What does semantics study?

Semantics is the study of meaning, but what do we mean by ‘meaning’?


Untitled 3

Meaning has been given different definitions in the past.

Meaning = Connotation?

Is meaning simply the set of associations that a word evokes, is the meaning of a word defined by the images that its users connect to it?

So ‘winter’ might mean ‘snow’, ‘sledging’ and ‘mulled wine’. But what about someone living in the amazon? Their ‘winter’ is still wet and hot, so its original meaning is lost. Because the associations of a word don’t always apply, it was decided that this couldn’t be the whole story.


Meaning = Denotation?

It has also been suggested that the meaning of a word is simply the entity in the World which that word refers to. This makes perfect sense for proper nouns like ‘New York’ and ‘the Eiffel Tower’, but there are lots of words like ‘sing’ and ‘altruism’ that don’t have a solid thing in the world that they are connected to. So, meaning cannot be entirely denotation either.

Meaning = Extension and Intension

So, meaning, in Semantics, is defined as being Extension: The thing in the world that the word/phrase refers to, plus Intension: The concepts/mental images that the word/phrase evokes.[3]

Semantics is interested in:

How meaning works in language:
The study of semantics looks at how meaning works in language, and because of this it often uses native speaker intuitions about the meaning of words and phrases to base research on. We all understand semantics already on a subconscious level, it’s how we understand each other when we speak.
How the way in which words are put together creates meaning:
One of the things that Semantics looks at, and is based on, is how the meaning of speech is not just derived from the meanings of the individual words all put together, as you can see from the example below.


The Principle of Compositionality says that the meaning of speech is the sum of the meanings of the individual words plus the way in which they are arranged into a structure.[5]

The relationships between words:

Semantics also looks at the ways in which the meanings of words can be related to each other. Here are a few of the ways in which words can be semantically related:

  • Synonymy – Words are synonymous/ synonyms when they can be used to mean the same thing (at least in some contexts – words are rarely fully identical in all contexts). Begin and start, Big and large, Youth and adolescent.
  • Antonymy Words are antonyms of one another when they have opposite meanings (again, at least in some contexts). Big and small,
    Come and go, Up and down.
  • Polysemy – A word is polysemous when it has two or more related meanings. In this case the word takes one form but can be used to mean two different things. In the case of polysemy, these two meanings must be related in some way, and not be two completely unrelated meanings of the word. Bright (shining) and bright (intelligent). Mouse (animal) and mouse (computer hardware).
  • Homophony – Homophony is similar to polysemy in that it refers to a single form of word with two meanings, however a word is a homophone when the two meanings are entirely unrelated. Bat (flying mammal) and bat (sports equipment). Pen (writing instrument) and pen (small cage).

The relationships between sentences:

Sentences can also be semantically related to one-another in a few different ways.

  • Paraphrase – Paraphrases have the same truth conditions; if one is true, the other must also be true. ‘The boys like the girls’ and ‘the girls are liked by the boys’, ‘John gave the book to Chris’ and ‘John gave Chris the book’.
  • Mutual entailment – Each sentence must be true for the other to be true. ‘John is married to Rachel’ and ‘Rachel is John’s wife’,
    ‘Chris is a man’ and ‘Chris is human’.
  • Asymmetrical entailment – Only one of the sentences must be true for the other to be true, but that sentence may be true without the other sentence necessarily having to be true. ‘Rachel is John’s wife’ entails ‘John is married’ (but John is married does not entail Rachel being his wife), ‘Rachel has two brothers’ entails ‘Rachel is not an only child’ (but Rachel not being an only child does not entail Rachel having two brothers).
  • Contradiction – Sentences contradict each other when one sentence is true and the other cannot be true. ‘Rachel is an only child’ and ‘Rachel’s brother is called Phil’, ‘Alex is alive’ and ‘Alex died last week’.


One of the aspects of how meaning works in language is ambiguity. A sentence is ambiguous when it has two or more possible meanings, but how does ambiguity arise in language? A sentence can be ambiguous for either of the following reasons:

Lexical Ambiguity: 

A sentence is lexically ambiguous when it can have two or more possible meanings due to polysemous (words that have two or more related meanings) or homophonous (a single word which has two or more different meanings) words.
Example of lexically ambiguous sentence: Prostitutes appeal to the Pope. This sentence is ambiguous because the word ‘appeal’ is polysemous and can mean ‘ask for help’ or ‘are attractive to’.

Structural Ambiguity:

 A sentence is structurally ambiguous if it can have two or more possible meanings due to the words it contains being able to be combined in different ways which create different meanings.

Example of structurally ambiguous sentence: Enraged cow injures farmer with axe. In this sentence the ambiguity arises from the fact that the ‘with axe’ can either refer to the farmer, or to the act of injuring being carried out (by the cow) ‘with axe’.

Semantics in the field of Linguistics

Semantics looks at these relationships in language and looks at how these meanings are created, which is an important part of understanding how language works as a whole. Understanding how meaning occurs in language can inform other sub-disciplines, such as Language Acquisition, to help us to understand how speakers acquire a sense of meaning, and Sociolinguistics, as the achievement of meaning in language is important in language in a social situation.
Semantics is also informed by other sub-disciplines of linguistics, such as Morphology, as understanding the words themselves is integral to the study of their meaning, and Syntax, which researchers in semantics use extensively to reveal how meaning is created in language, as how language is structured is central to meaning.


[3] http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/289860/intension-and-extension [Accessed 29.05.2013]
[4] http://cmgm.stanford.edu/~lkozar/punctuation.html [Accessed 29.05.2013]
[5] http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/compositionality/#1 [Accessed 29.05.2013]

A global reputation

Sheffield is a research university with a global reputation for excellence. We're a member of the Russell Group: one of the 24 leading UK universities for research and teaching.