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Cognitive Lexical Semantics. Cristiano Broccias (Genova) Outline PART I (Introduction) - ‘Traditional’ lexical semantics - Cognitive semantics (prototypes, conceptualisation, metaphors, conceptual spaces and frames) PART II

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Cognitive Lexical Semantics

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Cognitive Lexical Semantics

Cristiano Broccias (Genova)


PART I (Introduction)

- ‘Traditional’ lexical semantics

- Cognitive semantics (prototypes, conceptualisation, metaphors, conceptual spaces and frames)


-Lexical classes and cognitive abilities


-Simultaneity constructions (while, as)



Some (apparently) very simple questions involving meaning:

What is a cat?

What is beauty?

What is a red pen?

Is the Pope a bachelor?

How do we distinguish between

mosquito net and butterfly net?


  • lexical semantics

  • sentence semantics

  • text/discourse semantics

    Two underlying assumptions:

  • it is possible to identify lexical items

  • it is possible to ‘isolate’ lexical meanings

  • Some basic notions:

    - homonymy (e.g. bank)

    - polysemy (e.g. mouse)

    - monosemy:

    There’s some fruit in the bowl.

    There’s a crack in the bowl.

  • Major approaches:

    - Structural semantics

    - Semantic features

    - Cognitive semantics

  • More recently also:

    Interaction between

    constructions and lexical items

Some naive conceptions about meaning

  • the meaning of an utterance consists of the sum of the meaning of its parts (the building block metaphor):

    red pen

    mosquito net

    butterfly net

  • Referential theory of meaning:

    a word means what it refers to (e.g. we may point to a cat to understand cat)

    Some problems:

    - abstract concepts (e.g. beauty)

    - Hesperus and Phosphorus (different intensions or senses but same extension or meaning, i.e. Venus), the British Prime Minister (different extensions but same intension)

Ogden and Richard’s (1923) semiotic triangle

sense (Sinn)



e.g. word

The systemic (i.e. NETWORK) nature of meaning

Words enter into various sense relationships with one another:

deictic verbs

‘Va bene. Ti porto il libro domani.’

‘Ok. I’ll bring the book tomorrow.’

‘Va bene. Porto il libro alla biblioteca domani.’

‘Ok. I’ll take the book back to the library tomorrow.’

vision verbs (semantic field of vision)

We’ll come/goback to networks later!

Structual semantics (see Lyons)

Three major types of relationship:

  • synonymy

  • hyponymy

  • oppositeness

Synonymy (same denotation)




Context dependency:

pedigree animals

ancestry/genealogy/lineage [ˈlɪn i‿ɪdʒ]  human beings

descent  both

The {peel/skin} of the orange is thick.

The girl’s {skin/*peel} is sunburned.

Many synomyms differ in respect to their connotations:



Register, social and geographical variation

What do you call this?


lavatory(BrE), lav (informal)

WC (BrE, used especially on signs in public places)

the gentsand the ladies (BrE, used for public conveniences)

loo(BrE informal)

bath/rest/washroom (AmE, cf. Italian ‘bagno’) = BrE toilet

john (AmE informal)


Hyponymy(i.e. category membership)

It may be problematic to identify the superordinate terms:

brother & sister < sibling (formal)

uncle & aunt < ?

cow & bull < cow/cattle (collective)/bovine (technical)

human being & animal < animal (vs. vegetable, mineral)


Semantic networks

e.g. natural kind terms


But there are various problems with this model (apart from the obvious fact that not all information is easily represented in hierarchical form):

(1) A cow is an animal.

(2) A cow is a mammal.

Reaction time is faster in (1) than in (2) even though ‘animal’ is higher in the hierarchy than ‘mammal’!

(3) A pine is a church.

(4) A pine is flower.

Reaction time is faster in (3) than in (4) even though they are both equally untrue (relatedness effect).

(5) A robin is a bird.

(6) A penguin is a bird.

