Sub-Sententials: Pragmatics or Semantics?

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


Stainton points out that speakers “can make assertions while speaking sub-sententially”. He argues for a “pragmatics-oriented approach” to these phenomena and against a “semantics-oriented approach”. In contrast, I argue for a largely semantics-oriented approach: typically, sub-sentential utterances assert a truth-conditional proposition in virtue of exploiting a semantic convention. Thus, there is an “implicit-demonstrative convention” in English of expressing a thought that a particular object in mind is F by saying simply ‘F’. I note also that some sub-sentential assertions include demonstrations and argue that these exploit another semantic convention for expressing a thought with a particular object in mind. I consider four objections that Stainton has to a semantics- oriented approach. The most interesting is the “syntactic ellipsis” objection, which rests on two planks: (A) the assumption that this approach must claim that what appears on the surface to be a sub-sentential is, at some deeper level of syntactic analysis, really a sentence; (B) the claim that there is no such syntactic ellipsis in these sub-sentential utterances. I argue that (A) is wrong and that (B) may well be. I also reject the other three objections: “too much ambiguity”; “no explanatory work”; and “fails a Kripkean test”. Nonetheless, occasionally, sub-sentential utterances semantically assert only a fragment of a truth-conditional proposition. This fragment needs to be pragmatically enriched to yield a propositional message. To this extent a pragmatics-oriented approach is correct.


sub-sentential Stainton semantics pragmatics implicit demonstrative convention demonstration syntactic ellipsis 


