Report Number: CS-TR-76-580
Institution: Stanford University, Department of Computer Science
Title: Towards a procedural understanding of semantics
Author: Winograd, Terry A.
Date: November 1976
Abstract: The term "procedural semantics" has been used in a variety of
ways, not all compatible, and not all comprehensible. In this
paper, I have chosen to apply the term to a broad paradigm
for studying semantics (and in fact, all of linguistics).
This paradigm has developed in a context of writing computer
programs which use natural language, but it is not a theory
of computer programs or programming techniques. It is
"procedural" because it looks at the underlying structure of
language as fundamentally shaped by the nature of processes
for language production and comprehension. It is based on the
belief that there is a level of explanation at which there
are significant similarities between the psychological
processes of human language use and the computational
processes in computer programs we can construct and study.
Its goal is to develop a body of theory at this level. This
approach necessitates abandoning or modifying several
currently accepted doctrines, including the way in which
distinctions have been drawn between "semantics" and
"pragmatics" and between "performance" and "competence".
The paper has three major sections. It first lays out the
paradigm assumptions which guide the enterprise, and
elaborates a model of cognitive processing and language use.
It then illustrates how some specific semantic problems might
be approached from a procedural perspective, and contrasts
the procedural approach with formal structural and truth
conditional approaches. Finally, it discusses the goals of
linguistic theory and the nature of the linguistic
Much of what is presented here is a speculation about the
nature of a paradigm yet to be developed. This paper is an
attempt to be evocative rather than definitive; to convey
intuitions rather than to formulate crucial arguments which
justify this approach over others. It will be successful if
it suggests some ways of looking at language which lead to