Reaction time is faster in (5) than in (6) even though both involve one semantic link (prototypicality effect).


- Complementarity

- Antonymy

- Converseness


either X or Y, not both – non gradable concepts

single vs. married

dead vs. alive

legal vs. illegal

asleep vs. awake

true vs. false

male vs. female

pregnant vs. not pregnant

on vs. off

pass vs. fail

However we can sometimes think of intermediate cases:

divorced (cf. single vs. married)

hermaphrodite (cf. male vs. female)


gradable concepts (e.g. scalar adjectives)

big vs. small

high vs. low

small vs. large

wet vs. dry

hot–warm–lukewarm– cool –cold

The reference value is context dependent:

A small elephant is a large animal.

A large mouse is a small animal.

A warm beer and a cold coffee may be the same temperature.

Context dependency:

young animate beings

new inanimate objects

old both

bitter  beer

sour fruit

sweet  both

With scalar pairs, one is usually unmarked:

How old are you?

How tall are you?

Context dependency:

in summer: How hot is it?

in winter: How cold is it?


relational opposites

verbs of transfer:

buy/sell, lend/borrow, give/receive


More examples

kinship terms and professional relationships:

husband/wife, brother/sister

teacher/student, employer/employee, host/guest, lawyer/client

time and space:

in front of/behind, outside/inside, north of/south of

Apparent cases of converseness:





What was often referred to as contextbefore can be related to what is also traditionally called the syntagmatic axis:

Semantic features

(decompositional theories)

Semantic features are assumed to be universal, part of our cognitive system.

Attempts have been made at reducing the number of features to a few semantic primitives, see e.g. Wierzbicka’s work.

But there are various problems with these models.

For example, there are categories which do not have any obvious defining features that are common to all their members, e.g. Wittgenstein’s (1958) game example (game is a category based on family resemblance).

Further, many categories have fuzzyboundaries. For many people it is unclear whether a tomato is a fruit or a vegetable, or both.


Cup, vase or bowl?

Semantic features or primitives might not have linguistic counterparts (i.e. they might be non-verbal).

Still, it seems likely that we (at least sometimes) represent the meanings of words as combinations of semantic features.

For example, we remember better sentences like

“Pat sold the wand to Harry”


“Pat gave the wand to Harry”

Sell is more ‘complex’ than give.

Cogntive semantics

  • 1970s as a reaction against truth-conditional semantics

  • research on prototypes (Rosch)


“best example” of a category: e.g. blackbird vs. penguin for the category ‘bird’. But notice that the prototype may be abstract.

Category membership is culture-dependent:

More on prototypes

-not necessarily incompatible with feature theories

- fuzzy boundaries

- family resemblance

Levels of categorization (e.g. furniture vs. chair vs. armchair)

In general, the closer an item is to the prototype, the easier we process it. Further, basic level categories are easier to learn and retrieve.

Prepositions(Lakoff 1987, Sandra and Rice 1995, Tyler & Evans 2001)

reconciliation between monosemists, homonymists and polysemists?

Two major points

1)words as ‘access points’ (i.e. meanig as construal)

(scaffolding metaphor vs. building block metaphor)

mosquito net vs. butterfly net

As we build houses by using scaffolding so we ‘build’ complex meanings by using words

2)continuum between lexical items and constructions (cf. kick the bucket)

semantic pole

NB. On this view, plural –s is actually a schematic noun:


phonological pole

Grammar and lexicon in Cognitive Grammar

(cf. Langacker 2008)

Different senses (lexical meanings)?

  • He sliced1 the bread.

  • Pat sliced2 the carrots into the salad.

  • Pat sliced3 Chris a piece of pie.

  • Pat sliced4 and diced his way to stardom.

  • Pat sliced5 the box open.

An alternative, constructionist solution (which minimizes lexical polysemy):

one lexical meaning vs. various different constructions

  • He sliced the bread.


