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Semantic Expressions
Semantic Expressions

The distinction between utterances, sentences, and propositions is vital in semantics (Also, see Essay No. 3 Semantic Roles) because it allows us to talk about different levels of meaning that are involved in language.

In this essay, we’ll show the key differences among three semantic expressions (Also, see Essay No. 2 Lexical Relations) and provide adequate examples that make things clear enough.


Definition: An utterance is any stretch of talk, by one person , before and after which there is silence on the part of that person.

An utterance is the USE by a particular speaker, on a particular occasion, of a piece of language, such as a sequence of sentences, or a single phrase, or even a single word. (Hurford, etal, 2007)

Utterance Features

  • An act of uttering by a person at a specific time, location and event.
  • It is based on saying something, not writing it.
  • It can be of any length. ( See examples 1-5 below)
  • It should be a piece of the language. (“ Fambulantex”  is not)
  • There should be pauses/ or silence between utterances.
  • No need to be grammatical . e.g.“ Ouch!”. It has no grammar.
  • A physical / concrete event.

Examples of Utterances

  1. Wow!                                      
  2. Yes.
  3. Your book
  4. I love my mother.
  5. It’s nice to meet you.

( 1-5) are all utterances although  they are not of the same length.
Length is not  important in the utterance since it is a piece of language.  So, the word, “ Fambulantex” is not an utterance since it is not a piece of language.

Now if the speaker says this on different occasions:

  • ‘ I can speak French.’
  • ‘ I can speak French.’     Three utterances, but one sentence
  • ‘ I  can speak French.’


Definition: A sentence is a string of words. A given sentence always consists of the same words, and in the same order. Any change in the words, or in their order, makes a different sentence.


  • John took off his shoes.                  Same sentence
  • John took off his shoes.


  • John took off his shoes.
  • John took his shoes off.                     Different sentences


  • I’d like a cup of tea. (a sentence)
  • Coffee, please. ( Not a sentence)
  • In the office. ( Not a sentence)

Sentence Features

  • It can be written or spoken.
  • It can be grammatically correct or incorrect
    • Examples
      • I love my father.( correct)
      • *Me love my father. ( incorrect) X
  • It must express a partial/ complete thought.
    • Example
      • I love my father. ( expressing the thought of “ love”)
  • It is not something physical
  • It is not tied to a particular time, place, speaker or hearer.
    • Examples
      • On Sep. 23, 2020, in my office, I said, “ I will solve the problem tomorrow.”
      • What is tomorrow in this sentence? Sep. 24, 2020
      • On Oct. 15, 2019, in Ali’s office, I said, “ I will solve the problem tomorrow.”
      • What is tomorrow in this sentence? Oct. 16, 2019

As you can see in the examples above, the  sentence is not tied to a particular time.

Sentence VS. Utterance



Abstract: not attached to a certain speaker, hearer, time, place or situation.

Concrete: real speech attached to a certain speaker, hearer, time, place or situation.

Complete syntactic unit.

( an ideal combination of words linked horizontally according to special syntactic rules realized in a spoken or written form)

Maybe a complete sentence or not. Maybe a word, or a phrase or part of a sentence. ( It can be of any length)


It can be turned into one  utterance or more by uttering it.

It is based on saying something, not writing it.


It can be spoken or written. In the written form, sentences  have commas, full stops, etc.

There should be pause or silent between utterances.

Dear audience. I’d like to talk with you about smoking. Smoking is a big problem. ( 3 pauses/ 3 utterances)

It can be grammatically correct or incorrect.

It can be grammatically correct or incorrect

It should be a piece of the language. (“ Fambulantex”)  is not a sentence.

It should be a piece of the language. “Fambulantex”  is not an utterance.



A proposition is an idea in the mind.
Propositions, sentences and utterances go as follows:

  • First, we think of an idea. (a proposition)
  • Second, we form a sentence in our minds. (a sentence)
  • Finally, we change the sentence into an utterance by uttering/ it. ( an utterance) 

Proposition Features  

  • The proposition may be true or false.
    • If it matches reality, it is a true proposition
      • e.g. The earth is spherical.  (a true proposition)
    •  If it doesn’t match reality, it is false
      • e.g. The earth is flat.  ( a false proposition)
  • The proposition can be expressed by using  different sentences with the same meaning.  ( KILLING  Proposition)
    • All  the sentences above have the same meaning.
      • John fed Mark.
      • John caused Mark to eat.
      • Mark was fed by John.
  • The proposition is something abstract  and it emphasizes one concept ( idea) that can be expressed universally by any language regardless of grammar. It cares for  the core essential meaning. The same idea can be expressed in English, German, French ,Chinese etc.

Important Note

The same proposition can be expressed in many sentences, and the same sentence can be realized in millions of utterances.
The proposition of “ Breaking the Window”, for instance, can be expressed in many sentences as shown below and realized as utterances when uttered.

  • Mark broke the window.
  • The one who broke the window was Mark.
  • Mark was the one who broke the window.
  • The window was broken by Mark.
  • It was Mark who  broke the window.  

Asserted and Non- Asserted Propositions

Declarative sentences  are asserted propositions.
e.g. Mark passed the test last week. ( declarative/asserted proposition)
 Propositions can be:

  • Interrogatives
  • Imperatives
  • Requests  
  • Exclamations, but they are not asserted propositions.


  • Did Mark pass the exam? ( Interrogative/ not asserted proposition)
  • Mark, go home. ( Imperative/ not asserted proposition)
  • Can you lend me some money? ( Request/ not asserted proposition)
  • Mark!  ( Exclamation/ not asserted proposition)

Comparing Propositions, Sentences and Utterances

(+) = Yes     (-) No







Voice loudness





Grammatical correctness





Information truth





Showing a dialect





Language dependent










As for the order: the proposition exists first, followed by a sentence which is realized by an utterance.

In conclusion, utterances, sentences, and propositions are all related to each other. An utterance is a specific instance of a sentence being produced, and the proposition is the meaning of the sentence.


  • Hurford, J., B. Heasley and M. Smith (2007) Semantics: a coursebook (2nd edition) Cambridge University Press
  • Alkhuli, M.A., An Introduction to Semantics ( 2008) Dar AlFalah, Jordan


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