Logical constants are always given the same meaning by every interpretation of the standard kind, so that only the meanings of the non-logical symbols are changed. Logical constants include quantifier symbols ∀ ("all") and ∃ ("some"), symbols for logical connectives ∧ ("and"), ∨ ("or"), ¬ ("not"), parentheses and other grouping symbols, and (in many treatments) the equality symbol =.
Some of the logical symbols of a language (other than quantifiers) are truth-functional connectives that represent truth functions — functions that take truth values as arguments and return truth values as outputs (in other words, these are operations on truth values of sentences).
The truth-functional connectives enable compound sentences to be built up from simpler sentences. In this way, the truth value of the compound sentence is defined as a certain truth function of the truth values of the simpler sentences. The connectives are usually taken to be logical constants, meaning that the meaning of the connectives is always the same, independent of what interpretations are given to the other symbols in a formula.
So under a given interpretation of all the sentence letters Φ and Ψ (i.e., after assigning a truth-value to each sentence letter), we can determine the truth-values of all formulas that have them as constituents, as a function of the logical connectives. The following table shows how this kind of thing looks. The first two columns show the truth-values of the sentence letters as determined by the four possible interpretations. The other columns show the truth-values of formulas built from these sentence letters, with truth-values determined recursively.
Given any truth assignment for a set of propositional symbols, there is a unique extension to an interpretation for all the propositional formulas built up from those variables. This extended interpretation is defined inductively, using the truth-table definitions of the logical connectives discussed above.
For example, in the language of rings, there are constant symbols 0 and 1, two binary function symbols + and ·, and no binary relation symbols. (Here the equality relation is taken as a logical constant.)
Again, we might define a first-order language L, as consisting of individual symbols a, b, and c; predicate symbols F, G, H, I and J; variables x, y, z; no function letters; no sentential symbols.
Given a signature σ, the corresponding formal language is known as the set of σ-formulas. Each σ-formula is built up out of atomic formulas by means of logical connectives; atomic formulas are built from terms using predicate symbols. The formal definition of the set of σ-formulas proceeds in the other direction: first, terms are assembled from the constant and function symbols together with the variables. Then, terms can be combined into an atomic formula using a predicate symbol (relation symbol) from the signature or the special predicate symbol "=" for equality (see the section "Interpreting equality" below). Finally, the formulas of the language are assembled from atomic formulas using the logical connectives and quantifiers.
To ascribe meaning to all sentences of a first-order language, the following information is needed.
As stated above, a first-order interpretation is usually required to specify a nonempty set as the domain of discourse. The reason for this requirement is to guarantee that equivalences such as
Empty relations do not cause any problem for first-order interpretations, because there is no similar notion of passing a relation symbol across a logical connective, enlarging its scope in the process. Thus it is acceptable for relation symbols to be interpreted as being identically false. However, the interpretation of a function symbol must always assign a well-defined and total function to the symbol.
The equality relation is often treated specially in first order logic and other predicate logics. There are two general approaches.
A generalization of first order logic considers languages with more than one sort of variables. The idea is different sorts of variables represent different types of objects. Every sort of variable can be quantified; thus an interpretation for a many-sorted language has a separate domain for each of the sorts of variables to range over (there is an infinite collection of variables of each of the different sorts). Function and relation symbols, in addition to having arities, are specified so that each of their arguments must come from a certain sort.
A formal language for higher-order predicate logic looks much the same as a formal language for first-order logic. The difference is that there are now many different types of variables. Some variables correspond to elements of the domain, as in first-order logic. Other variables correspond to objects of higher type: subsets of the domain, functions from the domain, functions that take a subset of the domain and return a function from the domain to subsets of the domain, etc. All of these types of variables can be quantified.
Many formal languages are associated with a particular interpretation that is used to motivate them. For example, the first-order signature for set theory includes only one binary relation, ∈, which is intended to represent set membership, and the domain of discourse in a first-order theory of the natural numbers is intended to be the set of natural numbers.
There are other uses of the term "interpretation" that are commonly used, which do not refer to the assignment of meanings to formal languages.