Meaning Analysis

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,
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