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Meaning. Cao Ning School of English Language Longdong University. Outline. Introduction Views on meaning Lexical meaning Sense relations between sentences Analysis of meaning. What is Semantics ?. Semantics is generally considered to be the study of meaning in language.

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Cao Ning

School of English Language

Longdong University



Views on meaning

Lexical meaning

Sense relations between sentences

Analysis of meaning

What is Semantics ?

Semantics is

generally considered to

be the study of

meaning in


What does “mean/meaning” in the following sentences mean?

  • John means to write.

  • A green light means to go.

  • Health means everything.

  • His look was full of meaning.

  • What is the meaning of life?

  • What does ‘capitalist’ mean to you?



  • What a language expresses about the world we live in or any possible or imaginary world.

  • Central semantic notion defined and used differently depending on the theoretical approach.

Some Views on semantics


  • One of the oldest views is the Naming Theory.

  • Words are names or labels for things.

  • In other words, the semantic relationship holding between words and things is the relationship of naming.

Some Views on semantics

  • Weakpoints of Naming Theories

  • This theory seems to apply only to nouns.

  • even with nouns, there will be problems, because many nouns such as unicorn, fairy, ghost, heaven relate to creatures or things that do not exist.

Some Views on semantics

  • Conceptualism

  • According to this theory, there is no direct link. between symbol and referent (between language and the world). The link is via thought or reference, the concepts of our minds.

  • It holds that meaning should be studied in terms of situation, use, context – elements closely linked with language behavior. … the meaning of a word is its use in the language (proposed by J. R. Firth).

  • This can be best illustrated by the Semiotic Triangle advanced by Ogden and Richards.

Thought or Reference



Thought or Reference


Linguistic elements such as words or sentences



The object, etc, in the world of experience

Weakpoints ?

  • This theory raises a new problem. For example, what is precisely the link between the symbol and concept?

Context and behaviorism

  • During the period roughly from 1930 to 1960, linguists gave pre-eminence to the empirical or observational aspect in the study of meaning.

  • This theory holds that meaning should be studied in terms of situation, use, context---elements closely linked with language behavior.

Context and behaviorism

  • Firth, the leading British linguist of the period held the view that “ We shall know a word by the company it keeps.”

  • a piece of paper

    a daily paper

    an examination paper

    a white paper

    a term paper

Behaviorist theory

  • According to Bloomfield, the meaning of a linguistic form should be viewed as “ the situation in which the speaker utters it, and the response which it calls forth in the hearer.”

Behaviorist theory

the famous account of Jack and Jill





Events before


Events after







Events before


Events after



Bloomfield argued that meaning consists in the relation between speech and the practical events S and R that precede and follow it.


  • This approach has been headed by Chomsky since 1960’s.

  • Mentalists believe that data needed for the study of language can be supplied by direct resort to intuition.

  • They argue that people often judge which sentences are synonymous, which sentences are ambiguous, which sentences are ill-formed or absurd, based on their intuition.


  • Therefore they regard the task of semantics mainly as one to explain those data supplied by direct resort to intuition by constructing theories.

  • Geoffrey Leech (1974, 1981).Semantics: The Study of Meaning. Seven types of meaning:

    • Conceptual meaning

    • Connotative meaning

    • Social meaning

    • Affective meaning

    • Reflected and meaning

    • Collocative meaning

    • Thematic meaning



(1) Conceptual meaning

  • Also called ‘denotative’ or ‘cognitive’ meaning.

    • Refers to logical, cognitive or denotative content.

    • Concerned with the relationship between a word and the thing it denotes, or refers to.

(2) Connotative meaning

  • The communicative value an expression has by virtue of what it refers to, over and above its purely conceptual content.

    • A multitude of additional, non-criterial properties, including not only physical characteristics but also psychological and social properties, as well as typical features.

  • Involving the ‘real world’ experience one associates with an expression when one uses or hears it.

    • Unstable: they vary considerably according to culture, historical period, and the experience of the individual.

  • Any characteristic of the referent, identified subjectively or objectively, may contribute to the connotative meaning of the expression which denotes it.

Step mother

(3) Social meaning

  • What a piece of language conveys about the social circumstances of its use.

    • Dialect: the language of a geographical region or of a social class.

    • Time: the language of the 18th c., etc.

    • Province: language of law, of science, of advertising, etc.

    • Status: polite, colloquial, slang, etc.

    • Modality: language of memoranda, lectures, jokes, etc.

    • Singularity: the style of Dickens, etc.

