The Semantics and Pragmatics of the Present Simple

Term Paper, 1998

19 Pages

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Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Semantics
2.1. Defining Semantics
2.2. Theories of Semantics
2.2.1. Referential (Word) Semantics
2.2.2. Sentence Semantics
2.2.3. Montague Semantics

3. Pragmatics
3.1. Defining Pragmatics
3.2. Theories of Pragmatics
3.2.1. Temporal Deixis
3.2.2. Speech Acts

4. The Present Simple

5. Summary

6. Literature

1. Introduction

Tense has been studied for quite a long time and hundreds of articles and books have been published, so - according to Binnick - we know a lot about tense but understand it little. The interest in the phenomenon of tense is still there, but there are many problems and much confusion is connected with the subject. There are many different approaches established by grammarians, linguists, philosophers or logicians dealing with different terminology, symbolism and methods. A coherent general theory of tense is not yet achieved, perhaps the outlines of one have been developed in the late eighties.

This term paper deals with the semantics and pragmatics of the present simple. The concept of semantics and the main approaches of semantic theory established in the twentieth century will be presented in chapter one. Chapter two deals with basic pragmatic approaches, especially with the concept of deixis and the speech act theory of Austin. The third chapter is concerned with the different uses of the present tense or present simple and therefore covers the pragmatic aspect of the subject.

The term paper doesn´t present a complete survey of the different approaches, it rather tries to present the main approaches in a descriptive way. So progression of theory is not the aim of the work. The use of notation of ordinary predicate logic is limited to the absolute minimum. Most topics and chapters can be read relatively independent and require only basic knowledge of semantic and pragmatic concepts. The examples are mostly drawn from English, material from other European languages are rarely used.

The main sources for this paper concerning the subject of tense were the books by Binnick (1991), Comrie (1985), Declerck (1991) and Leech (21987). The subject of semantics is well covered by the works of Leech (1974), Lyons (1977) and Palmer (1976). The main sources for the chapter on pragmatics have been the works of Leech (1983), Levinson (1983) and Mey (1993).

1.1. Defining Semantics

"Semantics is the technical term used to refer to the study of meaning, and, since meaning is a part of language, semantics is a part of linguistics."1

The word meaning and its interpretation is not very clear, due to the fact that meaning covers a variety of aspects of language. The term semantics was introduced in a paper ("reflected meanings: a point in semantics") read to the American Philological Association in 1894.2 Another important publication was Bréal´s book Semantics: studies in the science of meaning (1900). The book The meaning of meaning (1923) , written by Ogden and Richards, is considered as one of the most famous books on semantics. The authors discovered about twenty-two definitions of semantics. Another important and influential publication was How to Do Things with Words (1962), written by Austin, which was labelled later speech act theory.

Leech regards semantics as a component of grammar, i.e. "(…) the grammar interacts with pragmatics via semantics."3 The distinction between semantics and pragmatics is problematic and depends on the scientific point of view, because of difficulties of definition and terminology. Again Leech provides three views, these are Semanticism, Complementarism or Pragmaticism.4

1.2. Theories of Semantics

The goal of a general theory of meaning is, how language is used to communicate about the world and is related to that world. Semantic theory wants to answer such questions as: what is meaning? How do linguistic expressions mean?

Linguists spent much time to establish a theory of referential semantics (word semantics). Theories of referential semantics postulate that there is no direct link between lexeme and object, rather an abstract concept (reference) over the word (symbol) and the object (referent) as described in the semiotic triangle. Referential word semantics works with proper names and descriptions whereas problems occur with extinct objects, non-existing objects, abstract "objects" or opaque contexts.

Other approaches have been developed towards word meaning including componential analysis, field theory, meaning postulates and ideational/functional semantics. Linguists who favour ideational theories assume that our ideas mirror the world and words express those ideas, e.g. a verb like jump expresses the idea of jumping. According to Binnick ideational theories have two problems:5 Similar to the concept of "meaning", the concept "idea" is ambiguous and vague. Furthermore the phrases "to express an idea" and "to mirror reality" are unclear (an exception is the following case: e.g. London"stands for" London). Also the concept of idea is highly personal and subjective.

Functional theories (also called speech-act, operational and behavioral theories) want to explicate the meanings of linguistic expressions. The philosopher Austin tried to work out a speech act theory in order to show that meanings depend on uses of words.

It is obvious that no scholar was able to put the linguistic phenomena into one type of theory, linguists developed various frameworks for different semantic interpretation.

1.2.1. Referential (Word) Semantics

Referential semantics can be considered as a sub group of word semantics. Kempson tried to define the relationship between word and object:

"The relationship between word and object is called the relationship of reference, and there is a long tradition of equating the problem of meaning with the problem of reference."6

Among the contemporary approaches towards word meaning Leech defined seven types of word senses:

(1) conceptual meaning
(2) connotative meaning
(3) stylistic meaning
(4) affective meaning
(5) reflected meaning
(6) collocative meaning
(7) thematic meaning7

Another approach within word semantics is the field theory of word meaning. The idea of this theory is to locate a word within a certain field and to show the differences between the various items. This field theory is useful for finding synonyms, is good for translation and learning whereas problems arise in drawing borderlines between fields, cross-classification and syntagmatic influences.

A second approach within word semantics is componential analysis (CA), introduced by Katz/Fodor in 1963.8 CA first evolved in anthropological linguistics to study the relations between kinship terms. The idea of this approach is to break up


1 Palmer, 1981, 1.

2 Cf. Palmer, 1976, 1.

3 Leech, 1983, 12.

4 Cf. Leech, 1983, 6.

5 Cf. Binnick, 1991, 216.

6 Kempson, 1976, 13.

7 Cf. Leech, 1974, 10-27.

8 Cf. Katz, J. J.; J. A. Fodor. 1963. "The structure of a semantic theory". In: Language 39, 170-210.

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The Semantics and Pragmatics of the Present Simple
University of Freiburg
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Semantics, Pragmatics, Present, Simple
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Marius Weigel (Author), 1998, The Semantics and Pragmatics of the Present Simple, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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