Re: Pragmatic/Semantic

From: Micheal Palmer (
Date: Tue Mar 24 1998 - 23:29:13 EST

At 12:12 PM +0000 3/17/98, clayton stirling bartholomew wrote:
>Thanks to Rod and Jonathan,
>It appears that my confusion is well founded. The meaning of "semantic" as you
>describe it is quite foreign to me. I can begin to see how there might be an
>"uncancelable" meaning to a complete utterance, although I have some
>reservations. But I cannot see how there can be an "uncancelable" meaning to a
>single word or a grammatical form. The notion that there is an
>'uncancelable' meaning of a word or grammatical form is not a part of the
>system of linguistics I use. According to the system of linguistics I follow,
>The meaning of a word or grammatical form does not exist until it is used in a
>context. A word or grammatical form is just so many marks on a piece of
>papyrus until it appears in a context which gives it meaning. Accordingly
>semantics is an umbrella term for the whole realm of meaning which starts with
>words and grammatical forms in a context and extends to the higher levels of

I share Clayton's discomfort with the terms 'cancelable' and 'uncancelable'
in this context (though I DO think those terms can be helpful in
approaching the relevant distinction between semantics and pragmatics).
There ARE other ways of formulating the key distinction between semantic
meaning and pragmatic meaning. One is to see semantic meaning as the
meaning which arises only from linguistic factors in a piece of
communication, while pragmatic meaning is that meaning imposed by the
non-linguistic elements which impact the communication. Jonathan's
wonderful example about the gas station works perfectly using this
distinction instead of the cancelability definition.

If someone shows up at my door with a gas can and says that she has run out
of gas, and I say there is a gas station around the corner, all I have
*said* (a linguistic factor, therefore semantic meaning is involved), is
that there is a gas station around the corner. What I *meant*, however, is
that if she goes around the corner (s)he will be able to get gas for her
car. That meaning is pragmatic. It comes, not from the meaning of any
particular word, or even the combination of words and phrases in my
sentence, but from the fact that I would not say (semantic meaning) that
there was a gas station around the corner unless that statement had some
relevance to the listener's problem. Because of that shared assumption, the
listener may correctly infer (pragmatic meaning) that if she goes around
the corner she will be able to get gas for her car.

Now it turns out that this non-linguistic meaning (legitimate inference
based on the real-world context and shared assumptions) IS cancelable as
Mari, Jonathan, and other propose. As Jonathan pointed out, I can sensibly
say, "There is a gas station around the corner, but they won't sell to
people like you." If I did so though, what would happen? The person
standing at my door might respond with something like, "Would they sell it
to YOU? If so, I'll pay you 5$ to go get me some gas." Here again, she
would be using pragmatic meaning. Why would I tell her that there is a gas
station around the corner, but that they won't sell the gas to her, unless
I have some motive for doing so. Her response would constitute a legitimate
guess at what that motive might be. It is a reading of the probable
pragmatic meaning based on her reading of the real-world circumstances in
which the statment was made.

Micheal W. Palmer
Religion & Philosophy
Meredith College

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