24.903 | Spring 2005 | Undergraduate, Graduate

Language and its Structure III: Semantics and Pragmatics


Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 3 sessions / week, 1 hour / session

Course Description

This course gives an introduction to the science of linguistic meaning. There are two branches to this discipline: semantics, the study of conventional, “compositional meaning”, and pragmatics, the study of interactional meaning. There are other contributories: philosophy, logic, syntax, and psychology.

We will try to give you an understanding of the concepts of semantics and pragmatics and of some of the technical tools that we use. Woven through the entire semester, we will conduct an investigation into the meaning of “if”, as a case study of what semantics and pragmatics try to achieve.

24.933 is the graduate version of this course, offering graduate students from outside the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy an overview of semantics and pragmatics. In practical terms, students registered for 24.933 will do exactly the same work as students registered for 24.903, except for an extra question here and there on the problem sets and higher expectations for the squib.



Introduction to Linguistics (24.900)

Readings and Attendance

We will be using two textbooks for this class:

Portner, Paul H. What is Meaning? Fundamentals of Formal Semantics. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005. ISBN: 1405109181. (Paperback)

von Fintel, Kai. “If” – Semantics, Pragmatics, and One Little Word. Draft, MIT. (In progress) (Note: Not available to OCW users)

The von Fintel book does not exist yet, in any strict sense of “exist”. We’ll be using notes and material from it. You’ll be something between guinea pigs and co-authors of this book.

Most of the work in this course will occur in class, through lectures, Q&A, and discussion. Therefore, attendance and participation in all classes is obligatory. I cannot emphasize this enough. You must come to class and you must participate. If you have a habit of working all night and sleeping all day, or if you believe that it’s nobler to skip classes than to attend them, do not take 24.903!

If you cannot make it to a class meeting, courtesy requires that you give prior notification (email or phone would be fine) and tell me what is going on. There are of course acceptable excuses such as illness or family emergencies. Hangovers, disorganization, bad time management are not acceptable reasons to miss a class meeting. If there’s a pattern of missing class, we will need to address the problem.

Class Participation

You are expected to participate vigorously in class discussions. When I lecture, I expect you to listen for understanding, ask questions, raise problems, answer questions, etc. When another student asks a question or raises a problem or answers a question, you should listen for understanding and be engaged in the ensuing conversation.

Problem Sets

There will be 8 graded problem sets during the semester. The difficulty of these problems will vary. Some will be mechanical – even trivial – but others will be more challenging, requiring imagination and thought.

Problem sets will be handed out on Wednesday, and are due on the following Wednesday. In general, late problem sets will not be accepted except by e-mailed instructor requested before the due date. Permission will normally be granted only for illness and similar emergencies.

You are encouraged to discuss the class with your classmates, and general discussion of the problem sets is fine – even encouraged. But make sure you arrive at the solution yourself. I know it may sometimes be unclear where to draw the line between “general discussion” and actually doing the problem together. If you are in any doubt, please tell me in a note on the problem set who you worked with. Needless to say, your written answers should be yours alone.

You are encouraged to discuss the class with your classmates, including the problem sets. You must however write up your assignments individually and you must be able to individually justify the analyses you turn in. Any suspected case of plagiarism on homeworks (i.e. any case where two or more students turn in what appear to be assignments copied from a single source) will be investigated. If you are in any doubt, please tell me in a note on the problem set who you worked with. We encourage the students to seek help from the instructor and the TA, whenever necessary and in timely fashion.


You will also write a short paper (5-10 p.) on a topic in semantics and/or pragmatics. We will be most happy if the paper is what linguists call a squib. A squib is a pattern of facts that you find interesting along with an exploration of their possible significance. You might discover these facts yourself, as you sit in class, talk with friends, or read the newspaper – or you might read them in a reference grammar or linguistics book. The paper should contain an organized description of the phenomenon, explain its interest and significance, and suggest how you might analyze it.

Your squib will not necessarily take more time to write than one of the longer problem sets. Please discuss your topic with me in advance of the due date.

Final Exam

There will be a three hour, open book final exam during the Final Exam Period. The material covered will include the entire semester’s worth of work we’ve done.

Grade Computation

Attendance 10%
Participation 10%
Problem Sets 40%
Squib 15%
Final 25%