Within linguistics and philosophy, two types of utterance meaning have traditionally been distinguished - semantic meaning, based on the literal meaning of the words themselves, and pragmatic meaning, based on how the sentence is used in a particular context.
Over the past decade, there has been an explosion of empirical work exploring the line between these two types of meaning.
However, few researchers have explored whether and under what conditions speakers can reliably isolate semantic meaning from pragmatic meaning.
The new study, authored by Ryan Doran, Gregory Ward, Meredith Larson, Yaron McNabb, and Rachel E. Baker from Northwestern University, does just this.
Using a novel paradigm in which participants assume the point of view of a literal-minded third person, Literal Lucy, the researchers tested whether speakers were able to tease apart semantic meaning from pragmatic meaning.
Participants read through short vignettes and determined whether sentences containing certain key phrases like gradable adjectives, cardinals, quantifiers, were literally still true even in contexts that favoured a more natural, pragmatic interpretation.
Their study found that speakers were in fact able to tease apart pragmatic elements of meaning from semantic ones but that the ability to do so is sensitive both to the particular type of phrase used in the sentence as well as the point of view a speaker adopts.
By adopting a third-party perspective and relying upon their folk notion of interpreting literally, speakers were able to distinguish between semantic and pragmatic meaning more reliably.
The study will be published in the scholarly journal Language.