Chapter 2: Meaning of Definition
Reference theory of meaning is the theory that we associate the meaning of
words with images in our heads of the certain word.
The theory of meaning as use of the words, this approach recognizes that many
words do not have a mental image or idea associated with them, but that the primary
bearers of meaning are not words but sentences in which they are used.
The Main Functions of Language
Descriptive: An important use of language if to describe (i.e. to convey
factual information about) something. Whenever we describe something we are stating
facts, or what we believe to be facts.
Evaluative: We use language often to evaluate or make a value judgment
Emotive: Language is sometimes used to express emotions and thus has
an emotive function. For example, when you say, “I hate this teacher” you are
expressing your hatred toward the teacher. Note: these sentences also convey factual
information about the speakers’ feelings, but in most contexts this function would be
Evocative: Language can also be used for the purpose of evoking or
bringing out certain feelings or emotions out of your audience. Many others uses of
language can often be evocative as a secondary function. For example, the
interrogative use of language can bring out feelings of fear. (e.g. when an officer orders
you to give your information or else he will arrest you, he is using language in three
ways, interrogative because he is seeking information, directive because he is ordering
you to give your information, and evocative because he is asserting his authority over
you in order to instill fear.)
Persuasive: One of the most widespread uses of language is to persuade
people to accept something or to act in a certain way.
Interrogative: In order to elicit information we usually need to ask for it.
This does not need to be a question; it is just a use of language where we are seeking
to gain information.
Directive: We use language to command others to do something or to
Performative: This use of language, when used under appropriate
circumstances, each would constitute an action. For example, when a judge says, “I
find the accused guilty of murder”. This sentence can constitute the action of finding
someone guilty of murder. Recreational: The last use of language is used to amuse ourselves and
others. Examples of a recreational use would be to tell jokes, write novels, invent puns,
do crossword puzzles, play guessing games, make up limericks, sing nursing rhymes,
and write rude things on the bathroom walls. When people use language in a
recreational way they are simply doing to get enjoyment out of language.
The way we use language can always fit into either one or more of the
Purposes of Definition
Reportive Definition: The most common purpose of definitions is to convey the
information needed to use a word correctly. The correct use of a words consists of its
standard usage – how the word is in fact used by those who make regular use of it.
Standard, desktop dictionaries give reportive definitions. Reportive definitions can
sometimes be troublesome because it may not be clear whether or not a certain use of
a word is regarded as standard usage. When a word is used incorrectly enough times,
for example, it will become the standard usage.
Basically any word’s definition that is used constantly and has become the standard
usage for the word.
e.g. common words like dog, car, school, etc.
Stipulative Definition: Sometimes it is useful to be able to create a new precise
meaning for a word. For example, when doing research we need to stipulate the precise
meaning of a word in order to have clarity and precision. The stipulative meaning must
be clearly stated in order for there to be no confusion as to the meaning of the word.
Basically any word’s definition that is created for a specific purpose and is outlined with
clarity and precision.
e.g. words that are used in scientific cases and in law
Essentialist Definition: These definitions need to be understood as compressed
theories. These definitions attempt to express in a brief form a theory about the nature
of what exactly is being defined. Therefore when you are taking in an essentialist
definition you must assess a theory and this goes far beyond question about the
meaning of words.
Basically any word’s definition that takes on an entire theory in order to define the word.
e.g. words like justice, faith, hope, etc. Methods of Definition
Genus-Species: A common method of defining words by referring to a larger
category to which that kind of thing belongs to and then to specify what makes that
particular kind different from other species in that genus.
Ostensive: The meaning of a word can easily be conveyed by giving examples,
either verbally or by pointing.
Operational: a term can be defined very precisely by specifying a rule of
Synonym: Often all that is needed to define a word is to give a synonym.
Contextual: Some words can be defined by using the word in a standard context
and providing a different sentence that does not use the word but has the same
Assessing Reportive Definitions
Too broad: when the defining phrase refers to things that are not included in the
reference of the term being defined.
Too narrow: when the defining phrase fails to refer to some things that are included in
the reference of the term being defined.
Too Broad and Too Narrow: when the defining phrase refers to some things to which
the term does not and also fails to refer to some things to which the term does.
Circular: is a definition where it includes the word being defined.
Obscure: A definition can also be useless when it fails, through the use of vague,
obscure, or metaphorical language, to express clearly the meaning of the term being
defined. Chapter 3: Clarifying Meaning
The Principle of Charity
In any discussion we have a moral obligation to treat our opponents fairly. When they
are present, we ought to give them the opportunity to clarify what they have said. When
they are not present, we have a moral obligation to follow the principle of charity, that is,
to adopt the most charitable interpretation of their words among the possible
interpretations suggested by the context. The most charitable interpretation is the one
that makes our opponent’s views as reasonable, plausible, or defensive as possible, we
should always adopt the more reasonable one (unless something in the context
suggests that another interpretation is what the person meant.).
Ambiguity and Vagueness
An ambiguous sentence is one that has two or more different but possibly quite precise
A vague sentence is one that lacks a precise meaning.eg: Lots of people own two sets
of television sets. This is vague because we don’t know how much is lots and what
Referential Ambiguity arises when a word or phrase could, in the context of a particular
sentence, refer to two or more properties or things. Usually the context tells us which
meaning is intended, but, when it doesn’t, we may choose the wrong meaning.
Tom gave Ted’s skis to his sister.
Pavarotti was a big opera star.
Grammatical Ambiguity arises when the grammatical structure of a sentence allows two
interpretations, each of which gives rise to a different meaning.
Women with babies who attend university encounter all sorts of exceptional challenges.
Use and Mention
Another type of linguistic ambiguity arises through the failure to distinguish