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What Do You Mean?

green-question-markIn this post I would like to explore two subcategories of Linguistics: Semantics and Pragmatics. Semantics studies the meaning of words and sentences. The notion of meaning, however, has many facets. For example,  the words “unmarried man” and “bachelor” have the same meaning; the sentence, “The toothbrush has five legs” is meaningful only in a Lewis Carroll-like story; the sentence, “I saw her work” is ambiguous (“I saw her while she was working” or “I saw something she made”). The meaning of the two phrases in the sentence, “John killed Mary and Mary didn’t die” contradict each other.

A sentence can be well-structured but nevertheless meaningless. Let’s illustrate with the last example: “John killed Mary” is a well-structured sentence with a verb (killed), the subject  (John), and an object, the receiver of John’s action (Mary).  This is  meaningful: a male named John took the life of a female named Mary.  The same goes for the sentence, “Mary didn’t die.”  Their combination is a well-structured sentence with verbs, subjects, and objects in the correct order, but it is meaningless; this is due to the inherent meaning of the verb “kill,” which entails that the killed person has died for good and is 100% dead.  Semantics then is about the conditions a sentence has to meet in order to be meaningful.

Pragmatics on the other hand has to do with how we use meaningful, or sometimes even meaningless, sentences in order to communicate. And to communicate successfully, to understand and be understood, another factor plays the most important role: context, or everything that has to do with the circumstances in which a sentence is uttered.  For example, the sentence, “Can you open the window?”, a well-structured and meaningful sentence, can be interpreted as a question in which we ask the listener if he has the ability to open the window, or as a request for the listener to open the window.  How does the listener reach the correct interpretation? In our example, how does he understand if it is meant to be a question or a request?

According to Pragmatic theories which are based on Paul Grice (e.g. Relevance), we need to guess the speaker’s intentions, i.e., the reason why he is saying something. We put the speaker’s intentions in the right context, and we interpret the utterance. Let’s imagine we are in a stuffy room.  The listener interprets the sentence as a request, given the stuffiness of the air and guessing that the intention of the speaker is to ask him to do something.  Now imagine two burglars outside the house they want to break into. The listener interprets it as an ability question given the fact that they are outside and want to get into the house one way or another. Many times we do not make the right guess and we misinterpret the speaker’s intention, which leads to lack of communication.

We say one thing, but is that what we REALLY mean?

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    • I love this posting! My three teenaged sons tend to have interpretation issues at times. When I try to tell them that their brother isn’t a mind reader and they need to make their intentions more clear they look at me as if I’ve turned into some strange, crazed creature they don’t recognize and can’t understand.
      It’ll be nice for them to see this explanation. Hopefully it will help them “get it”.


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