Why is semantics studied?

Semantics is studied for a number of different reasons but perhaps one of the main reasons could be:

“If we view Semantics as the study of meaning then it becomes central to the study of communication which in turn is an important factor in how society is organised.”[1]

The aim of semantics is to discover why meaning is more complex than simply the words formed in a sentence. Semantics will ask questions such as:

  • “why is the structure of a sentence important to the meaning of the sentence?
  • “What are the semantic relationships between words and sentences?”
  • For example consider the following sentences:
    (1) a) Regina is an only child.
    b) Regina’s sister is called Martha.

    Without any knowledge about semantics intuitively we know that only one of these sentences can be correct, despite the fact grammatically they both make perfect sense.

    Studying semantics will allow us to explain why only one of these sentences can be true.

    Further Semantic Examples

    Structural ambiguity can also give reason for the importance of Semantic research.

    For example:
    ‘The chicken is ready to eat'[2]

    This sentence can be an example of structural ambiguity as there are a ranger of interpretation on what this sentence means.

    (2) a. It could mean the chicken (itself) is hungry and so is ready to eat
    b. the chicken is ready to be served and ate by something else.

    Studying semantics will allow us to explain what it is exactly about the headline which is confusing and why readers could be lead to believe there are two possible meanings.

    History of Semantics

    As Semantics is a long standing topic of discussion, there has been a constant change of the meanings and interpretations words hold over time.
    There are various circumstances for how a lexical item can change in meaning

  • Amelioration: The upgrading or elevation of a word’s meaning, as when a word with a negative sense develops a positive one. Contrast with pejoration. Example: ‘nice’ was seen as foolish in the 1300s. But in modern society is seen as a positive adjective.[3]
  • Pejoration: The downgrading or depreciation of a word’s meaning, as when a word with a positive sense develops a negative one. Example: ‘Silly’ was seen as ‘happy’ in the 1200s. However, in the 1500’s the meaning shifted to refer to a person who is ‘empty-headed’ or lacking in common sense.[4]
  • Broadening: Where a lexical item expands in meaning. Example: ‘bird’ used to be referenced to a baby bird but today it is a reference to a whole animal species.[5]
  • Semantic Narrowing: When a word becomes less general than its earlier meaning. Example: ‘deer’ used to be a reference to animals but now means specifically one species.[6]
  • Semantic Bleaching: Is the reduction in the meaning of a word as a result of semantic change. Example: ‘thing’ used to refer to an assembly/council. Today ‘thing’ is a vague reference to anything.[7]
  • References

    [1] Leech, G., (1981). Semantics: The Study of Meaning, 2nd edition. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
    [2] About.com: Grammar & Composition (2013) (online) Available at: [accessed 29th May 2013]
    [3] About.com: Grammar & Composition (2013) Amelioration. (online) Available at: [accessed 29th May 2013]
    [4] About.com: Grammar & Composition (2013) Pejoration. (online) Available at: [accessed 29th May 2013]
    [5] About.com: Grammar & Composition (2013) Broadening. (online) Available at: [accessed 29th May 2013]
    [6] About.com: Grammar & Composition (2013) Semantic Narrowing. (online) Available at: [accessed 29th May 2013]
    [7] About.com: Grammar & Compostion (2013) Semantic Bleaching (online) Available at: [accessed 29th May 2013]