CSE 675, Spring 2000


William J. Rapaport

Department of Computer Science and Engineering,
Department of Philosophy,
and Center for Cognitive Science
State University of New York at Buffalo,
Buffalo, NY 14260-2000

(The following brief description of syntax, semantics, and pragmatics is adapted from:

Rapaport, William J. (forthcoming, 2001), "How to Pass a Turing Test: Syntactic Semantics, Natural-Language Understanding, and First-Person Cognition", Special Issue on Alan Turing and Artificial Intelligence, Journal of Logic, Language, and Information,

in which I argue that it is possible to turn semantics into a syntactic enterprise. Nevertheless, there are clear distinctions between syntax and semantics, and this document is intended to lay them out.)

Consider some symbol system, i.e., some set of symbols that may or may not be "meaningful". Now, I am stepping on some semiotic toes here when I talk like this, for, in the vocabulary of many (if not most) writers on the subject, symbols are, by definition, meaningful. So, instead, consider a set of "markers" (let us call them) that do not wear any meaning on their sleeves (cf. Fetzer 1994: 14, Rapaport 1998). Think of marks or patterns on paper (or some other medium) that are easily re-identifiable, distinguishable one from another, relatively unchanging, and do not (necessarily) come already equipped with a semantic interpretation.

According to Charles Morris's classic presentation of semiotics (1938: 6-7), syntax is the study of relations among these markers. Some, for instance, are proper parts of others; certain combinations of them are "legal" (or "grammatical"), others not; and whenever some are in proximity to each other, certain others can be constructed or "derived" from them; etc. (This characterization is intended to cover both the well-formedness rules of complex markers as well as proof-theoretical rules of inference.) Crucially, syntax does not comprise any relations of the markers to any non-markers.

Semantics, according to Morris, is precisely what syntax is not: the study of relations between the system of markers and other things. What other things? Traditionally, their "meanings": Traditionally, semantics is the study of the relation of symbols to the things (in the world) that the symbols mean. (Click here for a Far Side cartoon on the relation of syntax to semantics.)

Pragmatics is, according to Morris, the study of the relations between markers and their interpreters. Note that this tripartite analysis of semiotics omits a study of the relations between interpreters and symbol-meanings, as well as studies of the relations among symbol-meanings (or is that all of science and perhaps some of psychology?) and of the relations among interpreters (or is that part of sociology?). Perhaps as a consequence, pragmatics is often described as the study of the relations among markers, their meanings, and users of the markers. This somewhat more vague study has variously been taken to include the study of indexicals (symbols whose meaning depends on speaker and context), speech acts, discourse phenomena, etc.; it is often characterized as a grab bag of everything not covered by syntax and semantics as above defined. (Also see Posner 1992.)


  1. Fetzer, James H. (1994), "Mental Algorithms: Are Minds Computational Systems?", Pragmatics and Cognition 2: 1-29.

  2. Morris, Charles (1938), Foundations of the Theory of Signs (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

  3. Posner, Roland (1992), "Origins and Development of Contemporary Syntactics," Languages of Design 1: 37-50.

  4. Rapaport, William J. (1998), "How Minds Can Be Computational Systems", Journal of Experimental and Theoretical Artificial Intelligence 10: 403-419.

Copyright © 2000 by William J. Rapaport (rapaport@cse.buffalo.edu)
file: 675w/synsemprag.10ap00.html