semantics vs. pragmatics

From: Mari Broman Olsen (
Date: Tue Mar 17 1998 - 17:32:20 EST

Another example, addressing the 'unmarked meaning' question. Unmarked
meaning, under the definition given, would ALSO be pragmatic, with
cancellability a test to distinguish necessary meanings of
words/structures, etc. (i.e., to tell students what they WILL find in
the next passage they look at), from more likely meanings (what they
probably will find, if there is no reason to assume otherwise).

The fact that a pragmatic meaning is usual (more frequent, etc.) does
not negate the fact that it is cancellable. Consider the pragmatic
association of female with nurse, e.g. (okay, more so in past years):

        I talked to the nurse. She said I should call the doctor.
        [unmarked, unsurprising]

        I talked to the nurse. He said I should call the doctor.
        [marked, more surprising]

Compare with the assocation of female with mother (semantic: can't
'cancel' without contradicting the semantic meaning of the word):

        I talked to my mother. She said I was right.
        I talked to my mother. He said I was right.

I can't overemphasize what a useful tool this is, to cut through the
underbrush and figure out what is in the language (and allow
comparisons to other languages) from what is in the sentential context
(never duplicable, except by the identical sentence), as well as from
what is in the ambient context. Not trying to introduce fancy terms
here: just want to pin the relevant bits of meaning on words,
sentences, context, in that order.

Words DO have meaning outside of context, else we could all be Humpty
Dumpty. The variation in context is WIDE, not WILD. THe wildness is
constrained by the semantics.


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

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

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