The myth of occurrence-based semantics

Bryan Pickel, Brian Rabern

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The principle of compositionality requires that the meaning of a complex expression remains the same after substitution of synonymous expressions. Alleged counterex-amples to compositionality seem to force a theoretical choice: either apparent syn-onyms are not synonyms or synonyms do not syntactically occur where they appear to occur. Some theorists have instead looked to Frege’s doctrine of “reference shift” according to which the meaning of an expression is sensitive to its linguistic context. This doctrine is alleged to retain the relevant claims about synonymy and substitution while respecting the compositionality principle. Thus, Salmon (2006) and Glanzberg and King (2020) offer occurrence-based accounts of variable binding, and Pagin and Westerståhl (2010c) argue that an occurrence-based semantics delivers a compositional account of quotation. Our thesis is this: the occurrence-based strategies resolve the apparent failures of substitutivity in the same general way as the standard expression-based semantics do. So it is a myth that a Frege-inspired occurrence-based semantics affords a genuine alternative strategy.
Original languageEnglish
JournalLinguistics and Philosophy
Early online date9 Jul 2020
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 9 Jul 2020


  • compositionality
  • semantic values
  • linguistic context
  • reference shift
  • frege
  • occurences
  • quotation
  • variable binding

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