LINGUIST List 10.1596

Sat Oct 23 1999

Review: Turner: The Semantics/Pragmatics Interface

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1.       Francisco Yus, Turner: Semantics Pragmatics Interface

Message 1: Turner: Semantics Pragmatics Interface

Date: Mon, 4 Oct 1999 09:35:16 +0200
From: Francisco Yus <>
Subject: Turner: Semantics Pragmatics Interface

Ken Turner (ed.) The Semantics/Pragmatics Interface from Different Points of View. (Current Research in the 
Semantics/Pragmatics Interface, vol. 1). Oxford: Elsevier, 1999. x + 491 pages, 90.50 USD, 178 NLG.
Reviewed by Francisco Yus, University of Alicante, Spain.
         "We human beings are odd compared with our nearest animal relatives. Unlike them, we can say what we want, when we want. All normal humans can produce and 
         understand any number of new words and sentences. 
         Humans use the multiple options of language often without thinking. But blindly, they sometimes fall into its traps. They are like spiders who exploit their 
         webs, but themselves get caught in the sticky strands"(Aitchison, 1996).
This quote may well be applied to the study of language from  semantic or pragmatic point of view. As speaking animals,we could have just packed our messages in carefully word- 
wrapped containers and send them out to be opened easily by our addressees. As linguists, we could have built up only idealized models of languages as transparent reflections of 
people's thoughts. But, of course, that would have been too easy. Instead, as human beings we  have developed an ability to speak figuratively, be ironic, understate, speak loosely, 
create  metaphors... and as linguists we have undertaken the task of explaining how all these 'special  effects' are produced and understood, have taken the path of a context- 
or use-bound pragmatic  research and have finally got trapped in its sticky strands, in "an area of linguistic research with  fuzzy boundaries - spreading like an 
uncontrollable oil slick" (Parret, Sbis and Verschueren,  1981, quoted in Turner, this volume, Introduction, p. 14). 
So many aspects of language  production and comprehension have had to be taken into consideration that eventually  pragmatics has ended up with no clear-cut research program 
apart from a manifest interest in  the study of context and language in use.
      However, at the same time, many researchers have finally realized that no serious  analysis of language can be carried out without appealing to (at least some of) its 
pragmatic  aspects. This has put analysts of context-free semantics in a difficult position, faced with an  increasingly ubiquitous body of pragmatic research. Exactly 
how many (purely) semantic and  (context-or-use-bound) pragmatic aspects are there in ordinary language use? The fifteen  articles included in the volume under review (plus 
the editor's introduction) aim at establishing  where this interface may be located. As the title of the book indicates, the reader will find no  'philosopher's stone' to 
satisfy everyone but, rather, "different points of view" illustrating  where in a hypothetical semantic/pragmatic continuum this interface lies. It is precisely this  
multiplicity of perspectives and instructive lack of agreement that I find most interesting in the  book.
      Turner, in his introduction to the volume ("Introduction -from a certain point of view  (seven inch version)", 1-18) briefly discusses different proposals of 
where (if ever) semantics  and pragmatics meet, concluding that the aim of the volume is "to take some steps to reducing  the heat of some of these discussions and to begin 
to increase the light that might profitably be  shed on some of the problems of interdigitating content and context" (p. 14). In this book these  steps are definitely taken, and 
should lead the way to forthcoming volumes in the series.
      Below, I will sketch the different views of the semantics/pragmatics interface that are  proposed in the volume. In general, the reader will find not only general 
accounts of theories  dealing with this interface (as it would be expected in a first volume in the series), but also very  specific research on sentential particles which shows 
that a purely semantic analysis is limited  or inadequate.
  1. Semantics // Pragmatics = dynamic semantics // dynamic pragmatics
  N. Asher ("Discourse structure and the logic of conversation", 19-48) reconsiders Gricean and  Searlian  approaches to communication from a new dynamic point of view 
relying on the claim  "that discourse structure is an essential component in discourse interpretation and results from  integrating pragmatic and semantic information 
together" (p. 20). The outcome of his analysis  is a cognitive modeling in which discourse structure and speakers' beliefs and goals interact in  a more fine-grained 
theory than Grice's (1975) Cooperative Principle and Searle's account of  illocutionary force attached to propositional content.
