The Pragmatics of Word Meaning

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference contribution


A parsimonious lexicon must encode generalisations (e.g., [9]). One then needs to reason about when these apply. A general consensus is that an operation know as default inheritance is useful for this ([2, 4, 8, 10, 11]). A frequent motivation for using it, is to capture the overriding of regularities by subregularities in a computationally efficient manner. Information need only be stated once, instead of many times in each separate word, and default inheritance ensures that words inherit the right information.

But there's a problem with this. Many lexical generalisations are sort where there are exceptions to the rules, which are triggered by information which resides outside the lexicon. In particular, pragmatic knowledge can trigger exceptions and default inheritance doesn't communicate properly with pragmatics to encode this.

In this paper, we'll consider three examples where this occurs: logical metonymy (e.g., enjoy the book means enjoy reading the book), adjectives (e.g., the interpretation of fast in fast car, fast motorway, fast typist etc.), and noun–verb agreement. We'll argue for a new version of default inheritance, which allows default results of lexical generalisations to persist as default beyond the lexicon. We'll show that this persistence can be exploited by the pragmatic component, to reason about when generalisations encoded in the lexicon survive in a discourse context. We'll represent the link between lexicon and pragmatics via two axioms. These will predict the pragmatic exceptions to lexical generalisations that arise in the discourse context. We thereby explain how words are interpreted in the discourse, in a way neither the lexicon nor pragmatics could achieve on their own.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationProceedings of the AAAI Spring Symposium Series: Representation and Acquisition of Lexical Knowledge: Polysemy, Ambiguity and Generativity
PublisherAAAI Press
Number of pages6
ISBN (Print)978-0-929280-84-4
Publication statusPublished - 1995


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