What Are Frame Semantics?

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  • Written By: A. Leverkuhn
  • Edited By: Andrew Jones
  • Last Modified Date: 11 October 2019
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Frame semantics is a linguistic idea that states that single words are not often meaningful without a larger framework of meaning. In general semantics, each word has its own associations and connotations for speakers of a given language. The idea of frame semantics is that these individual words need a larger network of words and meanings in order for a listener or reader to understand a single word in context. This idea has been studied extensively in linguistics, to see how people use individual words and units of speech.

Experts refer to frame semantics as a coherent set of related ideas that form the basis for associations with specific words. For example, in general syntax, linguists look at the various meanings and associations for the word “buy.” In frame semantics, linguists and other experts argue that the word “buy” may not be semantically useful without a greater set of words. In this example, some of those words would be the words acting in the transaction, such as “buyer” and “seller,” as well as words for other involved nouns, like “goods” and “services.” Other parts of the frame could include more abstract nouns like “transaction” or “purchase.”


One way to understand frame semantics is to look at ambiguous single words. In the above example, the word “buy” can refer to an actual trading arrangement between two people, or it can reference something more abstract. With ambiguous single words, the frame semantics shows a more concrete set of meanings. For example, if the set includes phrases like “buy time” and “make additional arrangements,” the listener or reader can understand that the word “buy” no longer refers to a single concrete financial transaction.

Another way to understand this areas of semantics is to use the context of a specific field or industry. People often refer to fields and industries is having their own jargon or lingo. Using these sets of words can make an ambiguous single word conform to the context of that specific field or industry.

Some of those who study frame semantics identify a word as a “category of experience.” These single units can make up what some call a script, and others refer to as a structural set of expectations. Linguists, psychologists, and others use these theoretical constructs to analyze how people use words and phrases in practice. Here, frame semantics provides a more specialized sub-set of overall semantic study.


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Post 3

@SkyWhisperer - I won’t enter into the reading wars here, but I think we can all agree that, post literacy, frame semantics is on solid footing.

One area where I think it does very well is in understanding metaphors or figures of speech. Sometimes phrases can be used differently depending on the context.

For example, what exactly does “fell through” mean? I’ve heard it used to denote success as well as failure. You could say, “We’re proud to report the deal fell through” (which would mean success, unless you’re rooting for failure).

You could just as easily say, “Unfortunately, the deal fell through,” where it’s obvious that failure is the intended meaning. Only the context would make it clear, although personally, I think failure is the better use of this particular phrase.

Post 2

@nony - We use whole language in our school and I am not aware of any such “damage.” Frankly, I think the language wars have been overly hyped.

There are usually other factors that dictate why kids may not be able to read, like their family situation at home or in some cases medical conditions.

I do believe that whole language works, although I never taught kindergarten. Whole language encourages the use of context and certain strategic “word attack” strategies to enables kids to make out the meanings of words.

Personally, while I grew up on phonics myself, I think it’s a “drill and kill” approach and does not foster true appreciation of the text.

Post 1

While in general I agree with the principles behind frame semantics, I think it gets taken too far and has actually been used to foster educational theories and practices that are not effective.

If I may be more specific, I am referring to “Whole Language.” Whole language basically argues that the only way to understand words is to look at the context of the passage. While in principle that is true, I don’t believe it’s true when you are first learning to read.

There is simply no way to understand context if you can’t even make out what the words are saying. I blame whole language for the epidemic in this country of why “Johnny can’t read” at

so many schools. As a result I've become an ardent support of phonics, which is the only proven method of teaching reading in the majority of the cases.

And just to set your minds at ease, I speak from experience, as someone who has taught in a K-12 setting and have seen the damage that whole language can do.

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