Meaning Analysis

Site: Saylor Academy
Course: PHIL102: Introduction to Critical Thinking and Logic
Book: Meaning Analysis
Printed by: Guest user
Date: Wednesday, October 20, 2021, 12:08 PM


While meaning may not seem like the sort of thing that needs explaining, the ways in which it is produced, both in speech and in writing, can lead to confusion and thus warrant close examination.

In the section, you will read about the nature of linguistic meaning, the different types of definitions, the difference between literal meaning and conversational implicature, and the difference between verbal and factual disputes.

Complete the exercises to enhance your critical thinking skills and your understanding of meaning.


Being able to think clearly is the central component of critical thinking. In order to answer a question or evaluate a claim, we have to know what the question or the claim means. In order to communicate precisely and to avoid misunderstanding, we need to watch out for vagueness or ambiguity. Of course, there are plenty of contexts where clarity and precision are unnecessary, or even undesirable. Many jokes and poems, for example, exploit the ambiguity of language. Sometimes we might also offer vague promises in order to give ourselves flexibility. But there are many situations where it is particularly important to be able to think clearly and to analyze meaning:

    • In dealing with many abstract issues, often the first task is to clarify the relevant key terms or concepts. For example, to find out whether Asian values are incompatible with human rights, we have to explain what exactly is meant by "Asian values" and "human rights."

    • The development of science involves the introduction of new scientific theories and concepts. We need to give these concepts adequate definitions in order to know how they can be used in scientific explanations and predictions.

    • Society requires rules and regulations for the coordination of behavior. A good set of rules should be formulated clearly to avoid and resolve disputes, and so that people know what is expected of them.

    • Good communication skills involve being able to convey messages with the right meaning, and being able to understand the meaning of what has been said, or left unsaid.

Source: Joe Lau and Jonathan Chan,
Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 License.

Literal Meaning

Literal meaning is a property of linguistic expressions. Roughly speaking, the literal meaning of a complex sequence of words is determined by its grammatical properties and the meanings that are conventionally assigned to those words. The literal meaning of a statement should be distinguished from its conversational implicature - the information that is implicitly conveyed in a particular conversational context, distinct from the literal meaning of the statement.

For example, suppose we ask Lily whether she wants to go to the cinema and she replies, "I am very tired." Naturally we would infer that Lily does not want to go to the cinema. But this is not part of the literal meaning of what is said. Rather, the information that she does not want to go is conveyed in an implicit manner. Similarly, suppose we hear Lala says, "Po likes books". We might perhaps take Lala to be saying that Po likes to read. But this is only the conversational implicature, and not part of the literal meaning of what is being said. It might turn out that Po hates reading and she likes books only because she regards them as a good investment. But even if this is the case, Lala's assertion is still true.

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

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Lack of clarity in meaning can hinder good reasoning and obstruct effective communication. One way to make meaning clearer is to use definitions. A definition is made up of two parts - a definiendum and a definien. The definiendum is the term that is to be defined, whereas the definien is the group of words or concepts used in the definition that is supposed to have the same meaning as the definiendum. For example, in defining "bachelor" to mean "an unmarried man", the word "bachelor" is the definiendum, and "an unmarried man" is the definien.

We might divide definitions into four kinds. Let us look at them one by one.

§1. Reportive Definition

reportive definition is sometimes also known as a lexical definition. It reports the existing meaning of a term. This includes the "bachelor" example above, or the definition of "prime number" as referring to any integer divisible only by 1 and itself. A reportive definition should capture the correct usage of the term that is defined.

But how do we know what the correct meaning of a term is? Many people think that a dictionary is an authoritative guide to reportive definitions. This is actually a misconception, for various reasons.

First, many words in the language are difficult, if not impossible to define. This includes for example color words which we learn from examples. A dictionary might explain "red" as the color of ripe tomatoes, but obviously this is not what "red" means. "Red" does not mean blue even if all tomatoes were suddenly to become blue when they ripe. Explaining 'red' as 'a certain shade of color' is of course not enough to distinguish the color red from other different colors.

Also, the main aim of a general dictionary is often to give enough indication of the main usage of a word so that a speaker can use the word adequately in everyday life. Because of the limitation of space the definitions might not capture adequately the exact meanings of words. For example, the Pocket Oxford Dictionary of Current English defines "religion" as "belief in a superhuman controlling power." Suppose a scientist discovers that there are evil but superhuman aliens on Mars who created us and control our destiny. The scientist would then believe in the existence of a superhuman controlling power. But if this scientist does not worship or submit to these beings, surely this does not mean she has a religion in the usual sense of the term.

Finally, many technical words, such as "microwave", "hyper-inflation", and "a priori" are used in rather specialized ways. The entries in a general language dictionary might not be accurate enough when it comes to such terms. In such cases you should consult a special dictionary for the particular discipline in question.

As an exercise, evaluate the following entries from The Pocket Oxford Dictionary of Current English as reportive definitions.

    • Cat : Small soft-furred four-legged domesticated animal.
    • Magazine : Illustrated periodical publication containing articles, stories, etc.

Instructions:  Please review each statement to determine the primary hidden assumption in each. Test yourself by clicking the statement.

