Teaching formal semantics

Author: Ronnie Cann


Short description of matters to be considered when teaching Formal Semantics to undergraduates and postgraduates, containing an indication of current topics and necessary formal techniques, plus a select annotated bibliography.

Table of contents


One of the principal problems in teaching Formal Semantics is deciding the balance to be struck between the teaching of formal techniques and the use to which they are put in accounting for natural language semantics. Masters students and those studying subjects such as computer science or artificial intelligence will, in general, require greater training in the definition and manipulation of particular formal systems, while undergraduates studying linguistics and language will normally require a stronger emphasis on the insights these bring to the analysis of natural language phenomena. An emphasis on purely formal work tends to alienate the latter group, while too little may prevent the former from using the techniques properly. As usual, the balance needs to be determined by desired outcomes for the students, given their level and primary focus, and by the needs of the degree in which the course is embedded.

There are some essential formal systems that all students should be able to understand and use, principally: propositional and predicate logic (usually a prerequisite for formal semantics); the lambda calculus; type theory; basic model theory; and basic set theory (which cannot nowadays be presupposed). I tend to begin undergraduate courses by introducing these basics over a couple of classes to familiarise the students with the representation and interpretation systems and then developing understanding with respect to particular topics. Other formal systems, such as modal and tense logics, are best introduced later as relevant topics are addressed.

The semantic topics to be covered depend on the desired outcomes of the course and the interests of the lecturer, but areas that now (2002) appear to be central to the subject include: generalized quantifiers; plurals; anaphora and (in)definiteness; tense, aspect and aktionsart (tense logics, event theory); modality (possible worlds, intensional semantics). In addition, formal approaches to word meaning, presupposition and the relation between syntax and semantics figure prominently in courses.

I have found it useful to situate the enterprise within an overall view of communicative meaning (such as Relevance Theory or Gricean Pragmatics) at the start of a course, rather than at its end, as done in most textbooks. This helps to ameliorate negative reactions by students to the emphasis on denotation and the apparent exclusion of other aspects of meaning.

It is easiest to teach FS to smaller groups (up to 15) which allows interaction and the inclusion of exercise work within a class that with a lecture/presentation component. I have found that student presentations are not a particularly effective method of teaching the subject to undergraduates and so tend to stick to lectures, working through examples and getting the students to work on problems in small groups. However, with postgraduates this can be a good means of getting the students to really identify what is going on, especially if they report on a paper that is seminal to a topic (see Portner and Partee 2002 for a useful collection).

There are now a number of useful textbooks and handbooks that cover aspects of formal semantics. The reference section contains a sample with my personal view of the content.


Allen, K (2002) Semantics. Oxford, Basil Blackwell. (somewhat idiosyncratic, but full overview of a wide range of topics)

Cann, R (1993) Formal semantics Cambridge. CUP. (principally Montague semantics)

Chierchia, G and S McGonnell-Ginet (1990) Meaning and Grammar. Cambridge. Mass. MIT Press. (good and broad introduction, covering general topics in semantics as well as various aspects of formal semantics)

Gamut, L T F (1991) Logic Language and Meaning. Chicago, Chicago University Press (very technical and formal, better for graduate students)

Heim, I and A Kratzer (1998) Semantics in Generative Grammar. Oxford, Basil Blackwell. (somewhat idiosyncratic and some non-standard symbolization, but covers relation between syntax and semantics well)

Kadmon, N (2000) Formal Pragmatics. Oxford, Basil Blackwell. (excellent book for anaphora and related issues)

Kamp, H and U Reyle (1993) From Discourse to logic. Kluwer publications (although not a general introduction to semantics, it contains useful material for teaching anaphora and tense and aspect that students respond well to)

Kearns, K (2000) Semantics. London, MacMillan. (short, but very good textbook)

Lappin, S (1996) The Handbook of Contemporary Semantic Theory. Oxford, Basil Blackwell. (collection of articles on a range of topics, rather difficult for undergraduates)

Portner, P and B H Partee (2002) Formal Semantics: the essential readings. Oxford, Basil Blackwell. (very good collection of seminal papers)

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