      However, his analysis also minimizes of the role of hearers' recognition of speakers'  intentions in communication (e.g. pp. 25-26), currently essential in post-
Gricean approaches  like 'relevance theory' (Sperber and Wilson, 1986/95), which sounds a bit extreme to me. For  Asher, not recovering the speaker's intention in 
communicating certain information "may not  stop me from understanding the story itself and assigning it a coherent discourse structure and  acquiring as part of the meaning of 
the text the truth-conditional implications of that text  structure. In many cases, interpreters may not exactly be sure of the speaker's intentions and  beliefs, but they are 
irrelevant to the content of what's said" (p. 26). In my opinion, intentions  may not be essential to determine what sentences literally mean, but they certainly are essential  
to recover what speakers are trying to communicate with these sentences, which often differs  drastically from the literal truth-conditional content of the utterance.
  2. Semantics // Pragmatics = polyfunctional semantics // polyfunctional pragmatics
  J. van der Auwera ("On the semantic and pragmatic polyfunctionality of modal verbs", 49-64)  addresses a very specific linguistic item: modals. He sketches a general 
typology of context-  dependent meaning or "polyfunctionality". There can be 'semantic polyfunctionality', covering  such cases as vagueness, 
polysemy, homonymy and ambiguity, and 'pragmatic  polyfunctionality: "what we find when a word is meant in a way that flouts the semantics.  Either the intended meaning 
is more general than the semantics, as when one uses 'grandfather'  for any old man... or it is related metaphorically, as when one uses 'mother' to characterize  a 
certain node in a generative grammar tree... or metonymically, when one uses 'pamper' to  denote a pamper-wearing baby" (p. 53). He then goes on to analyze modals in 
this dual-  polyfunctionality view.
  3. Semantics // Pragmatics = what is said // impliciture / implicature
  K. Bach ("The semantics-pragmatics distinction: what it is and why it matters", 65-84)  develops a concept somewhere between 'what is said' (i.e., the purely linguistic content 
of the  utterance), which also includes some processes such as reference assignment and  disambiguation, and 'what is implicated' (in the Gricean sense). The concept, called  'impliciture', integrates several pragmatic processes, 
especially expansions of what is said (i.e.,  fleshings out of the logical form of the utterance) in order to get a 'proposition expressed'  intended by the speaker, as in (1a-b) below (see Vicente, 1998 for a critical assessment):
 (1) a. I haven't eaten [this morning].       b. She has nothing [appropriate] to wear.
 There is also another kind of pragmatic support -completion- required in those cases in which  the utterances are semantically incomplete and not yet propositional, as in 
(2a-b) below.
 (2) a. The princess is late [for the party].       b. Tom has finished [speaking].
 Besides, Bach postulates two different degrees of contextual support: one playing a limited role  in determining context (affecting such variables as the 
determination of the speaker's identity  or the spatial-temporal location of interlocutors), and a broad notion of context covering  anything that the hearer can or has to 
take into account in determining the speaker's  communicative intention (p. 72). Hence, Bach assumes a much more important role of  intentions in communication than  
Asher does: "Pragmatic information concerns facts relevant  to making sense of a speaker's utterance of a sentence (or other expression). The hearer thereby  seeks to identify the 
speaker's intention in making the utterance" (p. 74). This leads to a clear-cut demarcation of semantics and pragmatics, the former being associated with the linguistic  
material uttered and the latter related to the (intentional) 'act' of uttering that material (p. 75).
  4. Semantics // Pragmatics = logical form // explicature / (higher-level) explicature /  implicature
  Recognizing intentions is also basic in the relevance theoretic framework (Sperber and Wilson,  1986/95), the one R. Carston sets out to explain in her article ("The 
semantics/pragmatics  distinction: A view from relevance theory", 85-125). A basic assumption in this theory is that  language is decoded -logical forms- but it has to be 
enriched pragmatically in order to reach  a proposition supposedly intended by the speaker (semantics/pragmatics is decoding/inferring  within relevance theory). Thus the 
theory relies heavily on the importance of pragmatic import  in understanding, since "the decoded 'semantic' representation is seldom, if ever, fully  propositional; it 
functions merely as a kind of template or assumption schema, which  necessarily requires pragmatic inference to develop it into the proposition the speaker intended  to express" (p. 86).
