Syllabus: seminar on word meaning in context

General information about the course

Course organizer: Katrin Erk

    • Office hours: tba.

    • Reach me at: katrin DOT erk AT utexas DOT edu

Online course information

This is an online course. Zoom links for all meetings will be posted on Canvas.


Graduate standing.

Syllabus and text

This page serves as the syllabus for this course.

There is no course textbook. Readings will be from texts that are announced on the schedule page. These readings will either be freely available online, or they will be made available from Canvas.

Course Goal

Word meaning in context is incredibly flexible. In some cases, it is difficult to clearly specify sense boundaries -- which raises the question how we should think of word meanings, how we should represent them. Problems of word meaning in context have been considered in different disciplines, with quite different perspectives: in formal semantics, cognitive semantics, psychology, and computational linguistics. The difficult puzzles of word meaning in context have been around a long time. But recently a multitude of new formalisms have been proposed for representing word meaning. Some of them cross disciplines and combine ideas from formal semantics and cognition. And many of them have been inspired by ideas from probability theory and machine learning -- areas that are particularly good at dealing with phenomena that involve fuzziness and uncertainty.

In this seminar, we look at the puzzles of word meaning in context, as well as formalizations that seek to address them. We will discuss papers from formal semantics and cognitive semantics, psychology, and computational linguistics. The seminar is designed to be accessible to students from linguistic as well as computational backgrounds, and designed to to engender discussions across discipline boundaries. To that end, the seminar includes "background" sessions that provide the necessary high-level background on linguistic, cognitive, or computational material.

The seminar is divided in three main topic blocks: Phenomena, Representation, and Challenges. Topics that will be discussed include:

    • Phenomena:

      • How can we decide how many senses a word has, and when is this difficult to do?

      • In what ways can word senses be related, systematically or otherwise?

      • What is the relation between word meaning and human concept representation?

      • How are the senses of polysemous words represented in the mind, and what can we learn from this about polysemy in general?

    • Representation:

      • "Two-tier" formalisms that draw on ideas from both formal semantics and cognition

      • Formalisms that assume a "meaning space" in which word meanings are located, where meaning in context is determined by manipulating points or regions in the space

      • Formalisms that connect categorization to the idea of classification from machine learning

    • Challenges:

      • How does discourse context influence meainng in context?

      • Can the meaning of a word be arbitrarily variable?


This class has no exams. Grades will be determined based on a course paper, with percentages as follows:

  • Project proposal, a document of 2-3 pages: 15%

  • Project progress report, a document of 4-5 pages: 15%

  • Project presentation in the last week of classes, either via zoom or pre-recorded: 15%

  • Project final report, a document of 8-10 pages: 55%

Due dates for all components of the course project will be posted on the schedule page.

Grading policy

Grading will be based on the course requirement listed above.

This course does not have a final exam or midterm exam.

The course will use plus-minus grading, using the following scale:

Safety and Class Participation/Masks

We will all need to make some adjustments in order to benefit from in-person classroom interactions in a safe and healthy manner. Our best protections against spreading COVID-19 on campus are masks (defined as cloth face coverings) and staying home if you are showing symptoms. Therefore, for the benefit of everyone, this is means that all students are required to follow these important rules.

    • Every student must wear a cloth face-covering properly in class and in all campus buildings at all times.

    • Students are encouraged to participate in documented daily symptom screening. This means that each class day in which on-campus activities occur, students must upload certification from the symptom tracking app and confirm that they completed their symptom screening for that day to Canvas. Students should not upload the results of that screening, just the certificate that they completed it. If the symptom tracking app recommends that the student isolate rather than coming to class, then students must not return to class until cleared by a medical professional.

    • Information regarding safety protocols with and without symptoms can be found here.

If a student is not wearing a cloth face-covering properly in the classroom (or any UT building), that student must leave the classroom (and building). If the student refuses to wear a cloth face covering, class will be dismissed for the remainder of the period, and the student will be subject to disciplinary action as set forth in the university’s Institutional Rules/General Conduct 11-404(a)(3). Students who have a condition that precludes the wearing of a cloth face covering must follow the procedures for obtaining an accommodation working with Services for Students with Disabilities.

Sharing of Course Materials is prohibited

No materials used in this class, including, but not limited to, lecture hand-outs, videos, assessments (quizzes, exams, papers, projects, homework assignments), in-class materials, review sheets, and additional problem sets, may be shared online or with anyone outside of the class unless you have my explicit, written permission. Unauthorized sharing of materials promotes cheating. It is a violation of the University’s Student Honor Code and an act of academic dishonesty. I am well aware of the sites used for sharing materials, and any materials found online that are associated with you, or any suspected unauthorized sharing of materials, will be reported to Student Conduct and Academic Integrity in the Office of the Dean of Students. These reports can result in sanctions, including failure in the course.

FERPA and Class Recordings

Class recordings are reserved only for students in this class for educational purposes and are protected under FERPA. The recordings should not be shared outside the class in any form. Violation of this restriction by a student could lead to Student Misconduct proceedings.

COVID guidance

To help keep everyone at UT and in our community safe, it is critical that students report COVID-19 symptoms and testing, regardless of test results, to University Health Services, and faculty and staff report to the HealthPoint Occupational Health Program (OHP) as soon as possible. Please see this link to understand what needs to be reported. In addition, to help understand what to do if a fellow student in the class (or the instructor or TA) tests positive for COVID, see this University Health Services link.

Notice about students with disabilities

The University of Texas at Austin provides upon request appropriate academic accommodations for qualified students with disabilities. Please contact the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement, Services for Students with Disabilities, 5121-471-6259.

Notice about missed work due to religious holy days

A student who misses an examination, work assignment, or other project due to the observance of a religious holy day will be given an opportunity to complete the work missed within a reasonable time after the absence, provided that he or she has properly notified the instructor. It is the policy of the University of Texas at Austin that the student must notify the instructor at least fourteen days prior to the classes scheduled on dates he or she will be absent to observe a religious holy day. For religious holy days that fall within the first two weeks of the semester, the notice should be given on the first day of the semester. The student will not be penalized for these excused absences, but the instructor may appropriately respond if the student fails to complete satisfactorily the missed assignment or examination within a reasonable time after the excused absence.

Emergency Evacuation Policy

Occupants of buildings on The University of Texas at Austin campus are required to evacuate buildings when a fire alarm is activated. Alarm activation or announcement requires exiting and assembling outside. Familiarize yourself with all exit doors of each classroom and building you may occupy. Remember that the nearest exit door may not be the one you used when entering the building. Students requiring assistance in evacuation shall inform their instructor in writing during the first week of class. In the event of an evacuation, follow the instruction of faculty or class instructors. Do not re-enter a building unless given instructions by the following: Austin Fire Department, The University of Texas at Austin Police Department, or Fire Prevention Services office. Information regarding emergency evacuation routes and emergency procedures can be found at

Behavior Concerns Advice Line (BCAL)

If you are worried about someone who is acting differently, you may use the Behavior Concerns Advice Line to discuss by phone your concerns about another individual's behavior. This service is provided through a partnership among the Office of the Dean of Students, the Counseling and Mental Health Center (CMHC), the Employee Assistance Program (EAP), and The University of Texas Police Department (UTPD). Call 512-232-5050 or visit