semantics vs. pragmatics

From: Mari Broman Olsen (
Date: Tue Aug 05 1997 - 16:22:51 EDT

Clay Bartholomew asks:

What is the distinction between pragmatics and semantics *in this
dicusson*, not a text book definition, I already have text book
definitions. How is the distinction being drawn in the present
discussion on verb aspect.

I applaud Rod's attempt to keep the two separate, and offer the
following definition, which I believe him to be using (and is pretty
accepted in the linguistics literature).

Semantics is the 'uncancelable' meaning of a word/sentence/grammatical
form, the meaning it must have, in each context of use [something
students can write in their notebooks for the next aorist form, e.g.,
and not be surprised by exceptions, such as 'perfective aspect'].

Pragmatics (in a pipeline architecture of meaning) refers to the
aspects of meaning that are cancelable (without contradiction) and
reinforceable (without redundancy), credit Grice. These aspects of
meaning depend on context interacting with the semantics [and come
flagged with 'student beware', e.g. 'past' for the aorist].

Example: nurse: semantics (medical professional of a certain sort)
                  pragmatics (female)

          mother: semantic (female progenitor, or whatever)
                  pragmatics (nurturing)

My nurse is not female (not logically contradictory)
My mother is not female (contradictory)
My mother isn't nurturing (not contradictory)

I'm sure this will open up the logic discussion again, but I just
wanted to put in my 2c on maintaining the semantics/pragmatics
distinction, as a theoretical construct.


Mari Broman Olsen
Research Associate

University of Maryland Institute for Advanced Computer Studies
3141 A.V. Williams Building
University of Maryland
College Park, MD 20742

(301) 405-6754 FAX: (301) 314-9658


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