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with ease. The entry
tests at the beginning of each unit should be taken seriously: they provide a way
for the student to judge his own progress at each stage.
The book is suitable for first-year undergraduates in linguistics and will
probably be useful to somewhat more advanced students for revision purposes.
We believe that it will also be possible for a person working independently to
teach himself the elements of semantics with this book. For students in taught
courses, each unit, or couple of units, could provide a good basis for small-
group discussion. Students should complete the units first, and discussion can
focus on developing interesting and/or problematic aspects of the material.
No elementary textbook can cover everything that its authors would have
wished to cover. We have been obliged to omit a number of interesting topics,
including ‘thematic meaning’ (topic, comment, etc.), quantification in logic,
tense and aspect, and the relation between syntax and semantics. We hope that
the student’s appetite will be sufficiently whetted by what we have covered to
lead him to take an active interest in these and other more advanced topics in
I would like to express my gratitude to the original authors, James R. Hurford
and Brendan Heasley, for entrusting me with the revision and updating of their
I would also like to thank Andrew Winnard and Cambridge University Press
for inviting me to do the work in the first place.
Michael B. Smith
Department of Linguistics
Oakland University
We wish to express our gratitude to:
The Nuffield Foundation for two grants of £3,000 which paid part of the salary
of one of the authors for two years.
The Edinburgh University Institute for Applied Language Studies and its
Director, Dr Clive Criper, for generous material support in the production of
this book.
The Edinburgh University Faculty of Arts research fund for grants to pay for
the typing of the book.
Professor John Lyons for extremely careful and detailed critical comments on
virtually the whole of the book, comments which, in the many cases where we
have heeded them, definitely improve the book. In the few cases where we have
not followed his advice, we fear that we may yet regret it.
The following colleagues and students, who have given helpful advice and
comments: John Christie, Gill Brown, Charles Fillmore, Gerald Gazdar,
Deirdre Wilson, Steve Pulman, Keith Brown.
Jaime Lass for the drawings.
For all Users The coursebook develops information on the subject cumulatively. Each unit
builds on previous units, so it is wise to work through it systematically from
the beginning. Skipping ahead, or dipping into later units, may work, but is
less likely to build up a good solid foundation for understanding all the
concepts involved.
For the Student If you are new to semantics, take the practice exercises seriously, writing the
answers in the spaces provided, and checking your answers with the feedback
given. If there is a discrepancy between your answer and the feedback given,
revisit the explanations in the book to try to understand where you went
wrong. Semantics is not such a cut-and-dried subject as, say, chemistry or
mathematics, so there is sometimes room for alternative answers and
interpretations. But we have tried hard in this book to use unproblematic and
uncontroversial examples, on which all advanced semanticists would be in
broad agreement.
It always helps understanding to talk about things, so if you can work through
any problematic cases with a fellow student or with your teacher, we strongly
advise you to do so. As authors, we occasionally get letters from students asking
us to resolve disagreements about their answers. So it is clear that the exercises
provoke discussion, and also that sometimes a student needs some outside help
in seeing an issue clearly. (Most of our letters from users of this book, however,
seem to show that it has been successful in getting its main concepts across.)
For the Teacher We assume that you will be at least one step ahead of your students, and
already familiar with more of the literature on semantics than just this book.
This book is just a beginning. The further readings recommended at the end
of the book open up the field to a host of intriguing questions, some of a
very philosophical nature, and some of a more practical nature, to do with
the study of meaning. Aim to get your students to see the concepts outlined
in this book not just as ends in themselves, to be mastered rote-fashion, but
as giving them a set of agreed-upon tools for discussing more advanced
issues of meaning in language.
Understanding the mechanisms of meaning is vital to successful human
communication, so convey to your students the everyday significance of the
How to use this book
examples. Most of the time, the students’ intuitions about the meanings of
words, sentences, and utterances will be sound and consistent, but they lack
the terminology to discuss meanings systematically. As noted above in our
advice to students, discussion usually helps to clarify issues. Approach the
questions asked by your students with an open mind, aiming to see how any
misunderstandings may have arisen. And always be prepared to admit that
some of the basic exercises in this book are not, ultimately, susceptible to
quite such cut-and-dried answers as we have given. That is not to say that
questions in semantics can’t be resolved by sensible discussion, but just that
the answers may sometimes be more subtle, and more interesting, than some
of the cut-and-dried sample feedback answers that we have given.
1 Basic ideas in semantics
Definition SEMANTICS is the study of MEANING in LANGUAGE.
Comment The rest of this book can be regarded as an example of how one goes about
investigating and understanding semantics. It may seem to you that meaning
is so vague, insubstantial, and elusive that it is impossible to come to any
clear, concrete, or tangible conclusions about it. We hope to convince you
that by careful thought about the language you speak and the way it is used,
definite conclusions CAN be arrived at concerning meaning. In the first
exercise below, we ask you to start to get yourself into the habit of careful
thinking about your language and the way you use it, concentrating,
naturally, on instances of such words as mean, means, and meaning.
Practice Reproduced below is a well-known passage from Lewis Carroll’s Through the
Looking Glass. Pick out all the instances of the word mean (or means, or
meant), noting which lines they occur in. (Some line numbers are given in
the margin for convenience.) After the passage there are some questions for
you to answer.
1 ‘. . . that shows that there are three hundred and sixty-four days 
when you might get un-birthday presents.’
‘Certainly,’ said Alice.
‘And only one for birthday presents, you know. There’s glory for 
5 you!’
‘I don’t know what you mean by “glory,” ’ Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. ‘Of course you don’t – 
till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knockdown argument for you.” ’
‘But “glory” doesn’t mean ‘a nice knockdown argument,’ Alice 
10 objected.
‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful 
tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.’
‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean 
so many different things.’
15 ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master – 
that’s all.’
PART ONE Basic ideas in semantics
(1) What word is the subject of the verb mean in line 6?
(2) What is the subject of the verb mean in line 9?

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