What is Meaning?: Fundamentals of Formal Semantics / Edition 1

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What is Meaning? Fundamentals of Formal Semantics is a concise introduction to the field of semantics as it is actually practiced. Through simple examples, pictures, and metaphors, Paul Portner presents the field’s key ideas about how language works.

  • Explains the fundamental ideas and some of the most significant results of modern semantic theory
  • Combines foundational discussion with simplified analyses of complex phenomena to provide readers with a sense of the fascination to be found in the details of the human language
  • Includes exercises and thought-provoking questions to facilitate learning
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“An excellent book for advanced undergraduates and beginning graduate students. Portner’s approachable, yet serious, presentation gives the reader a firm understanding of the breadth and depth of the science of natural language meaning.” Kai von Fintel, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781405109185
  • Publisher: Wiley
  • Publication date: 2/28/2005
  • Series: Fundamentals of Linguistics Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 248
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.78 (d)

Meet the Author

Paul H. Portner is Associate Professor of Linguistics and Director of the Interdisciplinary Program in Cognitive Science at Georgetown University. He is co-editor of Formal Semantics: The Essential Readings (with Barbara H. Partee, Blackwell, 2002) as well as the author of numerous articles on topics such as mood and modality, tense and aspect, and the syntax/semantics interface.

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Table of Contents


1. The Fundamental Question.

What is a Meaning?.

Meanings are Out in the World.

We Should Think of the Meaning of Sentences in Terms of Truth-Conditions.

2. Putting a Meaning Together from Pieces.

Names Refer.

Incomplete Propositions.

Predication is Saturation.


Syntax and Semantics.

3. More about Predicates.

Other types of Predicates: Adjectives, Predicate Nominals.

Transitive Verbs.

Relative Clauses.


Sub-atomic Semantics.

Modeling Properties with Sets and Functions.

4. Modifiers.

Adjective + N Combination.

More Issues with Adjectives.

Relative Clauses as Modifiers.


The Form of Meanings and Their World-Describing Content.

5. Complexities of Referring Expressions.

Definite NPs.

Some Subtleties.

A Bit about Indefinite NPs.

Theories of reference.

Plurals and Mass Terms.


Pronouns and Anaphora.

6. Quantifiers.

Generalized Quantifiers: Predicates of Predicates, or Sets of Sets.

NP Conjunction.

Negative Polarity Items.

Quantifiers in Object Position.

7. Extensional vs. Intensional Contexts.

8. Tense, Aspect, and Modality.




9. Propositional Attitudes.

A possible Worlds Semantics for Belief and Desire.

Logical Consequences of the Modal Analysis of Propositional Attitude Verbs.

Two Foundational Problems: Coreferential Terms and Logical Truths.

Structure and Meaning.

Or, Have We Reached the Limits of Semantics?.

10. The Pragmatics of What’s Given.

Indexicality and Deixis.


Speech Acts.

Focus and Topic.

11. The Pragmatics of Inference.

Properties of Implicature.

12. Formal Semantics Today.

Diversity within Formal Semantics.

Relationships with Other Varieties of Semantics.

Relationships with Other Fields.

Appendix: Answers to Selected Exercises.



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