    • Impress : Affect or influence deeply.
    • Cloud : Visible mass of condensed watery vapour floating high above the ground.
    • Swim : Propel the body through water with limbs, fins, or tail.

What about this entry from the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary?

  • SUGAR : A sweet crystallizable material that consists wholly or essentially of sucrose, is colorless or white when pure tending to brown when less refined, is obtained commercially from sugarcane or sugar beet and less extensively from sorghum, maples, and palms, and is important as a source of dietary carbohydrate and as a sweetener and preservative of other foods.

§2. Stipulative Definition

stipulative definition is not used to explain the existing meaning of a term. It is used to assign a new meaning to a term, whether or not the term has already got a meaning. If the stipulative definition is accepted, then the term is used in the new way that is prescribed. For example, suppose a stipulative definition is proposed to define "MBA" to mean married but available. Accepting such a definition, we can then go about describing other people as MBAs.

§3. Precising Definition

A precising definition might be regarded as a combination of reportive and stipulative definition. The aim of a precising definition is to make the meaning of a term more precise for some purpose. For example, a bus company might want to give discounts to old people. But simply declaring that old people can get discounts will lead to many disputes since it is not clear how old should one be in order to be an old person. So one might define "old person" to mean any person of age 65 or above.This is of course one among many possible definitions of "old."

Or consider a situation where two people are arguing whether animals such as birds or apes possess language. To resolve this dispute, we need to be more precise as to what is meant by "language". If by "language" we refer to any system of communication, then obviously birds and other animals do make use of languages. On the other hand, "language" might be used in a different sense, requiring a combinatorial syntax and semantics, allowing a user of the language to communicate information about non-existent objects or situations remote in time and space from the location of discourse. Used in such a way, the communication system of some animals might not qualify as a language. This example illustrates the use of precising definitions to resolve disputes that involve some key concepts whose meanings might not be clear enough.

§4. Persuasive definition

persuasive definition is any definition that attaches an emotive, positive or derogatory meaning to a term where it has none. For example, someone against abortion might offer the definition of "abortion" as the murder of an innocent person during pregnancy. This definition carries a negative connotation, as the term "murder" suggests that abortion is wrongful killing, and it also assumes that the aborted fetus is already a person. Such a definition is surely not appropriate in a fair debate on the moral legitimacy of abortion, even though it might be useful as a rhetorical tool.

Exercise #1


Evaluating Definitions

The criteria for evaluating definitions depends on the kind of definition we are considering. With reportive definition, it is important that the definition provided correctly captures the usage of the term that is defined. In particular, this means that the definition should be neither too wide (or too broad) nor too narrow.

  • A definition is too wide if the definiens applies to things that the definiendum does not apply to. In other words, the definition includes things that it should not. For example, defining a chair as a piece of furniture for sitting is too wide because a bench is not a chair but it satisfies the definition.
  • A definition is too narrow if the definiens fails to include things to which the definiendum applies. In other words, the definition fails to include things that it should. Consider the definition of religion as any belief system that includes worshiping a god who created the universe. This definition is too narrow since it excludes religions that do not postulate a creator, such as Jainism and certain versions of Buddhism and Daoism.
  • it is important to note that a definition can be both too wide and too narrow, e.g. chair = a piece of furniture for sitting which has four legs.

In giving a stipulative definition, since we are introducing a new meaning, the question of whether the definition is too broad or too narrow does not arise. But it is important that the definien should avoid circularity, inconsistency and obscurity.

  • An example of a circular definition: temperature is the physical quantitiy that is measured by a thermometer. This definition might help someone understand what the word "temperature" means in English, but it is circular as a definition. This is because there is no way to explain what a thermometer is without using the concept of temperature.

Exercise #1
Exercise #2

Exercise #3

Verbal Disputes

Consider the following dialogue:

Teacher A: Cindy is the best student in class.
Teacher B: No, she is not. Betty is better because Betty has more A grades.
Teacher A: No. Cindy is the best because her average grade is higher than Betty's.
Teacher B: You are wrong. Betty is the best!
Teacher A: YOU are wrong! Cindy is the best!

So who is right and who is wrong? In a way, both teachers are correct because they seem to be operating with two different definitions of 'the best students'. For teacher A, the best student is the one with the highest average grade. For teacher B, the best student is someone who has the highest number of A grades. Obviously, the student who satisfies the first definition need not be the same as the student who satisfies the second definition. This is an example of what we might call a purely verbal dispute, where the apparent disagreement is not due to disagreement with regard to the facts, but it has to do with the different understanding of the meaning of a key term or concept.

Verbal disputes are often contrasted with factual disputes, where disagreements have to do with different opinions about facts and not meaning. If someone thinks Sydney is the capital of Australia and others disagree, then the disagreement is a factual one.

There are two main ways to resolve a purely verbal dispute once the different meanings of a key term is pointed out. First, the different parties might agree to disagree with regard to the usage of the term. Thus, teachers A and B might agree that they have provided two different precising definitions of 'the best student', and that both are legitimate, and they can agree that Cindy is the best student under one interpretation, and that Betty is the best student under a different interpretation.

Exercise #1