  • domicile: very formal, official

  • residence: formal

  • abode: poetic

  • home: general

  • steed: poetic

  • horse: general

  • nag: slang

  • gee-gee: baby language

(4) Affective meaning

  • Reflecting the personal feelings of the speaker, including his attitude to the listener, or his attitude to something he is talking about.

    • You’re a vicious tyrant and a villainous reprobate, and I hate you for it!

    • I’m terribly sorry to interrupt, but I wonder if you would be so kind as to lower your voices a little.

    • Will you belt up.

(5) Reflected meaning

  • Arises in cases of multiple conceptual meaning, when one sense of a word forms part of our response to another sense.

    • When you hear ‘click the mouse twice’, you think of Gerry being hit twice by Tom so you feel excited.

  • Many taboo terms are result of this.

(6) Collocative meaning

  • The associations a word acquires on account of the meanings of words which tend to occur in its environment.

    • pretty: girl, boy, woman, flower, garden, colour, village, etc.

    • handsome: boy, man, car, vessel, overcoat, airliner, typewriter, etc.

(7) Thematic meaning

  • What is communicated by the way in which a speaker or writer organizes the message, in terms of ordering, focus, and emphasis.

    • Mrs. Bessie Smith donated the first prize.

    • The first prize was donated by Mrs Bessie Smith.

    • They stopped at the end of the corridor.

    • At the end of the corridor, they stopped.


  • Sense relates to the complex system of relationships that hold between the linguistic elements themselves; it is concerned only with intra-linguistic relations.

Pairs of words can be formed

into certain patterns to

indicate sense relations.

Cow/hello, sow/boar, ewe/ram, mare/stallion etc. form a pattern indicating a meaning related to sex.

Duck/ducking, pig/piglet, dog/puppy, lion/cub, etc. form another pattern indicating a relationship between adult and young.

Narrow/wide, male/female,

buy/sell, etc. show a different

pattern related to opposition.

Sense relations

In fact, when we are talking of sense

relations, we are talking of

  • Synonymy

  • antonymy

  • hyponymy

  • polysemy

  • homonymy

  • buy/purchase

  • thrifty/economical/stingy

  • autumn/fall

  • flat/apartment

  • tube/underground


Synonymyrefers to the sameness or close

similarity of meaning.

e.g. buy / purchase

world / universe

brotherly / fraternal

!But total synonymy is rare, The so-called synonyms are all context dependent.


  • Context plays an important part in deciding whether a set of lexical items is synonymous.

  • " What a nice of flowers!“

  • The items “range, selection, choice,” etc. are synonymous.

Sense relations

  • " His of knowledge is enormous!"

  • Range, breadth, etc. are synonymous

Sense relations

Difference in meaning

  • amazeand astound form a pair of synonyms. Both suggest great wonder or bewilderment in the face of something that seems impossible or highly improbable.

    A teacher was amazed to find that a lazy student had gained a mark of 100 in an important test.

    A woman may be astounded to learn that her dearest friend has been spreading malicious gossip about her.

Sense relations

  • But they differ in degrees of wonder or bewilderment. Amaze denotes difficulty of belief and astound extreme difficulty of belief.

Sense relations

  • “Anger, rage, fury, indignation and wrath” are synonymous in denoting the emotional excitement induced by intense displeasure.

Sense relations

  • "Anger" , the most general term, describes merely the emotional reaction; the word itself suggests no definite degree of intensity, and carries no necessary implication of outward manifestation;

  • " to conceal one's anger",

  • " Tom is easily aroused to anger."

Sense relations

  • "Rage" often implies a loss of self-control.

  • " fury" , the strongest word in the group, suggests a rage so violent that it may approach madness.

  • The insolence of the waiters drove him into a rage, and he flung his plate to the floor and stalked out of the restaurant.

  • Mad with fury, John pounded his fists on the wall and beat his breast.

Sense relations

  • "Indignation" denotes anger based on a moral condemnation of something felt to be wrong and unfair; e.g.

  • Abolitionists viewed the institution of slavery with indignation.

  • Mary expressed her indignation at being unfairly dismissed.

Sense relations

  • English is particularly rich in synonyms for the historical reason that its vocabulary has come from two different sources, from Anglo -Saxon on the one hand and from French, Latin and Greek on the other.

Sense relations

  • Since English is considered to be a Germanic language from a historical point of view, with Anglo-Saxon as an earlier stage of its development, the "Anglo-Saxon" words are often considered "native" while those from French, Latin or Greek are “foreign”, “borrowed” from these languages.


