.
6. There are certain
expressions that have a range of related meanings but are neither clearly
ambiguous nor clearly unambiguous. What such an expression can be used to mean
is always partly a pragmatic matter.
objection is based on examples like these:
(5) a. Gus went from Natchez to New Orleans.
b. The road went from Natchez to New Orleans.
c. The show went from 7 to ll.
d. Gus went from irritated to outraged.
e. The house went from Gus to his wife.
idea behind the objection is that as they occur in these sentences the words
"go," "from," and "to," though semantically univocal, have distinct
but related meanings; that is, rather than being ambiguous their unitary
linguistic meanings underdetermine what they are used to mean "in context,"
hence that their pragmatics intrudes on their semantics.
This idea is a definite improvement over the view that the words
"go," "from," and "to" are used literally only in (5a), which
involves movement from one place to another, and that their uses in the other
sentences are in various ways "extended," hence nonliteral uses. However, it
does not follow that pragmatics intrudes on semantics. The existence of these
various uses shows merely that the meanings of such polysemous terms are more
abstract than the movement model would suggest (for further discussion see Bach
1994, sec. 7).
Nunberg (1979) offers a related objection, based on the multiplicity of
uses of terms like "chair" and "newspaper." "Chair" can refer to
particular chairs (chair tokens) or to chair types. But it is far from clear why
this instance of the general type-token ambiguity poses a problem for the
semantic-pragmatic distinction. The case of "newspaper" is more interesting,
because that term can refer either to particular copies of a newspaper, to
specific issues or editions of a newspaper, e.g., the final edition of today's
New York Times, or to the
publishing company. Nunberg claims that there is no basis for singling out one
use as the conventional one and treating the others as derived from that. But
surely the last use is a derived use, since the publishing company wouldn't be
referred to as the newspaper (e.g., the San Francisco Chronicle, which was
recently bought by the Hearst Corporation). Indeed, it is arguable that this use
of the term is elliptical for "newspaper publishing company." In any case,
how to explain polysemy has no particular bearing on the semantic-pragmatic
distinction, but is rather a problem in lexical semantics.
7. There are certain
complex expressions whose meanings are not predictable from the meanings of
their constituents. Therefore, pragmatics impinges upon semantics.
is true that the meanings of phrases and compounds like the following are not
predictable, or at least not obviously predictable, from the meanings of their
(6) a. sad girl
b. sad face
c. sad day
d. sad music
(7) a. child abuse
b. drug abuse
(8) a. election nullification
b. jury nullification
(9) a. slalom skiing
b. snow skiing
c. heliocopter skiing
(10) a. jellyfish, goldfish, catfish
(11) a. clipboard
b. diving board
c. bread board
d. game board
interesting as these examples are, they do not undermine the semantic-pragmatic
distinction . All they show is that phrasal semantics is not straightforward.
They suggest that compositionality is not a simple as it might seem, for there
are different ways in which the meanings of words can combine. But this has
nothing to do with pragmatics.
8. A well-defined
semantic-pragmatic distinction requires that semantics determine what is said.
But intuitions about what is said indicate that it includes pragmatically
"intuitions" are not necessarily about what is said (see Bach 1994 and
"Seemingly Semantic Intuitions," this volume). They arise when one ignores
the distinction between locutionary and illocutionary acts or assumes that the
distinction between what is explicit in an utterance and what is implicated by
it is exhaustive. Intuitions that are adverse to the semantic-pragmatic
distinction are insensitive to the in-between category of what is implicit in
what is said (more accurately, in the saying of it), and mistakenly include that
in what is said. The same mistake is implicit in relevance theorists' use of
the term "explicature" for aspects of utterance content that are not
explicit and in the description of the entire content as "explicit."
9. The strict and literal
semantic content of a sentence is often not calculated prior to the hearer's
determination of the content of a speaker's utterance. Therefore, even if
there is a theoretical role to the notion of semantic content, it has no
psychological import, hence no empirical significance.
about "pragmatic processing" are not relevant to the semantic-pragmatic
distinction. They are often cited in support of claims about what is and what
isn't said and even used to argue that there are pragmatic elements in what is
said. However, nothing follows from such facts about what is or isn't said,
since that's a matter of what a speaker does in uttering a sentence, not what
his listeners do in understanding it. Moreover, the psychologically relevant
category, if there is one, is information that is available to pragmatic
processing, not what goes on in the processing itself.
None of the above considerations or phenomena poses a serious objection
to the viability of the semantic-pragmatic distinction. What they do show is
that it is important to avoid a simplistic approach to that distinction.
Semantics and pragmatics are both complex, but this doesn't mean that they
should be mixed up, much less that they overlap.
Kent (1994), "Conversational Impliciture," Mind & Language 9:
_____ (1999a), "The
Semantics-Pragmatics Distinction: What It Is and Why It Matters," in Ken
Turner (ed.), The Semantics-Pragmatics Interface from Different Points of
View, Oxford: Elsevier, pp. 65-84; on line at http://userwww.sfsu.edu/~kbach/spd.htm.
_____ (1999b), "The Myth of
Conventional Implicature," Linguistics and Philosophy 22: 327-366.
_____ and Robert M. Harnish (1979), Linguistic
Communication and Speech Acts, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Grice, Paul (1989), Studies in the
Way of Words, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Nunberg, Geoffrey (1979), "The
Non-uniqueness of Semantic Solutions: Polysemy," Linguistics and Philosophy