  • Pat sliced the carrots into the salad.

    (caused motion)

  • Pat sliced Chris a piece of pie.


  • Pat sliced and diced his way to stardom.

    (way- construction)

  • Pat sliced the box open.


Construction Grammar (Goldberg 1995, 2006)

But is this sharp distinction always possible?

Some evidence (from ‘resultative’ constructions):

(1)She named the baby *(Sally).

(2)He cut the bread (thin).

(3)He painted the door (red).

(4)He wiped the table (clean).

(5)He talked himself hoarse.

(6)He ran his sneakers threadbare.

(7)She ate herself healthy.

Incidentally, RCs are probably motivated by the metaphor


Important assumptions in cognitive semantics:

1) The embodied cognition thesis

2) Meaning as conceptualization

1) The relation between conceptual structure and the external world (embodiment)

a.She’s in love.

b.She’s slowly getting into shape.

c.She fell into depression.

The CONTAINER image schema is projected onto the abstract conceptual domain of STATES. (metaphorical mapping)

More on metaphors

  • The ‘fundamental roots of language are figurative’ (Carter 2004);

  • metaphors are everywhere;

  • metaphors are systematic and culture-specific;

  • to stress the fact that metaphors are not just literary devices but are pervasive, the term conceptual metaphor is now used;

  • metaphors can be described as mappings from a source domain to a target domain.

TIME IS MONEY (culture-specific)

source domain: money

target domain: time

How do you spend your time?

You’re wasting my time.

These are conventionalised (also known as ‘dead’) metaphors: we are not consciously aware of the metaphorical nature.


source domain: war

target domain: argument

She attacked every point in my argument.

She tried to buttress her argument.

He withdrew his offensive remarks.

I hit backat his criticisms.


We have set out to prove that our theory is correct.

Should we move on to the next point?

We have arrived at a disturbing conclusion.


If you don’t support your argument with solid facts, its whole structure will collapse.

He showed her argument to be without foundation.


I’m tired of your empty arguments.

Your argument doesn’t have much content.

That argument has holes in it.


I’m feeling up.

That gives me a lift.


I’m down/low.

My spirits sank.

Of course, UP is not always positive and DOWN negative:

He’s screwed up.

Depth of understanding.

Conventionalised metaphors involving upper body parts:

John is a pig.


My computer died on me.


lean mapping  highlighting specific aspects of the target concept

rich mapping  supplying a tangible conceptual structure for abstract target concepts

The mountains are sleeping.

Metaphor (personification): mountains (target) are human beings (source)

but an alternative possibility is:

‘the mountains’ stands for ‘the people living in the mountains’

The latter is an example of metonymy, which, like metaphor, is not necessarily a poetic device:

All hands on deck

used to say that everyone is needed to help in a particular situation

With only half an hour to get everything ready, it was all hands on deck.

Is all hands on deck just a metonymic expression?

  • Metonymies can also be described as mappings from a source to a target but they involve one cognitive domain while metaphors involve two.

  • Metonymies typically have a referential function (e.g. ‘the White House’ stands for or gives mental access to ‘the President of the US’);

  • but they may have a highlighting function, as in I’m all ears. (Remember that metaphors can also have a highlighting function; hence, some researchers claim that metaphor and metonymy should be seen as a cline of cognitive operations.)

  • Metaphor and metonymy have been used to investigate the conceptual structure of emotions (sadness, anger, disgust/hate, fear, joy/happiness, desire/love).

  • Metaphors are also routinely used in science (e.g. when we speak of a ‘computer virus’) and politics (e.g. when we say that ‘a country is ill’).

  • Metaphors are also used in linguistics:

    e.g. complex expressions (‘red pen’) are usually analysed in terms of the BUILDING BLOCK metaphor

  • But the BUILDING BLOCK metaphor is hardly correct, cf. ice cream, newspaper, wheelchair.

