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Humanities LibreTexts

1.2: Meaning

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  • Literal meaning is a property of linguistic expressions. The literal meaning of a sentence is determined by its syntax and the conventional meaning of the words in the sentence. The literal meaning of a sentence should be distinguished from its conversational implicature the information that is implicitly conveyed in a particular conversational context, distinct from the literal meaning.

    For example, suppose we ask Amie whether she wants to go hiking and she replies, “I am verytired”. Naturally we would infer that Amie does not want to go hiking. But this is not part of the literal meaning of her reply. Rather, the information that she does not want to go is inferred indirectly. Similarly, suppose Lala says, “Po likes books”. We might take Lala to be saying that Po likes to read. But this is at most the conversational implicature, and not part of the literal meaning of what Lala said. It might turn out that Po hates reading and she likes books only because she uses them to decorate her house. But even if this is the case, Lalas assertion is stilltrue.

    These examples show that when we want to find out whether a statement is true, we should consider its literal meaning, and not the conversational implicature. This is particularly important in the legal context. The content of a contract is typically determined by the literal meaning of the terms of the contract. If there is a dispute about the contract, ultimately it is settled by looking at the literal meaning of the terms, and not by what one or the other party thinks was implied implicitly.

    Meaningless vs. empty statements

    In ordinary usage, the adjective meaningless is sometimes used rather indiscriminately. Very often, claims that are pointless or empty are also described as meaningless. For example, suppose Peter is asked whether he will go to the party, and he replies “if I come, I will come”. Strictly speaking, this is an empty statement as it does not provide any useful information. But the statement is perfectly grammatical and meaningful. To be accurate one should not describe such statements as meaningless.

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