Borrowed words












Borrowed words













































A) dialectal synonyms

Synonyms belonging to different dialects of the language

British English

American English




Service station

Car park

parking lot


Rest area



British English

American English

Call box

Telephone booth









B) words differing in styles or registers

Words having the same cognitive meaning but having different stylistic meanings

Sense relations

  • Penalties for overdue books will be strictly enforced. (written)

  • You have got to pay fines for overdue books. (spoken)

  • They made a decision to abandon the project. (formal)

  • They decided to walk out on the project. (informal)

Sense relations

  • to chide (literary )

  • to berate ( neutral )

  • to scold ( neutral )

  • to blame ( neutral )

  • to carpet ( colloquial, esp. BrE )

  • to tell off ( colloquial )

  • to bawl out ( AmE, slang )

Sense relations

  • man (neutral )

  • chap ( colloquial )

  • fellow ( colloquial )

  • bird ( colloquial )

  • guy ( slang )

  • bozo ( slang )

Sense relations

  • domicile (very formal)

  • residence (formal)

  • abode (poetic)

  • home (general)

Sense relations

  • steed (poetic)

  • horse (general)

  • nag (slang)

  • gee-gee (baby talk)

Sense relations

C) words differing in emotive or evaluative meaning

  • "little" and "small" are synonyms. But if any emotion is associated with the designation, we must choose "little".

Sense relations

  • " A small boy" is as good English as " a little boy."

  • Yet if you should exclaim" *Poor small boy!", the phrase is unidiomatic, because the word "small" has no affective meaning.

  • Isn't he a little devil! (indicating affectionate regard).

  • What a pretty little house!

  • That poor little girl! (indicating sympathy)

  • ...She is a nice little thing ( indicating tenderness or regard, but possibly patronage, or a feeling of superiority)...."













Sense relations

D) collocationally-restricted synonyms

  • These words can be considered as synonyms only when they occur in conjunction with certain words.

Sense relations

  • rancid, addled, sour, rotten

  • rancid bacon

  • rancid butter

  • addled egg

  • sour milk

  • rotten butter and egg

Sense relations

  • a flock of, a heard of, a school of, a pride of

  • a flock of sheep

  • a heard of cows,

  • a school of whales,

  • a pride of lions

Sense relations

  • accuse...of, e.g.

  • The policemen accused him of the arson.

  • charge...with, e.g.

  • At the meeting he charged his opponent with evasion of the basic issues.

Sense relations

  • rebuke...for, e.g.

  • The teacher rebuked the student for being impudent.

  • reproach...with or for, e.g.

  • He reproached me with ( or for ) extravagance.

Sense relations

pretty handsome

girl boy

child man

flower car

garden table

colour overcoat village airliner

cottage house

Sense relations

sail a small boat

navigate a liner

teach arithmetic

inculcate doctrine

scholarly intelligence

animal cunning

offering to a church

dole to the unemployed

Sense relations


  • Antonymy is a standard technical term used for oppositeness of meaning between lexemes.

Sense relations

A) gradable opposites ( contraries)

  • a. They will show different degrees of a given quality.

  • b. They can be qualified by adverbials of degree.

  • c. Since contraries are gradable, the semantic contrast in a contrary pair is relative; i.e. there are often intermediate terms between the two opposites.

Sense relations

  • Thus we have not just rich and poor, but there are such gradations as rich, well-to-do, well-off, moderately wealthy, comfortably off, hard up, poor.



0 25 50 75 100...

Sense relations

d. Since they show different degrees of a given quality, they will allow a middle ground between them.



0 50 100...

e. The negation of one does not mean the assertion of the other.

“ He is not rich” does not mean “he is poor.”

Sense relations

They can be used in the structure

“ neither…nor:

for example:

I am neither rich nor poor.

Gradable antonymy

  • good ----------------------- bad

  • long ----------------------- short

  • big ----------------------- small

    • Can be modified by adverbs of degree like very.

    • Can have comparative forms.

    • Can be asked with how.

Sense relations

  • f. This kind of antonyms can be analyzed in terms of markedness (标记)

  • “markedness” is a term originally used to analyse grammatical meaning, for example, “book ” is unmarked(无标记词) ;“books” is a marked word(有标记词)because it has a marker “s” to show the grammatical meaning of plurality.

Sense relations

  • Now the terms “marked” and “unmarked” have been widely used in the analysis of meaning. A word is unmarked if it is semantically inclusive, or broader in meaning while a word is marked if it is semantically narrower.

Sense relations

Unmarked ( long)

Unmarked (long)


Length of the scale

Sense relations

  • Very often this kind of antonyms are not symmetric in meaning.

well, badly

A. How badly do you speak English?

B. Very well

C. Very poorly

D. Like a native.

Sense relations



Wide /narrow




Complementary antonymy

  • odd : even

  • pass : fail

  • boy : girl

  • hit : miss

  • alive : dead

  • male : female

  • present : absent

  • innocent : guilty

Sense relations---Antonymy


  • Antonyms which can not be compared to determine whether they have the same degree of a certain property are called ungradable opposites. Complementarities are very often ungradable opposites.