  • An alternative metaphor for complex expressions is the SCAFFOLDING METAPHOR (the constituents are merely the scaffolding for the construction job at hand).

Back to meaning as conceptualisation

2a) ‘linguistic units’ as conceptualization

  • Morphemes, words (open-class and closed class), constructions (e.g. active vs. passive) all have meaning and refer to concepts in the mind (vs. objectivism).

  • However, such concepts relate to our interaction with the external world (vs. subjectivism), cf. bachelor ‘unmarried adult male’.

  • Such concepts may be difficult to define (vs. dictionary view).

2b) encyclopedic meaming

  • Words as ‘points of access’

    ‘Watch out jane, your husband’s a right bachelor!’

    (a)The child is safe.

    (b) The beach is safe.

2c) meaning construction as conceptualisation

The dynamic nature of meaning construction has been explored in Fauconnier and Turner’s Conceptual Blending Theory (e.g. 2002).

Benetton family fancies a quick bite at Little Chef.

“Italy's super-rich Benetton family has made approach to buy Little Chef, the chain of roadside restaurants”

“Mental spaces are small conceptual packets constructed as we think and talk, for purposes of local understanding and action. … [They] operate in working memory but are built up partly by activating structures available from long-term memory.” (Fauconnier and Turner 2002: 40, 102)

What triggers input space 2 (the ‘eating space’)?

The name Little Chef.

Conceptual integration is quite a feat!

It is very difficult to spell out the various conceptual operations we are so good at performing quickly and unconsciously!

  • The blending approach differs from the metaphor/metonymy approach in that the former uses mental spaces constructed during online processing while the latter operates with stored cognitive models (e.g. BUYING A COMPANY IS EATING).

  • That is, mental spaces are context-dependent.

  • Metaphor/metonymy involves unidirectional mappings from source to target, while blending (typically) involves mappings from two input spaces to the blended space.

  • Cross-space mappings involve so-called vital relations, e.g. identity.

  • Vital relations include: change, identity, time, space, cause-effect, part-whole, representation, role, analogy, disanalogy, property, similarity, category, intentionality, uniqueness.

The clipper ship Northern Light sailed in 1853 from San Francisco to Boston in 76 days, 8 hours. That time was still the fastest on record in 1993, when a modern catamaran, Great American II, set out on the same course. A few days before the catamaran reached Boston, observers were able to say: at this point Great American II is 4.5 days ahead of Northern Light.

Blending, unlike metaphor theory, underlines the importance of

  • context dependent, on-line conceptualization (mental spaces are different from cognitive models)

  • open-endedness (cf. red pen)

Blending is everywhere:

  • morphology:


    WASP (acronym with prop word)

  • jokes and riddles

    What did the beach say when the tide came in? Long time no sea.

Input 1:Input 2:

THEME: sea/tideTHEME: person A


GOAL: beachPATIENT: person B


AGENT: person A




‘Long time no see’


  • conceptualisation (dynamic, context dependent, dependent on points of access)

  • continuum nature of linguistic units (seen as meaningful)

  • embodiment


Cognitive abilities and lexical items


- cognitive linguistics (vs. generative linguistics)

- cognitive abilities (esp. scanning) and grammar

- word classes (esp. verbs and prepositions)

- no need for scanning?

Cognitive linguistics vs. Chomskyan linguistics

Chomskyan approach:

- “Language Faculty” independent of general cognitive abilities;

- modular (i.e. separate modules as e.g. in computer science);

- language as a lexicon (i.e. a store of “words”) + a grammar (i.e. rules to combine “words”);

- minimalist (e.g. reduce stored forms to a minimum, as in the case of “regular” plurals like house  houses, which can be captured by rule).

Cognitive linguistics (in particular Langacker’s Cognitive Grammar):

- language is not independent of general cognition;

- language is not necessarily a (separate) module;

- language is a “a structured inventory of conventional linguistic units” (e.g. it includes strings which can be derived by rule such as I love you, What are your doing tonight?, etc.  importance of constructions);

- redundancy is part and parcel of the linguistic system (cf. rule/list fallacy);

- language is embodied (I take this as meaning: “you can speak a human language iff you are human”).

