The myth of occurrence-based semantics

forthcoming in Linguistics and Philosophy


Authors: Bryan Pickel and Brian Rabern

Affiliation: University of Edinburgh, PPLS  


The myth of occurrence-based semantics


The principle of compositionality requires that the meaning of a complex expression remains the same after substitution of synonymous expressions. Alleged counterexamples to compositionality seem to force a theoretical choice: either apparent synonyms are not synonyms or synonyms do not syntactically occur where they appear to occur. Some theorists have instead looked to Frege’s doctrine of “reference shift” according to which the meaning of an expression is sensitive to its linguistic context. This doctrine is alleged to retain the relevant claims about synonymy and substitution while respecting the compositionality principle. Thus, Salmon (2006) and Glanzberg and King (2020) offer occurrence-based accounts of variable binding, and Pagin and Westerståhl (2010c) argue that an occurrence-based semantics delivers a compositional account of quotation. Our thesis is this: the occurrence-based strategies resolve the apparent failures of substitutivity in the same general way as the standard expression-based semantics do. So it is a myth that a Frege-inspired occurrence-based semantics affords a genuine alternative strategy.