BA English Language and English Literature / Course details

Year of entry: 2024

Course unit details:

Course unit fact file
Unit code LELA20282
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 2
Teaching period(s) Semester 2
Available as a free choice unit? Yes


This course introduces students to the formal study of meaning. The fundamental assumptions of formal semantics are that the meaning of a complex expression is determined by the meanings of its parts and the way they are combined (compositionality), and that to know the meaning of a sentence is to know under which conditions it is true (truth-conditional semantics). This approach is also known as referential semantics as it is concerned with how language describes situations in the world. Students will learn to apply the basic tools of set theory and predicate calculus to the analysis of natural language phenomena, and, in doing so, will gain an appreciation of how this approach can lead to new insights into these phenomena. We will study meaning aspects associated with noun phrases (quantification, (in)definiteness, count/mass), with verb phrases (tense, aspect, modality), and how these interact with each other.

This course is a pre-requisite for LELA30032 Topics in the Study of Meaning.


Unit title Unit code Requirement type Description
Pragmatics: Meaning, Context, and Interaction LELA20291 Co-Requisite Recommended
English Word and Sentence Structure LELA10301 Pre-Requisite Compulsory
Study of Meaning LELA10331 Pre-Requisite Compulsory
Pre-req for LELA20282

Compulsory Pre-requisite: LELA10301 - English Word and Sentence Structure AND LELA10331 - Study of Meaning. Students who do not meet these pre-requisites must gain academic approval before they can be enrolled.

It is also recommended for students to take LELA20291 - Psycholinguistics alongside this unit.


The principal aims of the course unit are:

  • To introduce students to the basic formal tools used in the analysis of linguistic meaning and to apply these to natural language data;
  • To introduce students to the key empirical phenomena in the study of referential semantics.


Preliminary plan (subject to change)

Week 1: Introduction to referential semantics and syllogistic reasoning.

Week 2: Predicate Logic as a representation language

Weeks 3-5: Lambda calculus: deriving predicate logic representations compositionally

Week 6: Reading Week

Week 7-8: Noun phrase semantics: Generalized quantifiers, reference to kinds, distributive/collective interpretations of NPs

Weeks 9-11: Verb phrase semantics: modality, tense and aspect

Week 12: Review

Teaching and learning methods

One 2-hour lecture and one 1-hour tutorial per week.

Students will prepare weekly homework exercises and are expected to share their solutions with the class in the tutorial.

The course convenor offers two 1hr weekly drop-in consultation hours.

E-Learning: All materials pertaining to this course are made available on Blackboard and students are encouraged to use the discussion board.

Knowledge and understanding

By the end of this course students will typically:

  • Have gained an understanding of the basic mechanics of set theory and predicate logic and their relevance for the analysis of natural language semantics;
  • Have gained an understanding of what type of language phenomena the referential approach can be applied to, as well as of its limitations.

Intellectual skills

By the end of this course students will be able to:

  • Apply appropriate tests to relevant data to determine the semantic meaning of linguistic expressions;
  • Translate simple English sentences into suitable logical representations, and show how these can be interpreted;
  • Recognise the limitations of a particular theoretical approach.

Practical skills

By the end of this course students should have developed:

  • The ability to relate empirical data to suitable formal symbolic representations;
  • The ability to identify flaws in logical arguments.

Transferable skills and personal qualities

By the end of this course students should have developed:

  • The ability to manage their own learning self-critically;
  • Critical thinking skills;
  • Time management skills;
  • Argumentation skills;
  • Analytical skills;
  • Abstract thinking skills.

Assessment methods

Assessment Task

Formative or Summative


Mid-term Assignment (set of exercises)

Formative and Summative


Final Assignment (set of exercises and short essay)





Feedback methods

Feedback Method

Formative or Summative

Global feedback on homework exercises


Comments made during class discussion regarding the relevance and coherence of student responses/participation in discussion


Global feedback on mid-term assignment plus one-to-one discussion if desired (on the understanding that this de-anonymises the marking)

Formative and Summative


Recommended reading

Kearns, Kate. (2011).  Semantics. Second edition. Basingstoke: Macmillan Press.

Portner, Paul. (2005). What is Meaning? Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Cann, Ronnie. (1993). Formal semantics. Cambridge: CUP.

Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Lectures 33
Independent study hours
Independent study 167

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Martina Faller Unit coordinator

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