Figure/ground organization:

a.Tom is near John.

b.John is near Tom.

c.The bike is near the house.

d. ??The house is near the bike.



Sequential scanning (SEQ)


summary scanning (SUM):

- watching a ball fall (SEQ), as in a film


- looking at various positions of the ball at the same time (SUM), as in a multiple exposure picture

SUM vs. SEQ used in grammar as well.

Problem: how do you define word classes (i.e. how do you distinguish e.g. verbs from nouns)?

Two approaches:

  • distributional

  • meaning-based


I _______ chocolate.

(love, hate, adore, dislike, etc.  verbs)

My hair is very __________.

(long, short, etc.  adjectives)

Meaning-based (i.e. semantic or notional definitions):

cf. what you are (were?) usually taught at school, e.g. “a noun refers to a thing or a person”

Obvious problem: beauty, love, happiness, etc.

However, Cognitive Grammar takes the notional approach to word classes seriously.

E.g. it defines a noun as a thing, which is a technical term for a “set of interconnected entities” (cf. team)

Problem: how to distinguish notionally between e.g. the verb enter and the preposition into?

Intuitively, they are pretty similar (i.e. something ends up in a place).

Langacker’s solution: we should appeal to SUM vs. SEQ.

The rationale here is that differences in form must always imply differences in meaning (i.e. words belonging to different classes must be represented differently in terms of our cognitive abilities).

I call this semantic atomism: every form (in a construction) has meaning.

SUM vs. SEQ also used to distinguish between:

bare infinitives: She saw the ship sink. (SEQ)

to-infinitives: To eat chocolate is good for your health. (SUM)

-ing forms: She likes eatingchocolate. (SUM)

Intuitively, the distinction is sometimes problematic (see e.g. Duffley 2005):

The woman strolling down the beach is my mother.

I found my little brother tearing my photo album to pieces in my bedroom.

(We intuitively play the events of strolling and tearing as motion pictures.)

Langacker himself is aware of the somewhat speculative nature of his analysis (1987: 235-254), see also (1999: 223)

Nonetheless, Langacker (1987) defends his analysis by claiming that SUM and SEQ are needed in order to achieve theory-internal coherence:

A hard-nosed linguist will doubtless ask for evidence to support these claims. How can one prove that the conception of a process (hence the meaning of every verb) requires sequential scanning […]? The request for justification is certainly legitimate, but we must take some care that the form of the request does not embody methodologically unreasonable expectations. In particular, one cannot reasonably expect or demand the existence of direct empirical evidence that bears on this question alone considered in isolation from the overall descriptive context in which the analysis of processes is embedded [emphasis ours]: I can no more substantiate the claim that verbs imply sequential scanning—directly, and without regard to how the total descriptive system meshes together [emphasis ours]—than the proponent of a more fashionable model can prove that movement rules leave traces without explicating the function of these constructs as part of a much larger theoretical and descriptive framework. The absence of direct and conclusive empirical support is unfortunate, but no linguistic theory can provide such motivation for all its constructs taken individually. (Langacker 1987: 253)

This position cannot be accepted: all linguistically relevant cognitive abilities postulated by Cognitive Grammar must be supported by (direct or indirect) independent evidence, or at the very least be in principle amenable to experimental verification.

So far, no psycholinguistic evidence has been provided which confirms the existence of SUM and SEQ.

E.g. Matlock’s research (2004, 2005) only shows that mentally simulated motion is involved in fictive motion processing (e.g. The path rises quickly near the top.)

But the question of how we actually do this hasn’t been answered yet.

The postulation of SUM and SEQ may be an instance of the post hoc propter hoc fallacy:

SEQ implies that an element X can be inflected but we know that X involves SEQ because X can be inflected.

