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Licensed Unlicensed Requires Authentication Published by De Gruyter Mouton 2019

6 Compositionality

From the book Semantics - Foundations, History and Methods

  • Peter Pagin and Dag Westerståhl


This article is concerned with the principle of compositionality, i.e. the principle that the meaning of a complex expression is a function of the meanings of its parts and its mode of composition. After a brief historical background, a formal algebraic framework for syntax and semantics is presented. In this framework, both syntactic operations and semantic functions are (normally) partial. Using the framework, the basic idea of compositionality is given a precise statement, and several variants, both weaker and stronger, as well as related properties, are distinguished. Several arguments for compositionality are discussed, and the standard arguments are found inconclusive. Also, several arguments against compositionality, and for the claim that it is a trivial property, are discussed, and are found to be flawed. Finally, a number of real or apparent problems for compositionality are considered, and some solutions are proposed.

© 2019 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Munich/Boston
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