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Part I

Theoretical and Applied Linguistics


LI2: Structures and Meanings

This paper is available for the academic year 2023-24.

A fundamental property of language - one which gives it its enormous power and flexibility - is its 'compositionality', the building of larger elements (such as sentences) out of smaller (words).

Sentences are not random strings of words. Languages impose limitations on the order in which they can be placed (in English statements, the verb normally comes after the subject, whereas in Japanese it goes at the end of the sentence).

Equally importantly, the sentence is associated with an abstract structure, which for instance defines a position in the sentence where we can put John in John left for Moscow today or equivalently a much more complex expression fulfilling the same role in the sentence, as in That student we met in Bonn last year and who's been visiting us left for Moscow today.

Syntax, the level of linguistic description which deals with the structure of sentences, the order of elements within them, and the relations between the elements, is introduced in this paper.

The purpose of combining words is to convey complex meanings, and the study of how language conveys meaning is semantics. It is concerned with the meaning of individual words - for instance 'deictic' terms such as today in the sentence above which can only be fully interpreted in the context of utterance - but also crucially with how meaning arises from the combination of words and yet is more than a simple function of the meaning of the individual words.

Semantics is closely related to pragmatics, which deals with the additional meanings that a hearer can draw from an utterance, in its context, beyond that conveyed directly by the words. For instance How old were you when you passed your driving test? presupposes that you have already passed it; and I'm so thirsty this afternoon! may be an indirect way of requesting a drink.

Both semantics and pragmatics, like syntax, differ between languages and cultures. Even common phenomena such as time are expressed in different ways; and yet the semanticist, like the syntactician, seeks general cognitive principles which accommodate these differences.


The paper begins with an introduction to formal approaches to language. For Structures the lectures will visit topics such as categories and constituents, phrase-structure rules and constituency tests, X'-theory, Wh-movement, pronouns, binding and c-command, syntax beyond English and the architecture of the grammar.

For Meanings lectures will discuss lexical meaning, theta-roles, sentence meaning and truth, Quantification, utterance meaning and speaker’s intentions and politeness.

Preparatory reading: 

Aitchison, J. (2003) Words in the mind: An introduction to the mental lexicon. Oxford: Blackwell. Third edition.

Burton-Roberts, N. (1997) Analysing sentences: An introduction to English syntax. Cambridge: CUP.

Cook, V. & M. Newson (1996/2006) Chomsky's Universal Grammar. An introduction. Oxford: Blackwell.

Jaszczolt, K. M. (2002) Semantics and Pragmatics: Meaning in Language and discourse. London: Longman.

Kearns, K. (2000) Semantics. London: Macmillan.

Mey, J. L. (2001) Pragmatics: An introduction. Oxford: Blackwell. Second edition.

Radford, A. (2004) Minimalist syntax. Cambridge: CUP.

Tallerman, M. (1998/2005) Understanding syntax. London: Arnold.

Teaching and learning: 

The paper will be taught in 16 one-hour lectures. There will be one lecture per teaching week of Michaelmas - 8 lectures in total - focussing on Structures. Another 8 lectures in Lent will focus on Meanings. You will also attend 6 supervision classes for Structures and another 6 for Meanings in the respective terms. There will be two revision supervisions (one for each part of the paper) in Easter term.

The paper's Moodle site can be found here.


Assessment will be by a combination of take home coursework and in person written exam

(i) In person 2 hour written exam to answer 2 data questions.

(ii) Take home coursework assessment: one essay up to 1500 words to be submitted online during the exam period.

Each answer contributes a third of the total mark.

Course Contacts: 
Dr Dora Alexopolou
Prof Napoleon Katsos