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Word Meaning

Word Meaning: What it is and What it is Not

AHRC funded project (2011-4)


What is it about?

It seems an uncontroversial claim that one understands a word if one knows its meaning. However, it has proved remarkably difficult to provide a theoretical account of word meaning that is faithful to two deeply ingrained intuitions:  

(i) a word has a fixed linguistic meaning,


(ii) we interpret words differently in different contexts. 

Reading the instruction ‘Keep shut’ printed on a fire door, we understand that we may in fact open the door and pass through it, but should shut it behind us. When the instruction occurs on an oven door in which a soufflé is rising, we realize we should not open the door. Interpretation in part depends on the situation, yet there is also an intuition that keep shut has a constant linguistic meaning. This phenomenon can be replicated for almost any word. Interpretation of the verb paint differs between ‘Michelangelo painted a picture’, ‘John painted his house’, ‘Mary painted her fingernails’. How we interpret moving when we say ‘The trees are moving’ depends on whether we are interested in wind strength or in the possibility of a landslide. How we interpret the claim that a situation is an ‘emergency’ depends in part on the nature of the specific occasion. Yet there is also a robust intuition that the words paint, moving, emergency have a linguistic meaning which is constant on all occasions of use.

Our research project will develop an account of word meaning in which our ability to make occasion-specific interpretations partly depends on knowledge of a constant linguistic meaning that words have. Knowledge of linguistic meaning guides us in making occasion-sensitive applications. How?

Linguists and Philosophers have offered suggestive accounts. They have spoken of word meaning as providing ‘general directions’ for use (Strawson), a type of constraint or instruction (Chomsky; Pietroski), a pointer (Sperber/Wilson), a schema or template (Lewis; Carston). There is reference to semantic potential (Recanati), ‘open texture’ (Alston), ‘unspecificity’ (Sainsbury) etc. However, these suggestions need to be worked out, develop and defended. The project aims to do this.

What will we do?

Put simply, we will answer the question that gives the project its title. That is, the project will develop a positive proposal for how we are to envisage word meaning and will critically consider the theoretical constructs already present in the literature.

The key-assumption of the positive proposal is that a word meaning does not in itself convey truth-conditional or thought-expressive content, but it enables such content to be conveyed when a word is used. We will suggest that, for many words, an intermediate element is required in order to explain our use of words. Our starting point is to think of this element as an abstract representation derived from experience and preserved in long-term memory. In developing this proposal we will draw inspiration from philosophy, linguistics, and cognitive science.


  • Alston 1989: Divine Nature and Human Language. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.
  • Carston 2002: Thoughts and Utterances. Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Chomsky 2000: New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Lewis C. I. 1944: The modes of meaning. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 4, 236-249.
  • Moravcsik 1998: Meaning, Creativity, and the Partial Inscrutability of the Human Mind. Stanford: CSLI Publications.
  • Pietroski 2005: Meaning before truth. In G. Preyer and G. Peter (eds) Contextualism in Philosophy. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 255-302.
  • Recanati 2004: Literal Meaning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Sainsbury 2001 Two ways to smoke a cigarette. Ratio 14, 386-406.
  • Sperber/Wilson 1986/95: Relevance: Communication and Cognition. Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Strawson 1971: Logico-Linguistic Papers. Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing.


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