12 aspects of the semantic knowledge of any speaker that you should know

Semantics is a branch of linguistics that studies the meaning of language and tries to understand what meaning is as an element of language and how it is constructed by language, as well as interpreted, obscured, and negotiated by speakers and listeners of language. We, as speakers of a language, have implicit knowledge about what is meaningful in our language. In our explanation of what that knowledge is, there are at least twelve technical terms that are used as aspects of our semantic knowledge: polysemy, homonymy, anomaly; paraphrase; synonymy; semantic feature; antonym; contradiction; ambiguity; adjacency pairs; implication and presupposition although it is not possible to expect that we can clearly define all the words that we know or use, but the obvious thing is that we can make our thoughts and feelings and intentions known to other speakers of the language and we can understand what others say.

This skill requires the possession of a vocabulary and that we, as speakers, know how to pronounce each element of this vocabulary and how to recognize its pronunciation by other speakers. We know how to use production vocabulary in meaningful sentences and understand sentences produced by others. And, of course, we know the meanings: how to choose the elements that express what we want to express and how to find the meanings in what other people say.


We can know that a word is polysemous when it has two or more related meanings. In this case, the word takes one form but can be used to mean two different things. In the case of polysemy, these two meanings must be related in some way, and not be two completely unconnected meanings of the word, ex: bright (bright) and bright (intelligent). mouse (animal) and mouse (computer hardware).


Homophony is similar to polysemy in that it refers to a single word form with two meanings; however, a word is homophone when the two meanings are completely unrelated, for example:

Bat (flying mammal) and bat (sports team).

Ballpoint pen (writing instrument) and pen (small cage).


We know, in a general way, if something is significant or not in our language and we can say which of the following are significant in English.

3a Grace wrote a letter. 3b Henry smiled. 3c The grass laughed. 3d a wall Harry painted.

We can see that 3a and 3b are meaningful to English speakers, while 3c and 3d are anomalous (instances of anomaly), generally accepted as correct, while sentence 3c seems to have meaning and could acquire meaning in some children’s story or similar, while 3d is simply a sequence of words.


The following sentences of the first and second pairs have essentially the same meaning and when they do not, as in the following sentences:

4a Inés arrived before Rut. 4b Ruth arrived before Agnes.

4c Agnes came home after Ruth. 4d Ruth came home later than Agnes.

Sentences that make equivalent statements about the same entities, such as 4a and 4c, or 4b and 4d, are paraphrases (of each other).


We generally agree when two words have essentially the same meaning in a given context. In each sentence below a word is underlined. After the sentence there is a group of words, one of which can replace the underlined word without changing the meaning of the sentence.

5a Where did you buy these tools?

use buy release modify take

5b At the end of the street we saw two huge statues,

soft pink pretty huge original

Words that have the same meaning in a given context are synonyms, are instances of synonymy, and are identical to each other.


We recognize when the meaning of one sentence contradicts another sentence. The following sentences are all about the same person, but two of them are related in such a way that if one is true, the other must be false.

6 years Edgar is married. 6b Edgar is quite rich.

6c Edgar is no longer young. 6d Edgar is single.

Sentences that make opposite statements on the same topic are contradictory.


We generally agree when two words have opposite meanings in a given context. We can choose from the group of words that follow 7a and 7b the word that is the opposite of the underlined word in each sentence.

7a Betty cut a thick slice of cake. 7b The train leaves at 12:25.

shiny new soft slim wet arrives sheets waits strays

We see that two words that make opposite statements on the same subject are antonyms; they are antonyms, instances of antonyms.

semantic features

We know that synonyms and antonyms must have some common elements of meaning to be respectively the same or different, but words can have some elements of meaning without being identical or antonyms, for example:

8a street lane highway path house avenue 8b buy take use steal acquire inherit

The common element of meaning, shared by all but one word in 8a and by all but one in 8b, is a semantic feature. We should all agree that in each of the word groups above, 8a and 8b, all but one of the words have something in common and we know which word doesn’t belong.