Sense relations

  • The negation of one is the assertion of the other.

  • For example: alive/dead

    “ He is not alive” means “ He is dead”.

Sense relations

  • They can not be used in the structure

    “ neither…nor” because they do not allow possibilities between them, for example:

    I am neither alive nor dead.

Sense relations

More examples:





Converse antonymy

  • buy : sell

  • lend : borrow

  • give : receive

  • parent : child

  • husband : wife

  • teacher : student

  • above : below

  • before : after

  • host : guest

  • employer : employee

Sense relations

Relational opposites (Conversives)

  • They express the reversal of a relationship between items or a contrast of directions.

  • Usually there is an independence of meaning. One member of the pair presupposes the other member. Therefore they form a unity of opposites.

Sense relations

If A sells a watch to B, B buys a watch from A.

If A gives a pen to B, B receives a pen from A.

If A lends money to B, B borrows money from A.

Sense relations

More examples?







  • Inclusiveness

  • A is included in / a kind of B.

  • Cf.: chair and furniture, rose and flower

    • Superordinate/hypernym: the more general term

    • Hyponym: the more specific term

    • Co-hyponyms: members of the same class

Animalbird fish insect animal human animal tiger lion elephant ...

Sense relations

Very often a word is polysemous in nature, therefore, a word may have different corresponding antonyms, for example:

Fresh bread/stale bread

fresh air/stuffy air

fresh flowers/faded flowers

Polysemy and homonymy

Sense relations


In the English language, there are many pairs or groups of words, which, though different in meaning, are pronounced alike or spelled alike, or both. Such words are called homonyms

Sense relations

A. Types of homonyms

English homonyms are classified as follows:

1. Perfect homonyms: words identical in sound and spelling but different in meaning are called perfect homonyms;

Sense relations

lie vi make a statement that one

knows to be untrue;

lie vi be, put oneself flat on a

horizontal surface or in a

resting position;

page n. one side of a leaf of paper in

a book, periodical, etc.;

page n. boy servant, usu. in uniform,

in a hotel, club, etc.;

Sense relations

base n. the thing or part on which

something rests;

base adj. having or showing little or no

honour, courage or decency;

meet vt. to come upon or encounter;

meet n. a meeting, gathering, or

assembling as for a sporting


Sense relations

2. Homophones: Words identical in sound but different in spelling and meaning are called homophones.

Sense relations





Sense relations





Sense relations







Sense relations

3. Homographs: Words identical in spelling but different in sound and meaning are called homographs: e.g.:

lead /li:d/ v. guide or take, esp. by

going in front, etc.

lead /led/ v. easily melted metal of a

dull bluish-grey colour

Sense relations

sow/s u/ v. put (seed) on or in the

ground or in soil;plant

(land with seed)

sow /sau/ n. a fully grown female


tear /ti / n. drop of salty water

coming from the eye

tear / / v. pull sharply apart or to


Sense relations


Sense relations

The word Polysemy is of Greek origin (GK polys, much + sema, meaning). It has been defined as "...A term used in semantic analysis to refer to a lexical item which has a range of different meanings ( Crystal 1980:274)."

Sense relations

The ability of one word to denote several senses is one of the basic peculiarities of human speech. A glance at any English dictionary will give you an idea of how frequent polysemy is. One -meaning words (monosemic words) are very rare. They are very often scientific terms (e.g. oxygen, moonwalk, and earthrise).

Sense relations

fair: (of attitude, behavior ) just and


( of results ) average, quite good

( of the weather ) clear and sunny

( of amount ) satisfactory, abundant

( of the skin, hair ) pair; light in


Sense relations

Sources of polysemy

A. Shifts in application

Words have a number of different aspects according to the contexts in which they are used.

Sense relations

Shifts in application are particularly noticeable in the use of adjectives since these are apt to change their meaning according to the noun they qualify. The adjective " handsome", for example, has been used, in the course of its history, in the following sense, grouped according to the noun to which they refer:

Sense relations


a) apt, skilled, clever

b) proper, fitting, decent

c) beautiful with dignity


a) easy to handle

b) of fair size

c) beautiful with dignity

d) proper, fitting ( of dress )

Sense relations

Action, speech:

a) appropriate, apt, clever


a) fitting, seemly

b) gallant, brave

c) generous, magnanimous

Sense relations

Sizes, sums:

a) fair, moderately large

b) ample, liberal, munificent

Sense relations

B. Specialization in a social milieu

Polysemy often arises through a kind of verbal shorthand. For a lawyer, "action" will naturally mean legal action; for the soldier it will mean a military operation, without any need for a qualifying epithet. In this way the same word may acquire a number of specialized senses, only one of which will be applicable in a given milieu.

