Linguistics and Philosophy

, Volume 35, Issue 2, pp 171–189 | Cite as

Contextualism and compositionality

Research Article


I argue that compositionality (in the sense of homomorphic interpretation) is compatible with radical and pervasive contextual effects on interpretation. Apparent problems with this claim lose their force if we are careful in distinguishing the question of how a grammar assigns interpretations from the question of how people figure out which interpretations the grammar assigns. I demonstrate, using a simple example, that this latter task must sometimes be done not by computing a derivation defined directly by the grammar, but through the use of pragmatic background knowledge and extragrammatical reasoning, even when the grammar is designed to be fully compositional. The fact that people must sometimes use global pragmatic mechanisms to identify truth conditions therefore tells us nothing about whether the grammar assigns truth conditions compositionally. Compositional interpretation (or the lack thereof) is identifiable not by the mechanisms necessary to calculating truth conditions, but by the structural relation between the interpretation of a phrase in context and the interpretations of its parts in that same context. Even if this relation varies by context, an invariant grammar is possible if grammars can “invoke” pragmatic concepts; but this does not imply that grammatical theory must explain these concepts or incorporate a theory of pragmatics.


Compositionality Contextualism Pragmatics 


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Carston, R. (1988). Implicature, explicature, and truth-theoretic semantics. In R. M. Kempson (Ed.), Mental representations: The interface between language and reality (pp. 155–181). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  2. Dowty, D. (1979). Word meaning and Montague grammar: The semantics of verbs and times in generative semantics and in Montague’s PTQ. Dordrecht: Reidel.Google Scholar
  3. Hodges, W. (2001). Formal features of compositionality. Journal of Logic, Language and Information, 10, 7–28.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Lasersohn, P. (2009). Compositional interpretation in which the meanings of complex expressions are not computable from the meanings of their parts. In E. Hinrichs & J. Nerbonne (Eds.), Theory and evidence in semantics (pp. 133–158). Stanford: CSLI Publications.Google Scholar
  5. Montague, R. (1970). Universal grammar. Theoria, 36, 373–398.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Montague, R. (1973). The proper treatment of quantification in ordinary English. In K. J. J. Hintikka, J. M. E. Moravcsik, & P. Suppes (Eds.), Approaches to natural language: Proceedings of the 1970 Stanford workshop on grammar and semantics (pp. 221–242). Dordrecht: D. Reidel.Google Scholar
  7. Muskens, R. (1995). Meaning and partiality. Stanford: CSLI Publications.Google Scholar
  8. Pagin, P. (2005). Compositionality and context. In G. Preyer & G. Peter (Eds.), Contextualism in philosophy: Knowledge, meaning and truth (pp. 303–348). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  9. Recanati, F. (2005). Literalism and contextualism: Some varieties. In G. Preyer & G. Peter (Eds.), Contextualism in philosophy: Knowledge, meaning and truth (pp. 171–196). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  10. Stanley, J. (2000). Context and logical form. Linguistics and Philosophy, 23(4), 391–434.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Travis, C. (1997). Pragmatics. In B. Hale & C. Wright (Eds.), A companion to the philosophy of language (pp. 87–107). Oxford: Blackwell.Google Scholar
  12. Westerståhl, D. (1998). On mathematical proofs of the vacuity of compositionality. Linguistics and Philosophy, 21(6), 635–643.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of IllinoisUrbanaUSA

Personalised recommendations