      The hearers' pragmatic import, supplied when enriching linguistic content, varies  according to a basic, cognitively rooted search for relevance in the incoming 
information,  which amounts to finding the first interpretation which offers the greatest interest -cognitive  effects- in exchange for the least mental effort. 
Inferential mechanisms involved in the  development of a logical form include reference assignment, disambiguation, enrichment, and  loosening. The outcome is an explicature 
which, when embedded in a higher-level  (metarepresentative) description (basically including the speaker's attitude/belief in producing  the utterance) results in a 
higher-level explicature. The difference between explicatures and  implicatures lies in the amount of inference and reliance on the logical form: "An explicature  
is derived by inferentially developing the logical form of the utterance. All other communicated  assumptions are implicatures; they are derived by inference alone, inference 
in which the  explicature is one of the premises" (p. 113).
  5. Semantics // Pragmatics = what is said // proposition expressed
 B.S. Gillon ("English indefinite noun phrases and plurality", 127-147) studies noun phrases  such as those in (3) and (4) below, in which some puzzling interpretations 
result from  singular/plural number in (b) examples when embedded in (a) situations:
 (3) a. [William, Dan and Reed pool their resources to buy a single house].       
     b. The men bought a house.
(4) a. [William, Dan and Reed each buy their own house].
    b. The men bought houses.
 Surprisingly, (3b) can reflect the circumstance in (4a) despite the singular number in 'a house';  and (4b) can also reflect the circumstance in (4a) despite the fact that each of them bought only  one house and the sentence includes a 
plural noun phrase 'houses'. These are the "two horns  of the dilemma" that Gillon sets out to explain.
      His analysis is mainly centered upon isolated sentences, and little pragmatic support  (i.e., language-in-use) is taken into consideration (apart from the fact that 
certain arrangements  of linguistic items -noun phrases- tend to be understood in specific ways), or shown that  context plays any basic role in the determination of what 
interpretation of singular/plural noun  phrases is intended -or eventually selected- in interaction. His analysis is, rather, in a similar  wavelength to pragmatic analyses of 
scalar implicatures or referential/attributive interpretations  of definite descriptions.
  6. Semantics // Pragmatics = what is said // 
interpretation of situated and goal-oriented  discourse
  Y. Gu ("Towards a model of situated discourse analysis", 149-178) embarks on a very  ambitious project (quite different from Gillon's) of studying highly contextualized 
and goal-  oriented interactional discourse, and assuming a wide-margin concept of 'situation'. Gu intends  "to come to terms with the actual use of language by actual people doing 
actual things with  language in actual social situations [and] to advance... the view of the actual use of language  as goal-directed social process" (p. 150).
      By actual use, Gu means all the spontaneous talk produced by ALL the adult native  users of a language for a period of time and across all social situations 
(comprehensive-all use)  or at a particular time and social situation (sample-all use); and some talk produced by TWO  OR MORE adult native users of a language for a period of 
time and across all social situations  (comprehensive-some use), or at a particular time and social situation (sample-some use). This  starting-point terminology is then used in 
a review of the bibliography on (the importance of)  language use (pp. 151-154), which is contrasted with one of Gu's aim in the paper: To examine  "the way actual users use 
language to attain communicative and extra-communicative goals in  real-life social situations, with a full recognition of actual users as discourse  
developers/managers". A good number of pages are devoted to this aim, which involves the  inclusion of many contextual parameters in the analysis of discourse.
  7. Semantics // Pragmatics = semantics // semanticized 
  M. Hand's paper ("Semantics vs. pragmatics: ANY in game-theoretical semantics", 179-198)  focuses on a very specific linguistic item: "any". He pictures straightforward cases 
deserving  purely semantic or pragmatic analysis and others in which the semantics/pragmatics distinction  is fuzzy, to the extent that "[c]ompeting theoretical frameworks may treat these borderline  problems in different ways, so that 
a linguistic problem that is treated by purely semantical  means in one theory is treated pragmatically by the other" (p. 180).
