10.1 Elements of Word Meaning: Intensions and Extensions

One way to define the meaning of a word is to point to examples in the world of things the word refers to; these examples are the word’s denotation, or extension. Another component of a word’s meaning is the list of attributes in our mind that describe the things the word can refer to; this list is the intension of a word.

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We’re now starting to consider how our minds represent the meanings of words. If someone asked you, “What’s the meaning of the word pencil?” you’d probably be able to describe it — it’s something you write with, it has graphite in it, it makes a mark on paper that can be erased, it’s long and thin and doesn’t weigh much. Or you might just hold up a pencil and say, “This is a pencil”. Pointing to an example of something or describing the properties of something, are two pretty different ways of representing a word meaning, but both of them are useful.

One part of how our minds represent word meanings is by using words to refer to things in the world. The denotation of a word or a phrase is the set of things in the world that the word refers to. So one denotation for the word pencil is this pencil right here. All of these things are denotations for the word pencil.  Another word for denotation is extension.

If we look at the phrase, the Prime Minister of Canada, the denotation or extension of that phrase right now in 2017 is Justin Trudeau. So does it make sense to say that Trudeau is the meaning of that phrase the Prime Minister of Canada? Well, only partly: in a couple of years, that phrase might refer to someone else, but that doesn’t mean that its entire meaning would have changed. And in fact, several other phrases, like, the eldest son of former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, and the husband of Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, and the curly-haired leader of the Liberal Party all have Justin Trudeau as their current extension, but that doesn’t mean that all those phrases mean the same thing, does it? Along the same lines, the phrase the President of Canada doesn’t refer to anything at all in the world, because Canada doesn’t have a president, so the phrase has no denotation, but it still has meaning. Clearly, denotation or extension is an important element of word meaning, but it’s not the entire meaning.

We could say that each of these images is one extension for the word bird, but in addition to these particular examples from the bird category, we also have in our minds some list of attributes that a thing needs to have for us to label it as a bird. That mental definition is called our intension. So think for a moment: what is your intension for the word bird? Probably something like a creature with feathers, wings, claws, a beak, it lays eggs, it can fly. If you see something in the world that you want to label, your mental grammar uses the intension to decide whether that thing in the word is an extension of the label, to decide if it’s a member of the category. The next unit will look more closely at how our intensions might be organized in our minds.

One other important element to the meaning of a word is its connotation: the mental associations we have with the word, some of which arise from the kinds of other words it tends to co-occur with. A word’s connotations will vary from person to person and across cultures, but when we share a mental grammar, we often share many connotations for words. Look at these example sentences:

Dennis is cheap and stingy.

Dennis is frugal and thrifty.

Both sentences are talking about someone who doesn’t like to spend much money, but they have quite different connotations. Calling Dennis cheap and stingy suggests that you think it’s kind of rude or unfriendly that he doesn’t spend much money. But calling him frugal and thrifty suggests that it’s honourable or virtuous not to spend very much. Try to think of some other pairs of words that have similar meanings but different connotations.

To sum up, our mental definition of a word is an intension, and the particular things in the world that a word can refer to are the extension or denotation of a word. Most words also have connotations as part of their meaning; these are the feelings or associations that arise from how and where we use the word.


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Essentials of Linguistics Copyright © 2018 by Catherine Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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