2.1 Use, Mention, and Meaning

2.1 Use, Mention, and the Meanings of “Meaning”


In looking at the exercises in the preceding section, and teasing out the premises from the conclusions, you might have begun to realize that certain key words were recurring, and that they were quite reliable in accomplishing the task. There are about a dozen truly reliable and truly common words in English that function very much like someone waving a flag to call your attention to something –if you know to be watching for the flag.  Some of them are calling our attention to a conclusion; others are calling our attention to premises. Some arguments may contain just one kind of flag, others the other kind; some arguments might contain both, and –the hardest kind—some might contain neither. So, you should be able to see that familiarity with these is going to be very useful.


Why is familiarity with these words useful? Why was the word “so” an appropriate word to stick at the start of the last sentence of the preceding paragraph? Because “so” indicates –introduces—a conclusion.  There are five sentences in that paragraph; the second, third and fourth provide reasons to believe the fifth –it’s a conclusion that claims to follow from them.


If Alison says “Blah, blah, blah, so X,” we can all tell that even though it’s empty of all content, it clearly has the form of an argument: some things are said, and then “so” makes some other thing be claimed to follow from it. That’s just what “so” does. You could say that “so” means “in conclusion…”


So far, we’ve only identified one conclusion-indicating word, the word “so.” But you’ll note that at the beginning of the preceding sentence, “So” did not mean “in conclusion.” (Nor does it mean that in the next sentence) : So what is going on here?


Before we move on to talk about more words that work as flags to indicate the presence of a conclusion or a premise, it will be useful to agree on how we’re going to talk about words in the first place, so we don’t get ourselves confused.  Consider these examples:


Alice is a girl.

“Alice” is a stupid enough name.


It’s pretty clear right away that the difference between these two statements is the fact that one is about a girl and the other is about a word. In the first, the word is being used as words are usually used, to talk about things. In the second, the word is being used in a way that is unusual –to talk about itself. We indicate this unusual use by the quotation marks on the word, and instead of calling this unusual use a “use” of the word, we call it a “mention” of the word.


The need for this punctuation is even more obvious in a case like:


Alice has five letters.


It’s pretty clear that this could mean either of two things, unless you determine whether it is use or mention that is in play: Has Alice received five letters in the mail today? Or does her name have five letters in it?

Alice has five letters.

“Alice” has five letters.


But let’s go back to our discussion of conclusion-indicating words.

As we’ve seen, “so” does not always mean “in conclusion,” so you cannot rely on it one hundred percent of the time.


“So” occurs in that sentence two times. Once it occurs in quotation marks, and once it does not. In the case where it does not occur in quotation marks (the second time), it is operating as a conclusion indicator, it is doing the job (well, one of the jobs!) that we have this word for. In its first occurrence, in quotation marks, it is functioning as an object about which something is being said: in a sense, it is not doing anything; it’s as though it’s been frozen –as if it had been deprived of its ability to do anything except just show up for us to look at.

In philosophy in general, this difference is known as the distinction between USE and MENTION. The cases of USE of a word are those in which it functions to accomplish something, as when “so” indicates a conclusion in the phrase “so you cannot rely on it.” The cases of MENTION of a word are cases when we are drawing attention to the word itself as a thing among other things, and saying something about it. In these cases, we are not using the word, but talking about it, which is one of the things that “mention” means.

In the following comic strip, note the distinction at work.


In the second frame, the girl seems to hear –incorrectly– that “incorrectly” is mentioned twice, whereas Baldo mentions it first and then uses it.  And then she mentions rather than uses “correctly,” which is where the paradoxical air of the joke comes from. (May 25, 2015)

The use/ mention distinction was being observed by Lewis Carroll in that chapter about Humpty Dumpty when he comments on the meaning of words in the poem Jabberwocky, but also when they are talking about whether or not you can control what words mean. For instance, Humpty Dumpty says:

I meant by “impenetrability” that we’ve had enough of that subject, and it would  be just as well if you’d mention what you mean to do next, as I suppose you don’t  mean to stop here all the rest of your life.

As Alice says, that’s a great deal to make one word mean.


Since we’re on the topic of meaning, it is worth pointing out that Humpty Dumpty has what most philosophers would consider an upside-down theory of meaning. By a “theory of meaning,” I mean an account of what it is for a word to mean something. You’ll have noted that Alice and Humpty talked about at least two kinds of words: they talked about their names (“Alice” and “Humpty Dumpty”), and they talked about nouns (“glory,” “impenetrability”); and what Humpty said about nouns he implied was also true of adjectives and verbs (though he finds verbs a bit more of a challenge).