      His analysis fits "game-theoretical semantics" (GTS) (initiated back in the early 70s)  "with an eye toward showing how the GTS apparatus can 'semanticize' a pragmatic 
insight into  the semantics of the notorious English quantifier any" (ibid.). Basically, he proposes a  semantics-centered unitary account of the two traditional 
uses of 'any' (universal and existential  quantifier) that shows why it manifests semantically in such dissimilar ways.
      At first sight, this study seems to pay less attention to contextualized pragmatic uses of  language than to its semantics. However, some aspects of GTS such as the reference to the  presence of two players who must make 
selections when quantifiers are interpreted (even if  these players are not to be identified with actual flesh-and-blood users) indicate some interest  in how 'any' is understood 
  8. Semantics // Pragmatics = intentions intruding into semantic representation // context  arranging interpretations in scale of salience
  K.M. Jaszczolt, one of the editors (together with K. Turner) of the series "Current Research  in the Semantics/Pragmatics Interface" (CRISPI), to which this 
first volume belongs, proposes  an interesting hypothesis in her paper ("Default semantics, pragmatics, and intentions", 199-  232) and applies it to definite descriptions. Apart 
from three previous approaches to the  interface (semantic ambiguity, Grice's unitary semantics supplemented with conversational  implicatures, and semantic 
underdeterminacy), Jaszczolt suggests a fourth view of "non-  ambiguous semantics achieved through the interaction of the speaker's intention with the logical  form of the 
expression... There is one, discourse-level representation, to which syntax,  semantics and pragmatics contribute" (p. 201). Besides, the resulting interpretations of the  
utterance, instead of being treated as equally possible (context-free), are pragmatically ranked  on a scale of salience and predictability.
  9. Semantics // Pragmatics = semantic model of entities // 
contextual constraints
  A. Kehler and G. Ward ("On the semantics and pragmatics of 'identifier so'", 233-256) focus  on the establishment of reference in discourse. Traditional studies have dealt with 
reference to  entities (a broad term used here to denote the class of things that can be referred to  linguistically) through the use of lexical and pronominal noun phrases, and 
much less often  through the use of verb phrases.
      In this paper, the authors present "an analysis of identifier so based on the informational  structure of the discourse in which it is used... anaphoric expressions 
containing so impose a  set of constraints on the information status of their referents that is not found for any of the  various types of NP anaphora in English" (p. 
      Interestingly, the authors give context an important role in the determination of  reference, since during comprehension hearers "build up a semantic model 
representing the  entities that have been introduced thus far and the relationships that hold between them" (p.  235) and in order to achieve this goal, they resort to various 
contextual sources of entity-fixing  including their knowledge store, previous discursive strings, context of utterance, immediate  surroundings, etc., all of which may 
vary the outcome of the referent-signaling procedures.
  10. Semantics // Pragmatics = sentence meaning // scalar implicatures
  M. Krifka ("At least some determiners aren't determiners", 257-291) presents a formal-  semantics analysis of determiners that sheds light on classical problems such as 
the scope of  quantifiers (for example 'three' versus 'at least three') and their scalar implicatures.
  11. Semantics // Pragmatics = lexical meaning // 
contextual meaning
 S. Kubo ("On an illocutionary connective datte", 293-315) studies this Japanese connective  aiming at a unified view of its semantic and pragmatic functions within speech act theory.  Previous research on the connective regards it as 
being (a) an exponent of the speaker's  intention to declare his/her speech action in conversation; and (b) an 'explanation of reasons'  at the propositional level 
describing 'assertion' against a partner's intention. Kubo develops this  research in a proposal of datte as "compound speech acts consisting of two consecutive speech  acts, 
namely the speech act with assertive illocutionary force of 'objection', and that with  assertive illocutionary force of 'supplementary explanation' or 'justification'" (p. 294).
