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John Dudley

Saying and Meaning

The burden of this essay will be to see how the words we utter bear meaning. We use speech to communicate our intentional attitudes to others. On this basis, I propose to treat meaning as that which is conveyed from a speaker to a listener. A simple model of the communication process will be used as follows. First, a speaker frames a sentence to convey an intentional attitude. Second a listener attends to the sounds and comes to a meaning. The essence of human communication is that the listener comes to understand the speaker’s meaning. Both speaker and listener accomplish their tasks by processes of which they are unaware because they are non-conscious brain processes. But these species-typical processes for encoding and decoding meanings result in the characteristic linguistic behaviours which we call speaking, listening, conversing, arguing and the rest. I shall maintain that to understand meaning we must not look at brain processes but at how we operate in the world using language. In moving to a conclusion I shall suggest that, in many cases, as Wittgenstein put it, ‘the meaning of a word is its use in the language.’

John Searle identifies two types of meaning in speech as sentence meaning or word meaning and speaker meaning. He defines sentence meaning as follows:

Sentences and words have meanings as part of a language. The meaning of a sentence is determined by the meaning of the words and the syntactical arrangement of the words in the sentence.

On this basis sentence meaning is the conventional meaning of the words as they are usually used in a lexical sense. Thus in the Case A below there is a clear meaning. A woman observes a couple leaving a party and comments to her partner,

(Case A) Jim and his wife are leaving the (party*).

The conventional or sentence meaning here is as follows; two people, a man (Jim) and his wife are leaving the social function (as opposed to a political party*). But even in this simple example, the bracketed information shows that the context of the utterance is important in enabling the listener to reach the meaning intended by the speaker. The speaker and listener are usually able to pick out the word meaning appropriate to the particular occasion. This use of language in everyday social contexts is what Wittgenstein refers to as‘agreement in form of life.’ We learn to use the conventions of language in a particular way in a particular form of life. Forms of life are thus systems of appropriate language uses in various social activities.
In other words, we can only speculate, report and argue in various social contexts because we have already learned the language rules which apply to them. We learn the conventions of the language in various contexts. It is only our ability to apply these conventions that enables us to communicate with each other.

We have an ability to encode and decode shades of meaning using simple cues. However, in straight forward truth conditional sentences the uses of ‘and’, ‘but’ and the alteration of word order in the examples below serve to demonstrate that there is more to sentence meaning than the truth conditional contents of that sentence.

(i) Jim is tall and fat.
(ii) Jim is tall but fat
(iii) Jim is fat but tall.

Doubt about Jim’s qualities is implied by substituting ‘but’ for ‘and’ in (ii) although the truth conditional contents remain the same. This is a conventional change in meaning which most people would recognise. The simple change of word order also changes the meaning. For example, someone who says (iii) ‘Jim is fat but tall,’ is likely be construed as having a better opinion of Jim than one who says, (ii) ‘Jim is tall but fat.’ Why? Because (ii) could leave a negative impression last whereas in (iii) a more positive aspect appears last. Even within the conventions of language, there is often an extra level of implied meaning over and above the truth conditional contents of the sentences.

A listener can thus reach meanings which lie below the surface level of sentence meaning by taking cues from syntactical arrangements. These meanings may well be the speaker’s intended meanings – in Searle’s terminology, speaker meanings. If communication is to be successful then a listener must understand these imposed speaker meanings.

Speaker meaning, as Searle puts it, differs from the sentence meaning or conventional meaning in terms of the speaker’s intentions:

But what the speaker means by the utterance of the sentence is, within certain limits, entirely a matter of his or her intentionsÉ. The meaning of the sentence is entirely a matter of the conventions of language. But sentences are tools to talk withÉ..the linguistic meaning of sentences functions to enable speakers of the language to use sentences to mean something in utterances.

To return to Case A above, the table below illustrates the sentence meaning (SEM1), the speaker meaning (SPM1) and the listener meaning (LIM1). A woman, on seeing a couple leave the party, comments to her partner:

(Case A) Jim and his wife are leaving the party.
Sentence meaning (SEM1)
Two named people are leaving the party (social function).
Speaker meaning (SPM1)
Two named people are leaving the party (social function).
Listener meaning (LIM1)
Two named people are leaving the party (social function).

