Published online by Cambridge University Press: 16 January 2010
In this chapter we will discuss the major functions of noun phrases (NPS) in the languages of the world. We can think of nps as having three different kinds of functions: semantic, pragmatic and grammatical. Semantic and pragmatic functions are aspects of the meanings of sentences, grammatical functions aspects of their structure.
Semantic functions, often called semantic roles, are the different ways in which a sentence can describe an entity as participating in a situation. Consider (1):
(1) The farmer kills the duckling
Here the verb kill indicates that we have a situation in which one entity kills another. It provides two semantic roles, ‘killer’ and ‘killed’, taken by the referents of the preverbal NP the farmer and the postverbal NP the duckling, respectively. In order for the sentence to be true, the entities referred to by these NPS must act or be acted upon in accord with these roles. Semantic roles are thus an aspect of the relation between sentences and the situations they refer to.
But language is used not merely to depict the world, but to communicate in it: its users are part of the world they talk about. There is therefore a further aspect of meaning, concerning more than than just what a sentence is about, which contributes to determining when it may be used.