Sentence meaning

Author: Billy Clark


Thoughts on the teaching of sentence meaning within a linguistics programme.

Table of contents


Sentence Meaning is an important component of a general account of linguistic meaning. Studying it raises important issues about finding relevant data, about the relationship between data and theories, about the use of intuitions as data. It also raises questions about the notion of compositionality, and about the interaction of separate components of linguistic knowledge and linguistic theory.

Sentence Meaning is a difficult subject which can be introduced gently, beginning with an overall sketch of what a theory of linguistic meaning needs to account for, namely how an initial, linguistically encoded semantic representation leads to an overall interpretation of an utterance in context. Linguistic semantics aims to account for what is linguistically encoded, while a pragmatic theory will explain how more detailed interpretations are derived on the basis of semantic representations.

Most courses in semantics begin by concentrating on lexical meaning. Once the semantics-pragmatics distinction has been established, students become accustomed to exploring questions about meaning focussing mainly on words.

One way to introduce questions about sentence meaning is to consider example utterances which have the same propositional content but differ in linguistically encoded meaning. This means that there must be a difference in meaning at sentence level. An alternative is to start with a broader range of examples and ask what are the linguistically encoded differences between them. This leads to differentiating different types of lexical meaning, syntactic meaning, intonational meaning and contextual inference. This leads to the important notion of compositionality, the notion that the linguistic meaning of an expression is made up from the sum of the meanings of its parts. If compositionality is maintained, and if sentences with the same propositional content have different meanings, then there must be linguistically encoded meaning at sentence level which goes beyond propositional content.

The first step in determining what kind of meaning this could be is to consider commonsense notions, such as that interrogative syntax encodes question meaning. It is easy to find counterexamples to this view, which leads to the discussion of particular theoretical approaches. Most courses begin by considering the notion of speech acts, originating in the work of Austin (1976). Each new approach can be interrogated by considering a range of examples. Each course organiser can decide precisely which range of approaches to consider and in how much detail.

Classroom activities will focus on technical terms, starting with fundamental terms such as sentence, utterance, proposition and definitely including terms conventionally associated with linguistic forms, such as interrogative and terms conventionally reserved for 'forces' or interpretations, such as question. Alongside exercises designed to reinforce understanding of these terms, some work will focus on discussion of reading, which can include individual or group presentations. The core of a course will involve the use of data to test particular approaches, which lends itself well to group problem-solving tasks.

Assessment can cover essays and exercises, in coursework or in exam conditions, and projects in which students collect and evaluate their own data.

There are no introductory textbooks which look exclusively at sentence meaning, so most courses will select reading from textbooks and research articles. The bibliography contains a few suggestions for general introductions to semantics.


Chierchia, G. & S. McConnell-Ginet (2000). Meaning and Grammar: An Introduction to Semantics, 2nd edition. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

Cruse, A. (2000). Meaning In Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kearns, K. (2000). Semantics. London: MacMillan Press.

Lyons, J.L. (1977). Semantics Volumes 1 and 2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Loebner, S. (2002). Understanding Semantics. London: Edward Arnold.

Saeed, J.I. (1997). Semantics. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Austin. J.L., Sbisa, M. (ed.) & J.O.Urmson (ed.) (1976). How To Do Things With Words, 2nd edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Related links

LSA Fields of Linguistics paper on semantics and pragmatics, by Bill Ladusaw, available at

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