Sentence Meaning vs. Utterance Meaning in Semantics

In the study of semantics and pragmatics, understanding the difference between sentence meaning and utterance meaning is very important. Sentence meaning refers to the literal, grammatical meaning of a sentence, while utterance meaning encompasses the context-dependent interpretation that a listener derives from an utterance. This distinction highlights how speakers can convey different meanings beyond the literal interpretation of their words and how listeners use context to infer the intended message.

How a Speaker Can Utter a Sentence with Different Meanings | Sentence Meaning

A speaker can use a single sentence to convey different meanings based on context, tone, and intention. This variability arises from several factors:

  • Context

The physical, social, or conversational context can significantly alter the meaning of a sentence. For instance, “Could you shut the door?” in a cold room differs from the same sentence in a noisy environment.

  • Intonation and Stress

The way a sentence is spoken can change its meaning. Stressing different words can indicate emphasis or urgency, altering the listener’s interpretation.

  • Pragmatic Implications

Pragmatics involves the study of how context influences meaning. Speakers often rely on shared knowledge and expectations to convey implicit messages. For example, “It’s cold in here” might imply “Please close the window.”

  • Speech Acts

Speech act theory suggests that sentences can perform actions, such as requests, commands, or questions. The sentence “Could you shut the door?” can function as both a question about ability and a polite request, depending on the context.

 How a Listener Can Guess the Intended Meaning | Utterance Meaning

Listeners use various strategies to infer the speaker’s intended meaning:

  • Contextual Clues

Listeners consider the surrounding context, including the physical setting and prior conversation, to interpret the meaning. For instance, if the door is open and cold air is coming in, the listener might infer a request to close the door.

  • Shared Knowledge and Experience

Common experiences and background knowledge help listeners make sense of utterances. If the speaker and listener have previously discussed keeping the room warm, the request to shut the door becomes clearer.

  • Tone and Intonation

The listener can interpret the speaker’s tone and stress patterns to understand whether the sentence is a genuine question or a polite request. A rising intonation might suggest a question, while a falling intonation might imply a request.

  • Grice’s Maxims

Based on philosopher H.P. Grice’s cooperative principle, listeners assume that speakers are adhering to conversational maxims such as relevance, quantity, quality, and manner. If a statement seems out of place, the listener might search for a more relevant, implied meaning.

 Example Analysis: “Could you shut the door?”

  •  Speaker: Could you shut the door?

This sentence can be interpreted in multiple ways:

Literal Question: “Can you shut the door?” – A question about the listener’s ability to shut the door.

Polite Request: “Please shut the door.” – A polite request for the listener to shut the door.

 Possible Listener Responses:

 Acknowledgment of Ability: “Yes, I can shut the door.”

Contextual Explanation: “Sir, the door is already shut; air is passing through the window.”

Additional Information: “Sir, the air conditioner is off; the door is open for fresh air.”

 Explanation of Different Responses

“Yes, I can shut the door.”

Here, the listener takes the utterance at face value, interpreting it as a literal question about ability.

“Sir, the door is already shut; air is passing through the window.”

The listener uses contextual knowledge to infer that the speaker’s concern is about the draft, not the door specifically. They provide information that addresses the underlying issue.

“Sir, the air conditioner is off; the door is open for fresh air.”

The listener understands the implied request to shut the door but offers an explanation for why the door is open, suggesting that closing it might not be necessary or desirable.


The distinction between sentence meaning and utterance meaning underscores the complexity of human communication. Speakers often rely on context, tone, and shared knowledge to convey messages that go beyond the literal meaning of their words. Listeners, in turn, use these cues to interpret the intended meaning accurately. Understanding this interplay is essential for effective communication, highlighting the nuanced nature of language use in everyday interactions.