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See also Formal semantics of programming languages.

Formal semantics is the study of the semantics, or interpretations, of formal and also natural languages. A formal language can be defined apart from any interpretation of it. This is done by designating a set of symbols (also called an alphabet) and a set of formation rules (also called a formal grammar) which determine which strings of symbols are well-formed formulas. When transformation rules (also called rules of inference) are added, and certain sentences are accepted as axioms (together called a deductive system or a deductive apparatus) a logical system is formed. An interpretation is an assignment of meanings to these symbols and truth-values to its sentences.[1]

The truth conditions of various sentences we may encounter in arguments will depend upon their meaning, and so conscientious logicians cannot completely avoid the need to provide some treatment of the meaning of these sentences. The semantics of logic refers to the approaches that logicians have introduced to understand and determine that part of meaning in which they are interested; the logician traditionally is not interested in the sentence as uttered but in the proposition, an idealised sentence suitable for logical manipulation.

Until the advent of modern logic, Aristotle's Organon, especially De Interpretatione, provided the basis for understanding the significance of logic. The introduction of quantification, needed to solve the problem of multiple generality, rendered impossible the kind of subject-predicate analysis that governed Aristotle's account, although there is a renewed interest in term logic, attempting to find calculi in the spirit of Aristotle's syllogistic but with the generality of modern logics based on the quantifier.

The main modern approaches to semantics for formal languages are the following:

  • Model-theoretic semantics is the archetype of Alfred Tarski's semantic theory of truth, based on his T-schema, and is one of the founding concepts of model theory. This is the most widespread approach, and is based on the idea that the meaning of the various parts of the propositions are given by the possible ways we can give a recursively specified group of interpretation functions from them to some predefined mathematical domains: an interpretation of first-order predicate logic is given by a mapping from terms to a universe of individuals, and a mapping from propositions to the truth values "true" and "false". Model-theoretic semantics provides the foundations for an approach to the theory of meaning known as Truth-conditional semantics, which was pioneered by Donald Davidson. Kripke semantics introduces innovations, but is broadly in the Tarskian mold.
  • Truth-value semantics (also commonly referred to as substitutional quantification) was advocated by Ruth Barcan Marcus for modal logics in the early 1960s and later championed by Dunn, Belnap, and Leblanc for standard first-order logic. James Garson has given some results in the areas of adequacy for intensional logics outfitted with such a semantics. The truth conditions for quantified formulas are given purely in terms of truth with no appeal to domains whatsoever (and hence its name truth-value semantics).
  • Probabilistic semantics originated from H. Field and has been shown equivalent to and a natural generalization of truth-value semantics. Like truth-value semantics, it is also non-referential in nature.

Linguists rarely employed formal semantics until Richard Montague showed how English (or any natural language) could be treated like a formal language. His contribution to linguistic semantics, which is now known as Montague grammar, forms the basis for what linguists now refer to as formal semantics.[2]


  1. ^ The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, Formal semantics
  2. ^ For a very readable and succinct overview of how formal semantics found its way into linguistics, please refer to The formal approach to meaning: Formal semantics and its recent developments by Barbara Abbott. In: Journal of Foreign Languages (Shanghai), 119:1 (January 1999), 2–20.


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