Sense relations

C. Figurative language

Many inanimate objects are compared to the parts of the human body.

Sense relations

the eye of a needle 针眼

the eye of a potato马铃薯的芽眼

the eye of the hurricane 风眼

the eye of a flower 花心

the eye of a peacock’s tail孔雀翎斑

the eye of the revolution 革命中心

Sense relations

A pig:a dirty, greedy or ill-mannered person

An ass: a stupid foolish person

Sense relations

A mouse: a person, esp. A woman, who is quiet and timid

A goose: a silly person, esp. female

Sense relations

A cat: a nasty person

A rat: a low worthless disloyal man

Componential analysis

  • Componential Analysis (known as CA)

    meaning is composed of meaning components called semantic features. Plus and minus signs are used to indicate whether a semantic feature is present or absent in the meaning of a word. e.g.

  • woman:+HUMAN, +ADULT, +ANIMATE, - MALE


  • boy : +HUMAN, - ADULT, +ANIMATE, +MALE

Componential Analysis


    • man (ADULT, MALE)

    • woman (ADULT, FEMALE)

    • boy (NON-ADULT, MALE)

    • girl (NON-ADULT, FEMALE)

Animal words

English motion verbs

More complex ones

  • father: PARENT (x, y) & MALE (x)

    • x is a parent of y, and x is male.

  • take: CAUSE (x, (HAVE (x, y)))

    • x causes x to have y.

  • give: CAUSE (x, (~HAVE (x, y)))

    • x causes x not to have y.

Sense relation between sentences

I. X is synonymous with Y, e.g.

  • X: I am an orphan.

  • Y: I am a child and have no father or mother.

  • X: I am an orphan.

  • Y: I am a child and have no father or mother.

  • In terms of truth condition, If X is true, Y is true, and if X is false, Y is false.

  • e.g. X; He was a bachelor all his life.

  • Y: He never married all his life.

  • X: The boy killed the dog.

  • Y: The dog was killed by the boy.

X is inconsistent with Y

  • e.g. X: I am an orphan.

  • Y: I have a father.

  • In terms of truth condition, if X is true, Y is false, and if X is false, Y is true.

  • e.g. X: John is married.

    Y: John is a bachelor.

  • X: This is my first visit to your country.

    Y: I have been to your country before.

X entails Y.

  • (Y is an entailment of X.)

  • e. g. X: I am an orphan.

    Y: I have no father.

  • In terms of truth condition, if X is true, Y is necessarily true; if X is false, Y may be true or false. If Y is true, X may be true or false; If Y is false, X is false.

  • e. g. X: John married a blond heiress.

    Y: John married a blond.

  • X: He has been to France.

    Y: He has been to Europe.

  • If X is true, Y is necessarily true, e.g. If he has been to France, he must have been to Europe.

  • If X is false, Y may be true or false, e. g. If he has not been to France, he may still have been to Europe or he has not been to Europe.

  • If Y is true, X may be true or false, e.g. If he has been to Europe, he may or may not have been to France.

  • If Y is false, X is false, e.g. K he has not been to Europe, he cannot have been to France.

X presupposes Y.(Y is a presupposition of X.)

  • e. g. X: My father is at home.

    Y: I have a father.

  • In terms of truth condition: If X is true, Y must be true. If X is false, Y is still true. If Y is true, X is either true or false. If Y is false, no truth value can be said about X.

  • e. g. X: John' s bike needs repairing.

    Y: John has a bike.

  • X: The queen of England is old.

    Y: England has a queen.

  • If X is true, Y must be true, e.g. If John' s bike needs repairing, John must have a bike.

  • If X is false, Y is still true, e. g. If John' s bike does not need repairing, John still has a bike.

  • If Y is true, X is either true or false. e.g. If John has a bike, it may or may not need repairing.

  • If Y is false, no truth value can be said about X, e.g. If John does not have a bike, nothing can be said about whether his bike needs repairing or not.

X is a contradiction

  • When X is a contradiction, it is invariably false, e.g.

    This orphan has a father.

    My unmarried sister is married to a bachelor.

X is semantically anomalous

  • e.g. The orphan’s mother lives in New York.

  • When X is semantically anomalous, it is absurd because it presupposes a contradiction, therefore it makes no sense to ask whether X is true or false.

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