Meaning Semantics

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

"The word good has many meanings," said G.K. Chesterton. "For example, if a man were to shoot his grandmother at a range of 500 yards, I should call him a good shot but not necessarily a good man.". Rob Melnychuk/Getty Images

In semantics and pragmatics, meaning is the message conveyed by words, sentences, and symbols in a context. Also called lexical meaning or semantic meaning.

In The Evolution of Language (2010), W. Tecumseh Fitch points out that semantics is "the branch of language study that consistently rubs shoulders with philosophy. This is because the study of meaning raises a host of deep problems that are the traditional stomping grounds for philosophers."

Here are more examples of meaning from other writers on the subject:

Word Meanings

  • "Word meanings are like stretchy pullovers, whose outline contour is visible, but whose detailed shape varies with use: 'The proper meaning of a word . . . is never something upon which the word sits like a gull on a stone; it is something over which the word hovers like a gull over a ship's stern,' noted one literary critic."
    (Jean Aitchison, The Language Web: The Power and Problem of Words. Cambridge University Press, 1997

Meaning in Sentences

  • "It may justly be urged that, properly speaking, what alone has meaning is a sentence. Of course, we can speak quite properly of, for example, 'looking up the meaning of a word' in a dictionary. Nevertheless, it appears that the sense in which a word or phrase 'has a meaning' is derivative from the sense in which a sentence 'has a meaning': to say a word or phrase 'has a meaning' is to say that there are sentences in which it occurs which 'have meanings'; and to know the meaning which the word or phrase has, is to know the meanings of sentences in which it occurs. All the dictionary can do when we 'look up the meaning of a word' is to suggest aids to the understanding of sentences in which it occurs. Hence it appears correct to say that what 'has meaning' in the primary sense is the sentence." (John L. Austin, "The Meaning of a Word." Philosophical Papers, 3rd ed., edited by J. O. Urmson and G. J. Warnock. Oxford University Press, 1990)

    Different Kinds of Meaning for Different Kinds of Words

    • "There can't be a single answer to the question 'Are meanings in the world or in the head?' because the division of labor between sense and reference is very different for different kinds of words. With a word like this or that, the sense by itself is useless in picking out the referent; it all depends on what is in the environs at the time and place that a person utters it. . . . Linguists call them deictic terms . . .. Other examples are here, there, you, me, now, and then. "At the other extreme are words that refer to whatever we say they mean when we stipulate their meanings in a system of rules. At least in theory, you don't have to go out into the world with your eyes peeled to know what a touchdown is, or a member of parliament, or a dollar, or an American citizen, or GO in Monopoly, because their meaning is laid down exactly by the rules and regulations of a game or system. These are sometimes called nominal kinds--kinds of things that are picked out only by how we decide to name them." (Steven Pinker, The Stuff of Thought. Viking, 2007)

      Two Types of Meaning: Semantic and Pragmatic

      • "It has been generally assumed that we have to understand two types of meaning to understand what the speaker means by uttering a sentence. . . . A sentence expresses a more or less complete propositional content, which is semantic meaning, and extra pragmatic meaning comes from a particular context in which the sentence is uttered." (Etsuko Oishi, "Semantic Meaning and Four Types of Speech Act." Perspectives on Dialogue in the New Millennium, ed. P. Kühnlein et al. John Benjamins, 2003)

      Pronunciation: ME-ning

      From the Old English, "to tell of"