  12. Semantics // Pragmatics = contrastive topic expressed // pragmatic effects created by the  contrast
  C. Lee ("Contrastive topic: A locus of the interface evidence from Korean and English", 317-  342) studies Korean data for the determination of the semantic/pragmatic status 
of Contrastive  Topic. That variety occurs when the topic in discourse is divided into parts, one of them  contrasting with the rest of the parts and the speaker has the 
alternative contrast in mind.  Typically, Contrastive Topic -due to its cancellative function- gives rise to an implicature  concerning the alternative in contrast (often 
accompanied by a marked accent). These effects,  together with the speaker's reliance on background and/or common knowledge are typically  analyzable within pragmatics.
  13. Semantics // Pragmatics = semantics --><-- pragmatics
  F. Nemo ("The pragmatics of signs, the semantics of relevance, and the semantics/pragmatics  interface", 343-417) provides a lengthy and ambitious study of the 
semantics/pragmatics  interface. I find some of his claims a bit extreme, but he is to be congratulated for a daring  attempt to shed light on this interface.
      The paper (strikingly) starts with its final conclusion, namely, that "even if semantics  and pragmatics are two disciplines with two clearly distinct objects and 
separate goals... what  they actually find - and not what they search - is often very similar" (p. 345). This is why in  the above heading semantics and pragmatics converge (--
><--): "the main interface between  the two disciplines could be their own results" (ibid.).
      Nemo initially distinguishes two types of semantics (S) and pragmatics (P): S1 (what  is directly attached to signs), S2 (what is truth-conditional), P1 (a 'cognitive approach' centered  on communication, implicitness and 
inference), and P2 (a 'biotic approach' with emphasis on  action, conversation, interaction). These four ends cover many areas of linguistic research (as  illustrated on p. 
349). After that, he goes on to show how similar semantics and pragmatics are  despite the traditional debate on their different scope of analysis and sometimes he arrives at  
surprising conclusions. In general, a certain bias towards pragmatics is felt, as shown by these  sample quotes:
      (a) Semantics and pragmatics share a not directly accessible object and explore more  or less the same fields and data (p. 352); (b) "it is not only the origin of the semantic meaning  which is pragmatic, but the semantic 
meaning itself" (p. 355); (c) "[pragmatics] has gradually  become [semantics] car handyman mechanic, with so many reparations to be paid for as to  pretend becoming the owner 
of the car" (p. 356); (d) "human languages just cannot point to  a people-free world... not only because there are relations between signs and their users, but  mainly because 
there are direct relations between the latter and the objects" (p. 357); (e)  "semantic meaning must explain use in general, and not primarily (apparently) conventional  
uses" (p. 364); (f) "the semantic content of a word is not a description of what it conventionally  refers to, but a comparison of different things or states to isolate the 
specificities of something"  (p. 376); (g) "a word can be used to refer to anything, as soon as it locally has a sufficient  discriminative capacity... its semantic content 
will depend on the discriminative scene" (p.  377). These are but a few in-between claims in the article.
      The general conclusion of this long study is that semantic content has a marked  pragmatic motivation, and that pragmatics is closely dependent on semantic representations,  which means that rather than looking for 
an interface between semantics and pragmatics we  should rather accept (a) that semantics cannot find purely semantic answers to purely semantic  questions, and (b) that pragmatics cannot find purely pragmatic answers to purely 
pragmatic  questions: "whatever affects the saying process actually leave (sic) traces in semantic in  semantic content, which allows semantic contents to produce pragmatic 
effects" (p. 414).
  14. Semantics // Pragmatics = invariant meaning // 
indexical meaning / meaning as  interpretational construct
  J. Peregrin ("The pragmatization of semantics", 419-442) criticizes the three-fold (and clear- cut) Carnapian distinction between syntax (expressions-expressions), semantics (expressions-  meaning) and pragmatics 
(expressions-users). Several challenges to this division include the  'internal challenge' ("development of linguistics and logic which extends Carnapian semantics  far 
beyond its original boundaries to swallow up much of what originally counted to  pragmatics", p. 420) and 'the external challenge' ("questioning the whole model, a  
development... which casts doubt on the entire Carnapian way of viewing language", ibid.).
