, Volume 13, Issue 1, pp 11–24 | Cite as

The Principle of Semantic Compositionality

  • Francis Jeffry Pelletier


The Principle of Semantic Compositionality (sometimes called ‘Frege's Principle’) is the principle that the meaning of a (syntactically complex) whole is a function only of the meanings of its (syntactic) parts together with the manner in which these parts were combined. This principle has been extremely influential throughout the history of formal semantics; it has had a tremendous impact upon modern linguistics ever since Montague Grammars became known; and it has more recently shown up as a guiding principle for a certain direction in cognitive science.

Despite the fact that The Principle is vague or underspecified at a number of points — such as what meaning is, what counts as a part, what counts as a syntactic complex, what counts as combination — this has not stopped some people from viewing The Principle as obviously true, true almost by definition. And it has not stopped other people from viewing The Principle as false, almost pernicious in its effect. And some of these latter theorists think that it is an empirically false principle while others think of it as a methodologically wrong-headed way to proceed.

In fact, there are approximately 318 arguments against The Principle which can be found in the literature, whereas there are only three (or maybe four) arguments proposed in favor of The Principle. This paper will adjudicate among these arguments. And at the end it will suggest some other way to look at what proponents of compositionality really want.


Noun Phrase Lexical Item Literal Meaning Syntactic Analysis Semantic Compositionality 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


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Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 1994

Authors and Affiliations

  • Francis Jeffry Pelletier
    • 1
  1. 1.Departments of Philosophy, Computing ScienceUniversity of AlbertaEdmontonCanada

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