In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Default Semantics

  • Introduction
  • Default Semantics vis-à-vis Other Approaches to Defaults
  • Critical Reviews
  • Default Semantics in the Context of Current Pragmatic Theory
  • Applications to Natural Languages Other than English
  • Philosophical Aspects
  • PhD Dissertations

Linguistics Default Semantics
Katarzyna Jaszczolt
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 April 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 February 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0272


Default Semantics (DS) is a theory of discourse that represents the main meaning intended by the speaker and recovered by the addressee, using truth-conditional, formal, but pragmatics-rich representations. It was originally developed at the University of Cambridge by K. M. Jaszczolt in the late 1990s and has since been applied to a variety of constructions, phenomena, and languages. The category of primary meaning, as it is understood in DS and represented in its semantic qua conceptual representations, cuts across the explicit/implicit divide. Semantic representations are not limited by the constraints imposed by the logical form of the sentence; they allow for its modifications but also, unlike in other post-Gricean theories, they allow for it to be overridden when the main informational content is conveyed through sources other than the linguistic expression itself. DS identifies five sources of information, all operating on an equal footing: word meaning and sentence structure (WS); situation of discourse (SD); properties of human inferential system (IS); stereotypes and presumptions about society and culture (SC); and world knowledge (WK). Since all of the sources can contribute to the truth-conditional representation, the traditional syntactic constraint that ties the representation to the logical form of the uttered sentence could be abandoned, resulting in modeling a cognitively plausible, main message as intended by a Model Speaker and recovered by a Model Addressee. As a result, DS-theoretic representations can pertain either to (i) the logical form of the sentence; (ii) the logical form with saturated indexical expressions; (iii) the logical form that is freely modified; as well as (iv) representations that do not make use of the logical form of the sentence. The identified sources of information are mapped onto four types of processes that interact in producing the representation (called merger representation, or Σ): processing of word meaning and sentence structure (WS); conscious pragmatic inference (CPI); cognitive defaults (CD, capturing strong informativeness, or strong intentionality of the underlying mental states, for example referential rather attributive reading of definite descriptions); and social, cultural, and world knowledge defaults (SCWD, capturing the relevant sociocultural conventions and encyclopedic knowledge). “Defaults” are understood there as automatic interpretations, “shortcuts through conscious inference” for the speaker and for the context, and as such are by definition not cancellable and are immune to controversies engendered by the “noncism”-“defaultism” debates in post-Gricean pragmatics. DS subscribes to the methodological and ontological assumption of compositionality of meaning on the level of such cognitive representations (Σs).

General Overviews

Main introductions to the theory focus on the novel concept of merger representation, pragmatic compositionality, departure from the syntactic constraint on representations, sources of meaning, types of processes involved in meaning recovery, and philosophical foundations of the theory, as specified in more detail under Monographs and Papers. Main journals publishing Default Semantics (DS) research are Journal of Pragmatics and Intercultural Pragmatics.

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