      Peregrin shows how semantics in the 50s could not cling to a logic-based null-context  view of content and at the same time analyze natural language phenomena such as indexicals,  which the author calls "context consumers". 
Even traditional notions such as 'subject' and  'predicate' demand a dynamic approach (p. 422). This evidence led semanticists to see  meanings of natural language sentences as 'context-change potentials'. Indeed, "the very  working 
of language is essentially oversimplified if meanings are explicated in a way which  does not account for how utterances interact with each other via contexts" (p. 424). 
Later, this  evidence leads to Peregrin's view of meaning as an 'interpretational construct': "Assigning  meaning is specifying a role, or possible roles, within a co-operative 
enterprise; it is to state  how an expression could be useful for the purposes for which we use language" (p. 432).
      However, this emphasis in language use sounds like a rest-in-peace approach to  semantics. Later in the article, Peregrin restates the role of semantics by proposing a 
concept  of 'invariance': "Meaning of an expression is, roughly speaking, that which is invariant among  various cases of employment of this expression... Thus when I say 'I 
am hungry' and you say  'I am hungry too', the fact that the first I refers to me, whereas the second to you, is a  pragmatic matter. What is invariant is that it always refers 
to the speaker" (p. 436-37).
  15. Semantics // Pragmatics = literal meaning // 
contextualized implicit information  compatible with interlocutors' beliefs
  A. Ramsay ("Does it make any sense? Updating = consistency checking", 443-478) aims at  a computational explanation of how users of language extract meaning from what they say. The  emphasis is on significance as 'entailed' by utterances 
in the contexts in which they are uttered.  This provides a picture in which "some of the apparent content of an utterance will emerge  from interactions between its literal 
meaning, the information embodied in general  knowledge... and information available in the current discourse situation" (p. 444).
      The author's picture sounds very pragmatic, but it is also very content-centered,  stressing the importance of information 'already' contained in a proposition in order to build  up further information, that is, "to obtain new 
propositions from old ones" (p. 445). In general,  the paper combines an interest in the semantic representation of what speakers say and also  pragmatic factors (e.g. 
interlocutors' common ground - despite the problematic status of this  notion nowadays -) influencing interpretation. This is reflected in the three-fold task of 
a hearer  H when the speaker S utters U: (a) Construct a representation of what U says about S's view  of each participant's beliefs and their common ground; (b) check 
that this representation is  consistent with H's own view of each participant's beliefs and common ground in order to  construct a model; (c) take this model to be H's view of the 
new common ground.
  This volume is, no doubt, highly recommendable reading for anybody interested in the roles  that semantics and pragmatics play in the production and comprehension of language. The book  avoids reductionist views of semantics 
and pragmatics and acknowledges a more adequate role  of pragmatics beyond the cliche "wastebasket" of semantics. It offers fifteen interesting views  of where a hypothetical 
interface between them might possibly occur, and no claim is made (by  the editor) about the superiority of any of these views upon the rest. The reader is thus invited  to take a 
personal position in this on-going debate. If, after reading the book, some readers  think that the semantics/pragmatics interface should be located elsewhere, they are also invited  
to take part in this discussion and contribute to this series (by entering the official page at which has just 
- and fortunately - been initiated.
 Aitchison, Jean (1996). "Word traps and how to avoid them". 
The Independent, 6 March 1996.
 Grice, Paul (1975). "Logic and conversation", in P. Cole and J. Morgan (eds.), Syntax and  Semantics, Vol. 3. London: 
Academic Press, 41-58.
 Sperber, Dan and Deirdre Wilson (198695). Relevance Theory. 
Communication and Cognition.  Oxford: Blackwell.
 Vicente, Begoa (1998). "Against blurring the explicit/implicit distinction". Revista Alicantina  de Estudios Ingleses 11: 241-258.
 Francisco Yus teaches linguistics at the Department of English Studies of the University of  Alicante, Spain. He has specialized in the application of pragmatics to media 
discourses, but  his latest research has had to do with the application of relevance theory to the analysis of  misunderstandings and irony in conversation.
Dr. Francisco Yus
University of Alicante
Department of English Studies
Tel: +34 9653400 Extension: 3027 (university)
e-mail: (university)

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