A man and his wife are leaving the party. A successful communication is complete. The speaker has imposed the simple empirical observation upon the conventional symbols of language which have been understood in a way comparable with looking up the meanings of the words in a dictionary within the context of a social function. The sentence meaning and the speaker meaning are, on this occasion, the same. The listener understands that they are the same.

But it is possible that these same words could have a different meaning imposed upon them. For example, the same speaker and her partner may have become concerned that they are staying too long at social functions. They decide that in the future they will leave well before the end. They do not specify any particular length of stay or time at which they should leave. Subsequently they attend another party when Jim and his wife are also present. The speaker, on observing Jim and his wife leaving early, says to her partner, ‘Jim and his wife are leaving the party.’ The table below shows the same conventional sentence in a similar context but with a different speaker meaning and listener meaning. On this occasion, the lexical approach would not reveal the speaker’s meaning.

(Case B) Jim and his wife are leaving the party.
Sentence meaning (SEM1)
Two named people are leaving the party (social function).
Speaker meaning (SPM2)
We should be leaving now.
Listener meaning (LIM2)
We should be leaving now.

She utters the sentence, ‘Jim and his wife are leaving the party’ with this meaning (‘We should be leaving now.’) on the basis that in a previous conversation about their social habits the speaker and her partner have decided not to be in the last group to leave social functions. The immediate physical context is the similar to that of Case A but the socio-linguistic context has been considerably altered by dint of the previous conversation. The listener is able to pick up the necessary cues to the intended meaning because of the previous conversation. The speaker and listener follow Jim and his wife. They leave. In this conversation, speaker and listener have been able to trade imposed meanings because of their ability to play language games in various forms of life.

However, there are often misunderstandings and breakdowns in communication. Let us imagine that in Case B communication was unsuccessful as shown below. We have the same sentence meaning, the imposed speaker meaning (We should be leaving now) but a different listener meaning (It’s time to think about leaving). And so the speaker observes that Jim and his wife are leaving and says to her husband:

(Case C) Jim and his wife are leaving the party.
Sentence meaning (SEM1)
Two named people are leaving the party (social function).
Speaker meaning (SPM2)
We should be leaving now.
Listener meaning (LIM3)
ItÕs time to think about leaving.

On this occasion the listener has not quite caught the urgency of the speaker’s imposed meaning. Perhaps he was not paying attention when the subject was discussed. Whatever the case the meaning he reached was much weaker and hence they remained at the party a while longer. The reasons for this certainly do not lie within the conventions of the utterance – the sentence meaning; they lie within the complex interplay of socio-linguistic contexts and the speaker’s and listener’s intentions.

We operate this way in the world with language. Speaker meanings are imposed on conventional sentences and listeners decode them with a greater or lesser degree of efficiency. Complete communication requires a listener who understands what is being said. Listeners exert their linguistic faculties to decode the encoded sentence meanings and speaker meanings. We learn to do this by partaking in our various forms of life. We have learned, as speakers, to indicate to our listeners what we wish them to understand. As listeners, we become skilled at recognising the speaker’s intentions. Our interpretative abilities are however circumscribed by our knowledge of the people and the forms of life concerned. In normal conversation we are constantly improving our skills in forms of life.

Our linguistic abilities can, in some cases, become so finely tuned that sometimes the speaker meaning can be completely different from sentence meaning and yet listeners can understand perfectly. In Case D below the conventional meaning of ‘trousers’ is the metaphorical one, i.e., ‘takes decisions’ or ‘is in charge’ not ‘garment’. This metaphorical use is to be found in the dictionary. It is therefore a possible and widely available conventional meaning which many listeners would understand in any context. The context carries cues leading to this intended speaker meaning. In this context, listeners would pick it out as the intended use and meaning would follow as shown below.

In an office two colleagues are working. A third colleague, Debbie, walks past. One colleague says to the other;

(Case D) Debbie is wearing the trousers

This gives the following set of meanings on this occasion.

