Meaning and Context

Editor’s note: this article was originally published on the blog Old School Script. We have taken over its archives and are slowly republishing pieces that have continuing importance and value. We continue to appreciate Chris Fresch’s willingness to share his writing with our readers here at

The meaning of a discourse is more than the sum of its parts. Don’t get me wrong — the parts (e.g., lexical semantics, syntax, grammar) are important, but they do not encode the full intended meaning of a given communication. Meaning is tied also to context (both textual and situational, but I am focusing here on textual) and the inferences we make about the relationships between utterances.

Consider this excellent example I stumbled across in Catherine Emmott’s (1999) Narrative Comprehension, where two stories are told with the same clauses.

“John fell in the river,
got very cold,
and had two large whiskies.

As Toolan points out, if these clauses are rearranged, the ‘story’ changes radically:

John had two large whiskies,
fell in the river,
and got very cold.

Although the individual clauses are still the same, the meaning of two of them has changed as their textual context has changed (assuming that the reader has drawn some fairly standard inferences about alcohol).”

Emmott (1999:79)

When we read these two “stories,” we construct two very different mental representations of the discourse. When reading the first, we understand the whiskies to be a reaction to falling in the river. In the second, we understand the whiskies to be the cause of falling in the river! The actual content is the same, but as Emmott points out, the textual context has changed, just by virtue of reordering the clauses!

This is not the limit of how meaning arises in a discourse, of course. Meaning is also tied to situational context, assumptions we bring to the discourse, shared knowledge between producer and recipient, discourse framing, relevance, etc.), but how the sequencing of propositions/events shapes our mental representations of meaning and discourse flow does, nevertheless, constitute an essential piece in the processes from which meaning functions in texts.

Next time you read through passage of biblical text, perhaps consider how a reordering of the clauses might affect the perception of the events. Indeed, it is possible that there is a thesis or dissertation waiting to be written on this insight and clause re-orderings in the Synoptic Gospels.