Getting a grip on context as a determinant of meaning

  • Keith AllanEmail author
Part of the Perspectives in Pragmatics, Philosophy & Psychology book series (PEPRPHPS, volume 18)


The significance of context to the proper interpretation of texts has been known for millennia; it is implicit in some of Aristotle’s recommendations in Rhetoric and Quintilian’s in Institutes that rhetoric should ideally be appropriate to what was, post Augustine, called its context. Malinowski wrote that a stick may be used for different purposes in different contexts, e.g. digging, punting, walking, fighting. Exactly the same is true of language expressions, e.g. a word which is an insult in one context may be an expression of camaraderie or endearment in another (and vice versa). Stalnaker’s claim ‘context [is] a body of available information: the common ground’ (Stalnaker 2014: 24, an idea that goes back to Stalnaker 1978) is nearly, but not quite, right. I define common ground as in Allan 2013b. The speaker/writer/signer makes presumptions about common ground which may properly be called presuppositions, but I argue that utterances carry pragmatic entailments rather than presuppositions, such that where A pragmatically entails B, B cannot – given A – be denied without creating a paradox, absurdity, or contradiction. I distinguish three aspects of context: \( C1 \), \( C2 \), and \( C3 \). \( C1 \) is the world (and time) spoken of, which is largely identified from co-text; to oversimplify, it captures what is said about what at some world (and time). \( C2 \) is the world (and time) spoken in, the situation of utterance; it captures who does the saying to whom, and where and when this takes place. \( C3 \) is the situation of interpretation, the circumstances under which the hearer/reader/viewer interprets what the speaker/writer/signer said, and these may be very different in space and time from \( C2 \), which may impact the interpretation.


context co-text common ground presupposition pragmatic entailment 



My thanks to friends who have offered helpful comments: Mike Balint, Alessandro Capone, Robyn Carston, Anita Fetzer, Petra Hanzak, Humphrey van Polanen Petel, Hossein Shokohoui, Belén Soria Clivillés, and Howard Wettstein. None of these good people is in any way responsible for any flaws you notice in the essay.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Monash UniversityPeregian SpringsAustralia

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