The Meaning of Words in Context

Richard C. Anderson, Zohara Shifrin

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


People understand words they know in an unbounded range of sentences. To account for the generality of understanding, it is usually assumed that every word must have a fixed, abstract meaning. However, a close look at most words in ordinary use will show shifts in meaning from context to context. Variations in meaning are readily appreciated in the uses of game (Wittgenstein, 1953, cup (Labov, 1973), eat (Anderson and Ortony, 1975), red (Halff, Ortony, and Anderson, 1976), and held (Anderson, Pichert, Goetz, Shallert, Stevens, and Trollip, 1976), for instance. The changes in the sense of the word kick and the reference of the word ball in the following sentences provide further intuitively clear cases. The punter kicked the ball. The baby kicked the ball. The golfer kicked the ball. A different sort of ball is, loosely speaking, implied by each sentence. The punter is kicking a football and the golfer a golfball. Although a baby could be kicking either of these kinds of ball, this is not the inference that will be drawn by most readers. Instead, a ball a baby is likely to kick will be hypothecated—perhaps, a brightly colored, inflated, plastic ball.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationTheoretical Issues in Reading Comprehension
Subtitle of host publicationPerspectives from Cognitive Psychology, Linguistics, Artificial Intelligence and Education
EditorsRand J Spiro, Bertram C Bruce, William F Brewer
PublisherTaylor and Francis
Number of pages18
ISBN (Electronic)9781351607247
ISBN (Print)0898590361, 9781138091214
StatePublished - 1980

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Arts and Humanities
  • General Psychology
  • General Social Sciences


Dive into the research topics of 'The Meaning of Words in Context'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this