And what about languages that have verbs not inflected for tense? (Remember that Langacker’s characterization is meant to be universal.)








The issue of psychological plausibility should be taken seriously.


I may very well havebeenbeingfollowed.

In Langacker’s analysis, this sentence involves cyclical applications of SUM and SEQ:

(have (PERF4 (be1 (-ing (be2 (PERF3 (V)))))))

But if much in grammar is accessed as a unit (linguistic holism), there is no need to go through the “generative” procedure illustrated before.

Further, what we know about language comprehension and production casts doubt on this analysis.

Let’s suppose Langacker’s analysis captures comprehension:

(have (PERF4 (be1 (-ing (be2 (PERF3 (V)))))))

How can followed (PERF3+ V) be scanned summarily if we haven’t processed any of the preceding material?

Followed could be a simple past (and simple past forms are taken to be scanned sequentially).

The experimental evidence we have (see Barsalou 1992 and Anderson 1995 for an overview) converges towards the so-called immediacy of interpretation:

we assign syntactic/semantic interpretations to words as they come in.

This implies that the syncretism problem (followed as a past participle/simple past) won’t arise (i.e. when we reach being, we expect a participle, not a simple past form).

What about language production?

It doesn’t seem to the case that speakers start out at the lowest level of constituency, and then work their way up, step by step, in the tree or hierarchy.

(E.g. the passive schema may be activated relatively early on.)

We conclude that Langacker’s analysis is unlikely to be correct.

The postulation of SUM and SEQ may actually blur the distinction between:

language as an object of investigation on the part of the professional linguist and

language as a cognitive representation in the speaker’s mind (see e.g. Sandra and Rice 1995 and Croft 1998).

We thus fully subscribe to Taylor’s (2002) view:

“As was the case with vowels and consonants, there is an important sense in which the categories of adjective and noun (and indeed the other word classes) must be understood with respect to the constructional schemas in which they occur (Croft 1999). This is not to deny the possibility of entertaining construction-independent characterizations of the word-classes, in terms of the nature of the concepts that the words designate, for example (Chapter 9). Ultimately, however, a word class emerges as a function of its role within a constructional schema.” (Taylor 2002: 563)

The desire to see all linguistic elements as meaningful (semantic atomism) and the recognition of entrenchment (i.e. the view that, because of repetition, much in language is accessed automatically, i.e. holism) constitutes a potentially problematic duality in Cognitive Grammar.

On the one hand, Cognitive Grammar is a semiotic model (see also Taylor 2003b) where all elements are said to be meaningful.

On the other, grammar is viewed as emergent: it emerges out of concrete forms which an individual is exposed to and can manipulate. ( usage-based model, cf. construction grammars, see e.g. Goldberg 1995, 2006)

The usage-based perspective doesn’t require maximum parcelling of meaning (i.e. semantic atomism).

But if we don’t accept SUM and SEQ, how can we distinguish between e.g. enter and into?

We should recognise the centrality of distributional facts.

But the fact that enter and into are distributionally different doesn’t mean that they are identical semantically (even without recourse to SUM and SEQ):

Support for this analysis comes e.g. from varieties where prepositions (not only into) can be left unexpressed:

a.I needin the house.

b.“And you wantinto his knickers,” he added a little laugh to put Gerry at ease. (BNC BN1 1071)

Some concluding remarks:

SUM and SEQ needed to achieve internal coherence within a lexicalist, semantics-driven theory;

but we lack experimental support; further, the evidence we have doesn’t seem to support SUM and SEQ (at least as they are used in Cognitive Grammar);

in order to develop a truly cognitive grammar, all allegedly linguistically relevant cognitive abilities must be amenable to experimental verification;

grammar as a semantics-driven model and grammar as a usage-based (corpus) model can coexist provided that lexical semantics is grounded in constructions;

it is also conceivable that some structures can’t be assigned a well-defined meaning on their own:

