12 Aspects of Any Speaker’s Semantic Knowledge You Should Know

Semantics is a branch of Linguistics which studies the meaning of language and it tries to understand what meaning is as an element of language and how it is constructed by language as well as interpreted, obscured and negotiated by speakers and listeners of language. We as speakers of a language have an implicit knowledge about what is meaningful in our language. In our account of what that knowledge is, there are at least twelve technical terms used as aspects of our semantic knowledge: polysemy, homonymy, anomaly; paraphrase; synonymy; semantic feature; antonymy; contradiction; ambiguity; adjacency pairs; entailment and presupposition although it is not possible to expect that we can clearly define all the words we know or use, but the obvious thing is that we can make our thoughts and feelings and intentions known to other speakers of the language and can understand what others say.

This ability requires possession of a vocabulary and for us as speakers to know how to pronounce every item in this vocabulary and how to recognize its pronunciation by other speakers. We know how to use the production vocabulary in meaningful sentences and to understand the sentences produced by others. And of course we know meanings-how to choose the items that express what we want to express and how to find the meanings in what other people say.


We can know that 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, e.g.: bright (shining) and bright (intelligent). mouse (animal) and mouse (computer hardware).


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, for example:

Bat (flying mammal) and bat (sports equipment).

Pen (writing instrument) and pen (small cage).


We know, in a general way, whether something is or is not meaningful in our language and we can tell which of the following are meaningful in English.

3a Grace wrote a letter. 3b Henry smiled. 3c The grass laughed. 3d a Wall Harry painted.

We can see that 3a and 3b are meaningful to speakers of English, while 3c and 3d are anomalous (examples of anomaly), they are generally accepted to be correct while sentence 3c appears to be meaningful and it might attain meaning in some children’s story or the like, while 3d is merely a sequence of words.


The following first and second pair sentences have essentially the same meaning and when they do not such as in the following sentences:

4a Agnes arrived before Ruth. 4b Ruth arrived before Agnes.

4c Agnes came home after Ruth. 4d Ruth came home later than Agnes.

Sentences that make equivalent statements about the same entities, like 4a and 4c, or 4b and 4d, are paraphrases (of each other).


We generally agree when two words have essentially the same meaning-in a given context. In each sentence below one word is underlined. Following the sentence is a group of words, one of which can replace the underlined word without changing the meaning of the sentence.

5a Where did you purchase these tools?

use buy release modify take

5b At the end of the street we saw two enormous statues,

pink smooth nice huge original

Words that have the same sense in a given context are synonyms-they are instances of synonymy and are synonymous with each other.


We recognize when the meaning of one sentence contradicts another sentence. The sentences below are all about the same person, but two of them are related in such a way that if one is true the other must be false.

6a Edgar is married. 6b Edgar is fairly rich.

6c Edgar is no longer young. 6d Edgar is a bachelor.

Sentences that make opposite statements about the same subject are contradictory.


We generally agree when two words have opposite meanings in a given context. We are able to choose from the group of words following 7a and 7b the word which is contrary to the underlined word in each sentence.

7a Betty cut a thick slice of cake. 7b The train departs at 12:25.

bright new soft thin wet arrives leaves waits swerves

We see two words that make opposite statements about the same subject are antonyms; they are antonymous, instances of antonymy.

Semantic Features

We know that synonyms and antonyms have to have some common elements of meaning in order to be respectively the same or different but words can have some elements of meaning without being synonymous or antonymous for example:

8a street lane road path house avenue 8b buy take use steal acquire inherit

The common element of meaning, shared by all but one word in 8a and by all but one item in 8b, is a semantic feature. We should all agree that in each of the groups of words above, 8a and 8b, all but one of the words have something in common and we know which is the word that doesn’t belong.


When some sentences have double meanings, they can be interpreted in two ways. We are aware of this fact that there should be two-way interpretations, like the following.

9a Marjorie doesn’t care for her parakeet. ((doesn’t like it; doesn’t take care of it)

9b Marjorie took the sick parakeet to a small animal hospital. (small hospital for animals; hospital for small animals)

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’.

Adjacency pair

When a question and an answer, or any two utterances, can go together in a conversation and the second is obviously related to the first, they constitute an adjacency pair.

10a When did you last write an article?

Ten minutes ago. Last Tuesday. Very nice. Around noon. I think it was on the first of June.

10b There’s a new film at Studio 21 tonight.

So I’ve heard. What’s it called? When did it open? So do I. Are you sure it’s a comedy?

The ability to cope with adjacency pairs is considered as part of any speaker’s implicit knowledge.


We are aware that two statements may be related in such a way that if one is true, the other must also be true as in the following examples of entailment.

11a There are apples in the fridge.

11b There are fruit in the frigde.

11c The ladder is too short to reach the roof.

11d The ladder isn’t long enough to reach the roof.

We assume that 11a and 11b are about the same garden, the truth of 11a entails the truth of 11b, that is, if 11a is true, 11 b must also be true. Likewise, assuming the same ladder and roof, the truth of 11c entails the truth of 11d.

There are two kinds of entailment: mutual entailment and asymmetrical entailment. In mutual entailment, each sentence must be true for the other to be true, e.g.: John is married to Rachel’ and ‘Rachel is John’s wife’, ‘Chris is a man’ and ‘Chris is human’, while in 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, for example: ‘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).


We know that the message conveyed in one sentence may presuppose other pieces of knowledge. For instance, if 12a is accepted as true, 12b-12e must also be accepted as true.

12a Evan usually drives his Toyota to work.

12b There is a person named Evan.

12c Evan works.

12d There is a Toyota that belongs to Evan.

12e Evan knows how to drive a car.

The meaning of sentence 12a presupposes what is expressed in 12b, c, d and e. The latter are presuppositions of 12a. Note that a presupposition does not establish the truth of anything. Sentence 12a is meaningful as it is, but it is true only if there is a person named Evan, who works and owns a Toyota, etc. The sentence is presented as if there is a person named Evan.

In summary, the above 12 terms are introduced to show the latent knowledge that we have about our language, the general implicit knowledge that we have about meaning in our language. We can deal with them successfully, we differ considerably, and circumstances differ considerably, depending on the way we individuals behave in a given situation or context, it does not necessarily indicate what our deeper competence is, there are personality factors involves such as willingness to cooperate, memory, attention, recent experience which much influences our performance.

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