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.


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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