In This Article Compositionality

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews and Definitions
  • Historical Antecedents
  • Collections
  • Noun-Noun Compounds
  • Conceptual Combination
  • Prototypes
  • Meaning Holism
  • Context in General
  • Communication
  • Context and Contextual Variables
  • Neural Issues
  • Jerry A. Fodor

Linguistics Compositionality
Jeff Pelletier
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 July 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0044


“Compositionality” is used in two different senses, and sometimes the literature seems to be antagonistic because the discussants are employing the different senses. In one sense—let’s call it the “ontological sense”—some complex thing is compositional if it is identical with its parts (with due consideration to the way the parts are arranged). In another sense—let’s call it the “functional sense”—something is compositional if it is a complex thing with some property that can be defined in terms of a function of the same property of its parts (with due consideration to the way the parts are combined). In formal semantics and philosophy of language, the complex things are (usually) syntactically complex items of language, and the property of interest is (usually) meaning. So the question of whether some complex thing is compositional is normally understood as asking whether the meaning of some complex piece of language is a function of the meanings of its parts together with consideration as to how those parts are syntactically combined. Many of the writings about compositionality have occurred in the philosophical literature, and there the contrast has often been with meaning holism. In the “formal” literature the question has been about the conditions on a language (and associated meaning function) that will guarantee that there is some compositional semantics. Within the linguistics literature, much of the writing has been to show how some apparently noncompositional construction can be given a compositional treatment or to argue that it cannot be. There has also been a separate discussion about the effects of context on meaning and how that interacts with communication. Many of these works have broached the topic of whether and how context can be accommodated compositionally.

General Overviews and Definitions

Most of the works that deploy the notion of compositionality in any way at all also make a statement as to what the author believes compositionality to be. But these statements are not usually accompanied by an analysis of terms used in their explanation. This section contains some works that analyze the notion of compositionality. Partee 2004 (originally published in 1984) is one of the earliest works on compositionality, introducing most of the issues taken up by later writers. Pelletier 2004 discusses the relevance of compositionality to semantics and surveys the various considerations that have been prominent in discussions of the notion. Dowty 2007 is by the author of one of the first textbooks to employ the classical version of compositionality as put forward by Montague 1974 (cited under Problem of Logic). Hodges 1998 argues that many statements of compositionality are in fact statements of some other (perhaps related) notion; notably Hodges’s discussion makes the Montague 1974 (cited under Problem of Logic) version be “not compositionality” and be the cause of what “lies behind the bid to describe [various claims about linguistics] as ‘problems for compositionality.’” Janssen 1997 also provides much historical detail concerning the development of compositionality. Jacobson 2011 describes a particularly “pure” version of compositionality. Pagin and Westerståhl 2010 offers a detailed exposition of the various terms employed in discussions of compositionality, while Sandu and Hintikka 2001 also discusses different interpretations of compositionality in the literature. Szabó 2007 is a large descriptive survey of work on compositionality together with some recommendations on which of the interpretations is best.

  • Dowty, David. 2007. Compositionality as an empirical problem. In Direct compositionality. Edited by Chris Barker and Pauline Jacobson, 23–101. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

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    The early portions of this article describe the variety of formulations that have been offered for compositionality along with an attempt to adjudicate among them.

  • Hodges, Wilfrid. 1998. Compositionality is not the problem. Logic and Logical Philosophy 6:7–33.

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    Hodges analyzes the terms involved in defining “compositionality,” investigating the historical usage of the term and the general idea behind the term. This is a fundamental paper in the new understanding of compositionality.

  • Jacobson, Pauline. 2011. Direct compositionality. In The Oxford handbook of compositionality. Edited by Markus Werning, Wolfram Hinzen, and Edouard Machery, 109–128. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

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    A clear statement of the notion of direct compositionality—the idea that there should be no “movement rules” in the syntax and that each syntactic rule will give rise to a unique semantic interpretive rule.

  • Janssen, Theo. 1997. Compositionality. In Handbook of logic and language. Edited by Johan van Benthem and Alice ter Meulen, 417–473. Amsterdam: Elsevier.

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    This work includes many topics from Janssen’s 1983 underground-classic dissertation. It discusses various formal statements of compositionality and its relation to the “context principle.”

  • Pagin, Peter, and Dag Westerståhl. 2010. Compositionality I: Definitions and variants. Philosophy Compass 5:250–264.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1747-9991.2009.00228.xE-mail Citation »

    This portion of a two-part survey article explains the various terms used in definitions of compositionality and provides a variety of formulations of the notion. The logical relationships among the different formulations are shown.

  • Partee, Barbara H. 2004. Compositionality. In Compositionality in formal semantics: Selected papers. By Barbara H. Partee, 153–181. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

    DOI: 10.1002/9780470751305.ch7E-mail Citation »

    This article points out that there are various interpretations of the notion of compositionality and that some of the popular versions obviate the need for an “intermediate” level of representation, and it discusses some putative violations of the principle. Originally printed in Fred Landman and Frank Veltman, eds., Varieties of Formal Semantics: Proceedings of the Fourth Amsterdam Colloquium, September 1982 (Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Foris, 1984), 281–312.

  • Pelletier, Francis Jeffry. 2004. The principle of semantic compositionality. In Semantics: A reader. Edited by Steven Davis and Brendan S. Gillon, 133–156. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

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    Contains a discussion of the terms used in most statements of compositionality, such as “meaning,” “function,” “whole,” “part,” and the like. The position taken is that these terms are vague in their meaning and have given rise to differing accounts and criticisms of compositionality. Originally printed in Topoi 13 (1994): 11–24; the book chapter contains additions.

  • Sandu, Gabriel, and Jaakko Hintikka. 2001. Aspects of compositionality. Journal of Logic, Language, and Information 10:49–61.

    DOI: 10.1023/A:1026530709583E-mail Citation »

    Introduces three senses of “compositionality” and shows how they are related by applying Hodges’s theorem (Hodges 2001, cited under Problem of Logic) to the Hintikka-Sandu version of logics of imperfect information (within “independence friendly languages”).

  • Szabó, Zoltán. 2007. Compositionality. In Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta.

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    This thorough discussion of the philosophical aspects of compositionality includes the author’s earlier views of compositionality as supervenience, which is one of the standard viewpoints concerning the topic.

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