Sentence in semantics

The Semantic Aspect of the Sentence

       The semantic aspect of the sentence describes the meaning of a whole sentence. The simplest and most naive hypothesis is that the meaning of a sentence is the sum of the meanings of the words and other constituents which compose it. But it is not so. We can tell the difference of meaning between My wife has a new dog, my new wife has a dog, My new dog has a wife, though their constituents are the same.

 Some linguists have tried another solution, similar to this only more sophisticated, and that is to set up special rules (“combinatorial rules” or “projection rules”) which unite the meanings of sentence constituents in special ways while converting them into the meanings of whole sentences.

But this whole approach, taking about semantics in terms of words and sentences, is a misleading one.

According to N.Chomsky (Transformational Generative Grammar) sentences have a surface and a deep structure. Of these, the surface structure is the more complicated, based on one or more abstract simple structures. In certain very simple sentences the difference between the surface structure and the deep structure is minimal. Sentences of this kind, simple, active, declarative, indicative, are designated as kernel sentences.

A Transformational Grammar is organized in three basic parts. The first part – its syntactic component, which includes description both of deep and surface structure. The second is the semantic component, which provides a semantic interpretation of the deep structure, e.g. in sentences we enjoy smoking and we appose smoking the semantic component would indicate that the first sentence is a paraphrase of we smoke and we enjoy it, though the second is not a paraphrase of we smoke and we appose it. The third, the phonological component provides a phonetic interpretation of the surface structure of the sentence.

N.Chomsky defines Grammar as a system of rules that determine the deep and surface structures, it establishes the relations between the sounds and the meaning. Let’s compare the following two sentences:

The hunter killed the lion. [N1 Vact N2] -  The lion was killed by the hunter. [N2 VpasPrp N1].

The surface structures of these two sentences are different. However, the deep structure of both sentences is the same: [N1 – agent, N2 – patient, V – to kill]. This deep structure is implicit, it is not expressed but is only represented in the mind.

What is presented in Chomsky’s theory is the analysis of compound judgements as consisting of two or more simple judgements or propositions which was common in logics and influenced English grammarians, e.g. John married Fred’s sister. The semantic component, which provides the interpretation of the deep structure of this sentence presupposes that Fred has a sister.


1. Agent – Jack cleaned the floor.

2. Patient – Jack underwent a surgical operation.

3. Experiencer – Jill likes to read.

4. Instrument – Jill opened the door with the key.

5. Beneficiary – Mary bought herself a pair of jeans.

6. Locative – Jack lives in London.

Another approach to describe the semantic relations between the words in the sentence was put forward by Ch. Fillmore. He distinguished 6 types of semantic relations, so called “deep cases”.

  1.  Agentive (the animate initiator of the action).
  2.  Instrumental (inanimate force or object casually involved in the action or state).
  3.  Dative (animate being affected by the action or state).
  4.  Factitive (object or being resulting from the action or state).
  5.  Locative (location or spacial orientation of the action or state).
  6.  Objective (the semantically most neutral case: anything that can be marked with a noun, the role of which in the action or state is defined by the verb).

Although case theory has some initial plausibility, there are difficulties in it. To begin with, if the case are defined semantically, we shall have all the usual problems of the vagueness of semantic definition. Let us consider first the distinction between agentive and instrumental.

Fillmore suggests that agentive is “typically animate”, but we can always invent examples where there are two inanimate objects involved, e.g. The storm broke the glass with the hail stones.

Similarly, the verbs buy and sell seem to involve the same cases, yet John bought a book from Mary is not the same as Mary sold John a book.

In modern semantics the objective component, i.e. the content of the sentence is called the proposition. Propositions consist of predicates and arguments. In the sentence John loves Mary, arguments are John and Mary, predicate is loves. Arguments and predicates sometimes match syntactic elements like subject, verb, and object, and sometimes do not.

The woman was in front of the car.

arg.  predicate arg.

The following sentence has two propositions:

Fred thinks that John loves Mary.


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Exam Questions. The Subject of Theoretical Grammar. Syntagmatic relations. Segmental units. History of English Grammars. Parts of speech. The noun as a part of speech.

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