When some sentences have a double meaning, they can be interpreted in two ways. We are aware of this fact that there must be two-way interpretations, such as the following.

9a Marjorie doesn’t care about her parakeet. ((he doesn’t like it; he doesn’t take care of it)

9b Marjorie took the sick parakeet to a small animal hospital. (small animal hospital; hospital for small animals)

One of the aspects of how meaning works in language is ambiguity. A sentence is ambiguous when it has two or more possible meanings, but how does ambiguity arise in language? A sentence can be ambiguous for any of the following reasons:

Lexical ambiguity: A sentence is lexically ambiguous when it can have two or more possible meanings due to polysemic words (words that have two or more related meanings) or homophones (a single word that has two or more different meanings).

Lexically ambiguous sentence example: Prostitutes appeal to the Pope. This sentence is ambiguous because the word ‘appeal’ is polysemous and can mean ‘ask for help’ or ‘attract’.

Structural ambiguity: A sentence is structurally ambiguous if it can have two or more possible meanings because the words it contains can be combined in different ways that create different meanings.

Structurally ambiguous sentence example: Angry cow insults farmer with ax. In this sentence, the ambiguity arises from the fact that ‘with axe’ can refer to the farmer or to the act of wounding (by the cow) ‘with an axe’.

adjacency pair

When a question and an answer, or any two statements, can go together in a conversation and the second is obviously related to the first, they constitute an adjacency pair.

10a When did you last write an article?

Ten minutes ago. Last Tuesday. Very nice. Around noon. I think it was the first of June.

10b There is a new movie at Studio 21 tonight.

So I have heard. As it is called? When did she open? I also. Are you sure it’s a comedy?

The ability to deal with adjacency pairs is considered part of the implicit knowledge of any speaker.


We are aware that two statements can be related in such a way that if one is true, the other must also be true, as in the following linking examples.

11a There are apples in the fridge.

11b There is fruit in the fridge.

11c The ladder is too short to reach the ceiling.

11d The ladder is not long enough to reach the roof.

We assume that 11a and 11b are approximately the same garden, the truth of 11a implies the truth of 11b, that is, if 11a is true, 11b must also be true. Likewise, assuming the same ladder and roof, the truth of 11c implies the truth of 11d.

There are two types of binding: mutual binding and asymmetric binding. In mutual binding, each sentence must be true for the other to be true, for example.: John is married to Rachel’ and ‘Rachel is John’s wife’, ‘Chris is a man’ and ‘Chris is human’, whereas in asymmetric linking, only one of the sentences must be true for the other to be true, but that sentence can be true without the other sentence necessarily having to be true, for example: ‘Rachel is John’s wife’ implies ‘John is married’ (but John is married does not imply that Rachel is his wife), ‘Rachel has two brothers’ implies ‘Rachel is not an only child’ (but Rachel is not an only child does not imply that Rachel has two brothers).


We know that the message conveyed in a sentence can presuppose other knowledge. For example, if 12a is accepted as true, 12b-12e must also be accepted as true.

12a Evan usually drives his Toyota to work.

12b There is a person named Evan.

12c Evan works.

12d There is a Toyota that belongs to Evan.

12 Evan knows how to drive a car.

The meaning of sentence 12a presupposes what is expressed in 12b, c, d and e. The latter are budgets of 12a. Note that a presupposition does not establish the truth of anything. Sentence 12a is meaningful as it is, but it is true only if there is a person named Evan, who works and owns a Toyota, etc. The award is given as if there were a person named Evan.

In short, the 12 terms above are introduced to show the latent knowledge we have about our language, the general implicit knowledge we have about meaning in our language. We can handle them successfully, we differ considerably, and circumstances differ considerably, depending on how individuals behave in a given situation or context, it does not necessarily indicate what our deepest competence is, there are personality factors involved such as the will to cooperate, memory, attention, recent experience that greatly influences our performance.

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