Humpty had said Alice had a stupid name –stupid, because from hearing the word “Alice,” one would never be able to look around a room and tell whose name it was. Whereas, he considers his own name quite superior, as indicating the kind of shape he is, so that no one would have any trouble telling who Humpty Dumpty was, once they heard the name and looked around. So Humpty thinks that proper names refer to the things (or people) they refer to, by virtue of having a meaning that describes the person. And that’s why “Alice” is a stupid name.


But, he says that with all other words, it is a question of who is to be master! Are we going to let words decide on what they mean, or are we going to be in charge of them?

Humpty maintains the latter position, explaining that he sometimes has to work extra hard (and pay them extra) to bring this off. On the surface then, Humpty seems to be claiming that common nouns, adjectives and verbs mean what we, the users of them, say they mean; but that proper nouns (names) have a meaning that we can’t control. This would mean that names refer to their objects because of their meaning, but that words like “table” and “purple” refer to their objects because we just decide they should. That’s what I mean by a theory of meaning that is upside-down, because the reverse is in fact the case. In reality, names, like “Bob” and “Betty” are quite arbitrary –they do not indicate any features of the person at all. (And if you think they at least indicate a feature of sexual difference, you can see that’s not necessarily so by considering names like “Dylan,” “Ryan,” and “Jordan.”) Furthermore, general terms like “table” refer to the things they refer to precisely because there is a meaning of “table”; you look up “table” in the dictionary, and you get a description of what all things by that name have in common, and then you can go out and look around until you spot one. You can’t do that with “Craig,” “Wendy” or “Caroline.”


This may seem like an awful lot to consider: that using a word is different from mentioning it, and that how some words refer to what they refer to is quite different from how other words do, but it’s pretty important if you want to gain insight into what is going on in language. We take it completely for granted very nearly all the time; but, one of the tasks of logic (and philosophy in general) is to learn how to gain insight into the things that we take for granted.


So let us add one more element to this introductory discussion of meaning, which is that:

“Meaning” has more than one meaning.

You can see that the use/mention distinction is necessary here, to avoid falling into silliness.



One of the meanings that “meaning” has is reference, i.e., the thing(s) that a word refers to. “Venus” for instance, refers to the second planet from the sun.


Another meaning of “meaning” is sense, i.e., the account of the features that all things going by a given word have in common: whether it is “table” or “unicorn” or “calculator,” you can see that there is an account of the word that is not the same thing as pointing to an example of what it names. For instance, you might consider whether it is possible to point to an example of what “unicorn” names. You can easily enough point to examples of what “picture of unicorn” names, but “unicorn” itself does not mean “picture of unicorn.”

So if we differentiate these two meanings of “meaning,” we can say that some words have a sense, and as a result of their sense, they refer to what they refer to (such as “table”).

And we can say that some words don’t have sense at all, and they refer to what they refer to just because someone decided to assign them that way, and no one has changed it yet (such as “Alice”). A philosopher named Kripke proposes calling these kinds of words “rigid designators.”

And we can say that some words have sense but have no reference (such as “unicorn,” since the sense is clear enough –so clear in fact that we have no trouble agreeing that no such things exist!)


The logician Frege offered an excellent example to make this clear: consider the difference in meaning between the phrase “The Morning Star,” and the phrase “The Evening Star.” At the level of meaning, they are clearly different things: one meaning the star you can see in the morning, the other the star you can see in the evening. That’s the sense of the two sets of words. It just so happens, however, that the object in the sky, that planet (it’s not a star at all!) you can see in the morning, is the very same one that you can see in the evening—and its proper name is “Venus.” The planet itself, Venus, is the reference of the word “Venus,” and it is also the reference of the phrase “The Morning Star,” as well as the reference of the phrase “The Evening Star.” Unlike the two phrases, which have sense, “Venus” refers to Venus just because that’s the decision that people in Western Civilization renew with every generation.   What has this example made clear?  That sense and reference, the two meanings or senses of  “meaning,” are very different sorts of things.

Where were we?


We were talking about words that indicate premises and conclusions reliably, like flags, and we got sidetracked by paying an awful lot of attention to “so.” Thanks to that discussion, we have now introduced the distinction between use and mention of words, as well as the distinction between two meanings of “meaning.” We’ve also encountered a more sensible, if very simple, theory of meaning, than that which Humpty Dumpty offered us. Let’s return to indicator words.







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