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.

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