  1. Almog, J., Perry, J., & Wettstein, H. (Eds.). (1989). Themes from Kaplan. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  2. Bach, K. (1994). Conversational impliciture. Mind and Language, 9, 124–162.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Bach, K. (1998). Standardization revisited. In A. Kasher (Ed.), Pragmatics: Critical assessment (Vol. IV, pp. 712–722). London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  4. Bach, K. (2001). You don’t say? Synthese, 128, 15–44.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Bach, K. (2005). Context ex Machina. In Szabó 2005: 15–44.Google Scholar
  6. Carston, R. (2002). Thoughts and utterances: The pragmatics of explicit communication. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Carston, R. (2004). Truth-conditional content and conversational implicature. In C. Bianchi (Ed.), The semantic/pragmatics distinction (pp. 65–100). Stanford: CSLI Publications.Google Scholar
  8. Chomsky, N. (1980). Rules and representations. New York: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
  9. Chomsky, N. (1996). Powers and prospects: Reflections on human nature and the social order. Boston: South End Press.Google Scholar
  10. Devitt, M. (1974). Singular terms. Journal of Philosophy, LXXI, 183–205.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Devitt, M. (1981a). Designation. New York: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
  12. Devitt, M. (1981b). Donnellan’s distinction. In P. A. French, T. E. Uehling Jr., & H. K. Wettstein (Eds.), Midwest studies in philosophy, Volume VI: The foundations of analytic philosophy (pp. 511–524). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.Google Scholar
  13. Devitt, M. (1996). Coming to our senses: A naturalistic program for semantic localism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  14. Devitt, M. (2004). The case for referential descriptions. In Reimer and Bezuidenhout 2004: 280–305.Google Scholar
  15. Devitt, M. (2006a). Ignorance of language. Oxford: Clarendon Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Devitt, M. (2006b). Defending ignorance of language: Responses to the Dubrovnik papers. Croatian Journal of Philosophy, VI, 571–606.Google Scholar
  17. Devitt, M. (2007). Referential descriptions and conversational implicatures. European Journal of Analytic Philosophy, 3, 7–32.Google Scholar
  18. Devitt, M. (2008a). Explanation and reality in linguistics. Croatian Journal of Philosophy, VIII, 203–231.Google Scholar
  19. Devitt, M. (2008b). A response to Collins’ note on conventions and unvoiced syntax. Croatian Journal of Philosophy, VIII, 249–255.Google Scholar
  20. Devitt, M. (2012a). Whither experimental semantics? Theoria, 72, 5–36.Google Scholar
  21. Devitt, M. (2012b). The role of intuitions. In G. Russell & D. G. Fara (Eds.), Routledge companion to the philosophy of language (pp. 554–565). New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  22. Devitt, M. (2013a). What makes a property ‘semantic’? In A. Capone, F. Lo Piparo, & M. Carapezza (Eds.), Perspectives on pragmatics and philosophy (pp. 87–112). Cham: Springer.Google Scholar
  23. Devitt, M. (2013b). Three methodological flaws of linguistic pragmatism. In C. Penco & F. Domaneschi (Eds.), What is said and what is not: The semantics/pragmatics interface (pp. 285–300). Stanford: CSLI Publications.Google Scholar
  24. Devitt, M. (2013c). Good and bad Bach. Croatian Journal of Philosophy, 13, 169–200.Google Scholar
  25. Devitt, M. (2015). Testing theories of reference. In J. Haukioja (Ed.), Advances in experimental philosophy of language (pp. 31–63). London: Bloomsbury Academic.Google Scholar
  26. Devitt, M. (Forthcoming). Overlooking conventions: The trouble with linguistic pragmatism.Google Scholar
  27. Elugardo, R., & Stainton, R. J. (2004). Shorthand, syntactic ellipsis, and the pragmatic determinants of what is said. Mind and Language, 19, 442–471.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Fodor, J. A. (2001). Language, thought and compositionality. Mind and Language, 16, 1–15.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Fodor, J. A., & Lepore, E. (1991). Why meaning (probably) isn’t conceptual role. Mind and Language, 6, 328–343.Google Scholar
  30. Frege, G. (1977). Logical investigations (P. T. Geach, Ed.). Oxford: Blackwell.Google Scholar
  31. French, P. A., Uehling, T. E., Jr., & Wettstein, H. K. (Eds.). (1979). Contemporary perspectives in the philosophy of language. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.Google Scholar
  32. Grice, P. (1989). Studies in the way of words. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  33. Kaplan, D. (1979). Dthat. In French et al. 1979: 383–400Google Scholar
  34. Kaplan, D. (1989a). Demonstratives: An essay on the semantics, logic, metaphysics, and epistemology of demonstratives and other indexicals. In Almog, Perry, and Wettstein 1989: 510–563.Google Scholar
  35. Kaplan, D. (1989b). Afterthoughts. In Almog, Perry, and Wettstein 1989: 565–614.Google Scholar
  36. Kripke, S. A. (1979). Speaker’s reference and semantic reference. In French et al. 1979:6–27Google Scholar
  37. Neale, S. (2004). This, that, and the other. In Reimer and Bezuidenhout 2004: 68–182.Google Scholar
  38. Neale, S. (2007). On location. In M. O’Rourke & C. Washington (Eds.), Situating semantics: Essays on the philosophy of John Perry (pp. 251–393). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  39. Ravin, Y., & Leacock, C. (2000). Polysemy: An overview. In Y. Ravin & C. Leacocke (Eds.), Polysemy: Theoretical and computational approaches (pp. 1–29). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  40. Recanati, F. (2010). Truth-conditional pragmatics. Oxford: Clarendon Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Reimer, M. (1991). Demonstratives, demonstrations, and demonstrata. Philosophical Studies, 63(2), 187–202.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Reimer, M., & Bezuidenhout, A. (Eds.). (2004). Descriptions and beyond. Oxford: Clarendon Press.Google Scholar
  43. Stainton, R. J. (2005). In defense of non-sentential assertion. In Szabó 2005: 383–457.Google Scholar
  44. Stainton, R. J. (2006). Words and thoughts: Subsentences, ellipsis, and the philosophy of language. Oxford: Clarendon Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Stanley, J. (2007). Language in context: Selected essays. Oxford: Clarendon Press.Google Scholar
  46. Stanley, J., & Szabó, Z. G. (2000). On quantifier domain restriction. Mind and Language, 15, 219–261.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Szabó, Z. G. (Ed.). (2005). Semantics versus pragmatics. Oxford: Clarendon Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.The Graduate CenterThe City University of New YorkNew YorkUSA

Personalised recommendations