Natural Language Understanding Wiki

The Structure of a Semantic Theory is an early paper by Katz and Fodor (1963)[1] that is often regarded as an early work (if not the first) about selectional preference. In the paper, the authors analyzed how sentences can be ambiguous while their syntactic analysis is unambiguous and how they can be disambiguated using devices rather than syntax.

"Suppose S is the sentence The bill is large. Speakers of English will agree that this sentence is ambiguous, i.e. that it has at least two readings. According to one it means that some document demanding a sum of money to discharge a debt exceeds in size most such documents; according to the other it means that the beak of a certain bird exceeds in bulk those of most similar birds. However, the fact that this sentence is ambiguous between these readings cannot be attributed to its syntactic structure, since, syntactically, its structure on both readings is as shown in Figure 1.That is, the group who do not speak English but are equipped with a grammar can say no more about The bill is large than what is represented in Fig. 1.Thus, this sentence, which is marked as unambiguous by the grammar, will be understood as ambiguous by a fluent speaker. From this difference between the performances of the two groups, it follows that one facet of the speaker's ability that a semantic theory will have to reconstruct is that he can detect nonsyntactic ambiguities and characterize the content of each reading of a sentence.

Now suppose S is the sentence The bill is large but need not be paid. Speakers of English will understand this sentence only on readings in which bill means an order to pay a sum of money to discharge a debt. This shows that a speaker can disambiguate parts of a sentence in terms of other parts and thereby determine the number of readings of a sentence. Thus, another facet of the speaker's semantic ability is that of determining the number of readings that a sentence has by exploiting semantic relations in the sentence to eliminate potential ambiguities."


  1. Katz, J. J., & Fodor, J. A. (1963). The structure of a semantic theory. Language, 39(2), 170–210.