On an Argument Against Semantic Compositionality

  • Francis Jeffrey Pelletier
Part of the Synthese Library book series (SYLI, volume 236)


The Principle of Semantic Compositionality is the principle that the meaning of a complex expression is a function of (and only of) its parts together with the method by which those parts are combined. As stated, The Principle is vague or underspecified at a number of points, such as “what counts as a part,” “what is a meaning,”, “what kind of a function is allowed,” and the like. But vagueness and underspecification hasn’t stopped some people from treating it as an obviously true principle, true almost by definition; nor has it stopped some others from attacking it both on “empirical grounds” and on theoretico-methodological grounds. It seems to me that many of these discussions fail because of a lack of precision on just the previously-mentioned points, and that other discussions are best described as: “How compositionality can/can’t be accommodated within theory X,” rather than whether The Principle is or isn’t true. In its most general form, for instance as stated above, The Principle makes no assumptions about what the parts of a complex expression are, nor does it put any restrictions on what is the function on parts and mode of combination. Despite the fact that this is a very general way to state semantic compositionality, it is nonetheless possible to investigate certain claims concerning The Principle. For example, someone might claim that some linguistic phenomenon or other cannot be accommodated in accordance with The Principle. But so long as the person will commit him-or herself to some specified theory of meaning, and so long as the person will agree on what the range of relevant syntactic rules are, it becomes possible to try to give an account of the phenomenon which is in accordance with The Principle. Of course, this alternative account may not satisfy the original person for one reason or another — for example the compositional account may not be “as elegant” or it may not be “systematically generalizable to other phenomena”; but the giving of such an account nonetheless shows that the original phenomenon is amenable to some compositional account. And it therefore brings to the forefront what is often hidden in these discussions: that the real disagreements are not really about matters of compositionality in the sense of The Principle, but are rather aesthetic judgements concerning “how well” the phenomenon is described.


Parse Tree Aesthetic Judgement Syntactic Rule Compositional Solution Semantic COMPOSITIONALITY 
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  1. Higginbotham, James (1986) “Linguistic Theory and Davidson’s Program in Semantics” in E. LePore (ed.) The Philosophy of Donald Davidson: Perspectives on Truth and Interpretation ( Oxford: Blackwells ).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 1994

Authors and Affiliations

  • Francis Jeffrey Pelletier
    • 1
  1. 1.University of AlbertaCanada

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