Research topics

Speak in complete sentences! you tell your children, and, indeed, sentences are the most important units of meaning. A subfield of linguistics, sentence semantics, is developing a theory of how sentence meaning is derived from the meanings of individual words and the structure of sentences. However, even the same sentence can convey very different meanings in different situations. For example, the sentence The boys are here said by a father who is expecting birthday guests of his daughters means something different from when the sentence is uttered by a mafia boss who is just being threatened by a rival. How these differences arise is a question of linguistic pragmatics. How do the semantic and pragmatic processes interact in the communication of meaning?

In the area Sentence Semantics and Pragmatics, we investigate cases in which the borderline between semantics and pragmatics does not correspond to the classical picture. An example is the question What's your name again? Here, again does not say that you have changed your name, unlike the declarative Her name is now Meier again. It rather says that the questioner knew the name in the past, but has forgotten it and wants to know it. This, however, means that again intrudes from the semantics into the pragmatics, since it is part of the pragmatics of a question that the questioner wants to know the answer to.

The area Compositionality in Discourse targets a comparison between pragmatic operations that connect sentences with one another and semantic operations that compose the meanings of constituent clauses. Instead of You should take an umbrella with you because it is raining we can say You should take an umbrella with you. It is raining. But this shortening is not always possible. You should take an umbrella with you although it is not raining now cannot be shortened to You should take an umbrella with you. It is not raining now. Causal connections can be left implicit but not adversative. Why?

The area Game-Theoretic Reconstruction of Pragmatic Phenomena aims at a new foundation of pragmatic mechanism in the framework of Game Theory, which has been applied to economics with great success. Also in language use, people behave economical: Why, for example, do we often interpret one hundred meter as an imprecise and ninety-seven meters as a precise measure of distance? This phenomenon can be explained by the speaker's preferences for short expressions and the hearer's preferences for general interpretations. In our example, one hundred is shorter, and the approximate interpretation more general.

The project's goal is to investigate the interrelation between literal meaning and general principles that govern concrete language use in communication. Especially, we hope to build a bridge to the more descriptive branches of communication research.


Funding period



Prof. Dr. Manfred Krifka & PD Dr. Uli Sauerland