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The semiotic square

As the semiotician's most valuable tool, the semiotic square has managed to establish itself in communication agencies. But what is a semiotic square? what is it used for exactly? And how to apply it correctly? The answer to all your questions here!


The semiotic square is a powerful approach. It allows us to move away from purely binary oppositions by deploying other universes of meanings.


1- From Aristotle's logical square to Greimas' semiotic rectangle


a- Aristotle's logical square


Indeed, there are always positions beyond the more obvious dualism . It is by giving new vitality to the Aristotelian logical square that the semiotic square (or rectangle) of the linguist Algirdas Julien Greimas emerges. Aristotle's "judgment" square is based on some main rules of the syllogism .


Aristotle's logical square: from the general to the particular.

In semiotics, the square goes beyond the purely argumentative and discursive application to apply to all possible corpora (= analysis materials): advertising, iconography, human behavior, etc.


b- the semiotic square of Greimas


In the simple square, there are specific relationships which structure this square:


the semiotic square of Greimas: overcoming dualities

Above is a simple semiotic square with a relationship of contrariety, complementarity and contradiction:

  • S1 and S2 are opposites, that is to say they are in a relationship of contrariety. More precisely, this means that to affirm the first is to deny the second, but to deny one is not necessarily to affirm the other. Take the example of the opposition “black” versus “white”: saying that an object is white does not necessarily mean that it is not black. And saying he's not white doesn't mean he's black. Note that the opposition relationship can be deployed in a third position or graduation. In our example, “gray” is a possible alternative to “white” and “black”. Learn more about antonyms . The vitality of the relationship of contrariety rests on a semantic axis (or common denominator) which makes them homogeneous: for example, that of hot/cold temperature, size for small/tall, etc.

  • S1 and not S1 are contradictory, that is, they are in a relationship of contradiction . More precisely, this means that the affirmation of one is necessarily equivalent to the negation of the other (and vice versa). The relationship is exclusive, there is no third position possible. For example, a number is even or odd. We are talking about a non-degradable relationship or an excluded third party. (Source: Revue Texto).

  • S1 and not S2 are involved, that is, they are in a complementarity relationship . The non-s1 position implies s2 and the non-s2 position implies s1. S1 and S2 are thus presuppositions of the asserted non-s2 and non-s1 terms.


2- Meta-terms or the complex semiotic square


a- the semiotic square completed with the meta-terms


There are also other very judicious positions to complement the first positions of the semiotic square above. These are the metaterms .


The complex semiotic square with “metaterms”

Here are the different metaterms of the semiotic square:

  • S1 + S2: complex metaterm. This position corresponds to the inclusion: S1 and S2 at the same time;

  • not S2 + not S1: neutral metaterm which corresponds to neither S1 nor S2;

  • S1 + not S2: it is the positive deixis;

  • S2 + not S1: it is the negative deixis;

Finally, the semiotician Louis Hébert specifies, there are two other positions which do not carry a no and which correspond to the metaterms:

  • S1 + not S1

  • S2 + not S2

b- Eric Landowski's proposal on interactions between people


It's in Risky Interactions (2006) that the socio-semiotician Landowski develops the different interactional and interpersonal strategies of meaning. He thus distinguishes four “regimes of meaning”:

  • Programming where interaction is characterized by its “insignificance”. For example, when I meet a friend on the street, I say “hello, how are you?” » it is by pure convention (= regime of the cosmos).

  • Assent or accident where the interaction appears “senseless”. For example, when, at the casino, after having already lost 40,000 euros, I bet my last 10,000 euros on roulette, hoping that my lucky star will finally smile on me (= regime of chaos).

  • Manipulation where the interaction has “meaning”. For example, when I negotiate my salary with my boss, I try to put forward rational arguments to modify his position, his opinion, his vision of the world (= logos regime).

  • The adjustment which differs from other regimes in that the interaction makes “sense”. For example, when I dance and I naturally, sensibly, instinctively follow the steps and body movements of my partner (= oikos regime).


The regime of interactions in the form of a square proposed by Eric Landowski

3- Three concrete applications: the truthful square, the gendered square and lying in politics


a- The truthful square


Here is an often cited example of a semiotic square: the veridictory square e. It is about deploying the first opposition “being” versus “appearing” to deploy the truth/falsity universes. It is notably the linguist Joseph Courtés who develops it in his work “Semiotic Analysis of Discourse”.


The truthful square proposed by the linguist Joseph Courtès

b- The gendered square


Another often cited example, which we find in corpora relating to perfume advertising, is the gendered square “masculine” versus “feminine”. Here the semiotic square allows us to escape from what is commonly called bicategorization (or binarism). And the metaterms complete with great precision:



The semiotic square applied to the Feminine vs Masculine opposition

c- The square of lies in politics


For my part, during the Benalla affair, I proposed an analysis of lying in politics based on the following semiotic square . This analysis aimed to bring out the common “patterns” between the Cahuzac, Fillon and Benalla cases.


The semiotic square of lies, applied to the Benalla affair

You can also find another proposal for a semiotic square on “conspiracy” that I propose following the “documentary” Hold-Up , it is in this article for Marianne .


4- Other formal representations

a- The semiotic square should not be confused with Klein’s “4-group”

Klein's 4-group is a mathematical model, which was taken up in psychology, notably by Jean Piaget . If its structure is close to the semiotic square, it cannot be confused with it. Indeed, there is not a single semic axis (or differential axis), but two in a Klein group. Here is the example developed by Jospeh Courtés :


The structure of Klein's 4-group is not that of the semiotic square.

The structure of Klein's 4-group is not that of the semiotic square.

Whether it is a logical square, a 4-Klein group or a semiotic square, these tools are precious and will help you, I hope, to escape from the binary oppositions – and sometimes without nuance – of our perceptions.

b- Zilberberg's tensive diagram to mark the graduation

A device of post-Greimassian semiotics, Zilberbeg's tennis diagram allows us to move beyond the positions of the semiotic square to explore their variability. In the tensive diagram , a given value is constituted by the combination of two “avalences” (or dimensions), intensity and extensity.

  • Extensity is the extent to which intensity applies; it corresponds to the quantity, variety, spatial or temporal extent of phenomena.

  • The two valences relate to the quantitative: the first, to the measurable; the second, of the many.


Zilberberg tensive diagram (Source: Louis Hébert)


c- Youri Lotman’s semiosphere: from cosmos to chaos

Youri Lotman wrote his founding work in 1996. His thoughts still remain little translated and sometimes misunderstood. The fairly broad, but complex, definition of the term “semiosphere” allows for multiple applications. The conceptualization of social space as a core whose surface plays the role of “border” makes it possible to develop the representation of the norm (cosmos) and the barbaric (chaos). For the semiotician, this space is both mental and territorial:



The notion of semiosphere developed by Youri Lotman

“(individuals) are immersed in a real space-time, the one that Nature gave them”, but that their only way of having control over this natural spatio-temporality, over their life, is to mentalize it, to “design a fundamental representation of the world, a spatial model of the universe. »

Source: La Sémiosphere (1999), Youri Lotman. Quote from the article “How is meaning institutionalized in social space? Sociosemiotic approach to collective and individual strategies for optimizing social interactions » Perusset.

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