Meaning theories

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Meaning theories is a different views about the nature of meaning and the proper formulation of a semantic theory. There are roughly three theories about meaning:

  1. the denotational theory
  2. the conceptualist theory
  3. the pragmatic theory.
The denotational theory
characterizes the meaning of an expression in terms of the notions reference and truth. The meaning of a sentence can be described by specifying when it is true, the meaning of other expressions can be described by specifying the entity or entities it refers to. Thus, the correspondence between language and the world is taken to be the crucial element of meaning (hence the name correspondence theory of meaning). The denotational theory is typical of logical semantics which is truth conditional and model-theoretic (Montague (1970), Gamut 1991).
The conceptualist theory
identifies the meaning of an expression with the concepts or ideas associated with the expression, i.e. with a mental representation of the content of that expression, often making use of decomposition of word meaning. The semantic work which has been done within generative grammar is usually based on a conceptualist theory: Katz-Fodor-semantics, Generative Semantics, and Conceptual Structure (Jackendoff 1983).
The pragmatic theory
identifies the meaning of an expression with the use that is made of it by participants in an interaction. This theory is often named the meaning-is-use theory after Wittgenstein (1953). It is characteristic for those theories in which speech acts play a central role, following Austin (1962). The three approaches need not be incompatible, because they all deal with different aspects of meaning (see Chierchia & McConnell-Ginet 1990).


Utrecht Lexicon of Linguistics


  • Austin, J.L. 1962. How to Do Things with Words, Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  • Chierchia and McConnell-Ginet 1990. Meaning and grammar, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass.
  • Gamut, L.T.F. 1991. Logic, language, and meaning, Univ. of Chicago Press, Chicago.
  • Jackendoff, R. 1983. Semantics and cognition, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
  • Montague, R. 1974. Formal philosophy: selected papers of Richard Montague, edited and with an introduction by Richmond H. Thomason, Yale University Press, New Haven
  • Wittgenstein, L. 1953. Philosophical Investigations, Blackwell: Oxford.