A person, Debbie, usually makes all the decisions
A person, Debbie, usually makes all the decisions.
A person, Debbie, usually makes all the decisions

So one colleague comments to another about a third colleague, Debbie, who has shown herself to be a forceful personality. The context on such an occasion would contain enough cues for the listener to pick out first the intended conventional meaning of ‘trousers’, i.e., the metaphorical use, and then recognise that this was the intended speaker meaning.

On another occasion however the speaker meaning could be the exact opposite as shown below as case E. The circumstances and means by which a speaker can impose such a meaning and a listener can understand such a meaning on a particular occasion illustrate the importance of the context of an utterance. One colleague says to the other;

(Case E) Debbie is wearing the trousers
A person, Debbie, usually makes all the decisions
A person, Debbie, could never, under any circumstances, possibly take any decisions.
A person, Debbie, could never, under any circumstances, possibly take any decisions

On this occasion the speaker meaning, SPM 2, means nothing like the conventional speaker meaning SEM 1. This difference is not to do with any emphasis in the sentence but depends upon an ironical use of the standard figure of speech on a particular occasion and with reference to a particular person in a particular context. The speaker on this occasion wishes to imply that Debbie is such a timid and self-effacing person with so little influence that the state of affairs described by the metaphor is impossible.

To understand the speaker meaning on this occasion the listener would have to be familiar with the context, with Debbie and with the speaker. They would have to have a particular knowledge of the way in which this speaker habitually makes listeners aware of what he or she intended. So LIM3 would be the meaning understood by the office colleague who possesses the skills and knowledge required to reach the speaker’s meaning on this occasion.

There are many spheres of human endeavour where the signs and symbols always mean the same thing. In mathematics and science for example, there is no room for ambiguity. Terms must mean the same thing every time they are use but in most spoken human discourse the way words bear meaning depends first on the conventions of language, then on the speaker meaning imposed on them and finally on the listeners who use their experience in forms of life and knowledge of the speaker’s intentions to understand a meaning. On many occasions this meaning is the one intended by the speaker. On some occasions, it is not.

Perhaps because of the ever present element of uncertainty about what people mean when they speak there lurks within many of us the suspicion that perhaps what a person really means could be found by some detailed inspection of the speaker’s brain. Brains can be scanned. Psychologists and neuroscientists have developed extremely sophisticated brain scanning techniques; they have mapped the geography of many areas of brain activity. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that an electronic dictionary hooked up to a brain scanner could put a person’s intentional attitudes into words. But this would be no help. The electronic product of a brain scan can still only give us a set of words – a set of sentences. Eventually observers in the laboratory will have to come to a meaning through the normal apparatus of human communication. They will listen to or read words. They will then reach a meaning in the usual way. Thus, the electronic translation of synaptic firings in the brain can only ever reveal sentence meaning. To reach the speaker meaning would still require the exercise of the normal human capacities in listening. These, in turn, rely on experience in form of life and awareness of contextual cues.

In Philosophical Investigations one of Wittgenstein’s conclusions about meaning was as follows:

For a large class of cases – though not for all – in which we employ the word ‘meaning’ it can be defined thus: the meaning of a word is its use in the language.

In a previous essay, I argued that there is more to meaning than the way words are used in a sentence. We need to know what they mean conventionally before we use them. In other words, we need to know and be skilled in the basic conventions of the language. There is no doubt that we develop, goodness knows how, an ability to speak and understand well-formed sentences. However there is more to meaning than the conventional meaning of words in a lexical sense. Speakers impose meanings using devices which include linguistic and contextual cues. On this basis I now conclude that if one substituted the words ‘the speaker meaning on the occasion of use’ for the phrase,its use in the language’ in the above quotation then the foregoing paragraphs amount to a sound argument for the ‘meaning as use’ thesis. The examples given show that speaker meaning can be altered by the use of the same words in different contexts. Thus, in many cases, the way a word is used does indeed alter its meaning.

The great cricketer Geoffrey Boycott said recently, ‘The only way to improve the game is by discussion’. Probably discussion remains as the only way to improve our understanding of what people really mean.


SEARLE, (1999) Mind, Society and Language Phoenix, London

WHARTON, T (2003) Paul Grice, saying and meaning University of London Paper.

WITTGENSTEIN, L. (Trans. ANSCOMBE, G. E.M.) (1958), Philosophical Investigations London, Blackwell.