“[s]peakers do not necessarily make the relevant generalizations, even if clever linguists can” (Croft 1998: 168)


The lexical meaning of simultaneity subordinators

Analysis of simultaneity as and while-clauses:

  • as and while are represented differently in our “mental lexicon”, i.e. are associated with different simultaneity constructional schemas;

  • different types of simultaneity clauses can be recognised (they define a network);

Explicit coding of simultaneity

Various explicit devices can be used to code simultaneity, i.e. total or partial temporal overlap, between two events:


a.An armed robber was mugged of his loot as he made his getaway. (BNC)

b.She said that the pain was a little better after the pethidine she had been given and she was able to rest quietly while she waited to be taken to theatre. (BNC)

c. When he was in the airforce he flew Tornado jets. (LDCE)

Simultaneity (or temporal) as and while-clauses are often compatible with additional semantic roles:


a.She kept her head down as she spotted the newsmen. (BNC)[causality]

b.Schools in the north tend to be better equipped, while those in the south are relatively poor. (BNC) [contrast]

Very little research on simultaneity.

Dynamic (multiphase) and stative (monophase) events

Morris (1996):

temporality vs. pure causality depends on

multiphase event (see (3)) vs. monophase event (see (4))

(3) As she grew older, …


a. As you are here…

b. As you know…

c. As he wore a red sweater…

In fact, as-clauses do occur with “monophase” events:

(5) The wind whips round us as we stand on the seafront. (Morrall 2003: 281)

(6) He says it in a whisper, with his eyes upon her, as she sits at the window bent over her work. (Waters 2002: 237)

(7) The company commander then moves in as Iman lies wounded and helpless. (The Guardian, 24.11.2004, p.2)

(8) The bottle of Sylvaner from the cellar was cool and sweet. It reminded him even more of Heidi. […] Her slow smile as she watched him. The quivering strength of her grip as she held him to her. (Millar 2004: 197).

(9) … a day after eight blinging pieces of jewellery were snatched from his bedroom as he slept with his wife, Sharon, in their Buckinghamshire mansion. (The Guardian, 24.11.2004, p.3)

(10) My pager went off as I was on the train on Nov. 3.

( transplant/cst-nws-liverone26.html)

Admittedly, though, examples with the copular verb be usually seem to be of a dynamic nature:

(11) When items are arranged in this way, most of the 1s will appear as a peak at the bottom of the scale and there will be a gradual decrease in frequency as the

attributes are less and less possible in human performance. (Hatch and Lazaraton 1991: 204)

(12) That made me pause as I was halfway across the building’s front plaza. (Connelly 2003: 80)

(13) As I was crouched, preparing myself for a quick raid on the locker, a series of waves got me thinking. (Martel 2002: 169)

A genuine counterexample?

(14) As he was in the hospital, though, his family, all the survivors from Sete, learned that it was the Pirahãs who had attacked them … (Everett 2008: 147)

  • “monophase” events are compatible with a temporal reading (contra Morris 1996, Silva 1991);

  • still, truly stative be examples seem very, very rare;

  • the availability of causality (alongside temporality) is context-dependent:

    (15) An embarrassment of produce becomes available to Caroline as she walks towards The Mother’s Finest […]. (Faber 2003: 22)

    (16) ‘Could it be William’s?’ she says as they walk up the Rackham path together. (Faber 2003: 187)

  • If both as and while-clauses refer to temporary configurations (hence, the impossibility of (17b)=(4b)), then why do we have the contrast in (17a)?


    a. {*As/While} you are here…

    b. {*As/*While} you know…

    Analysis of the first 443 pages (out of a total of 833) of Faber’s novel The Crimson Petal and the White:

    -255 as-clauses vs. 64 while-clauses;

    -while-clauses occur in contexts where either a (relatively) long action is evoked or states/properties, expressed through the verb be (or a modal verb), are profiled.

BNC data: BNCWeb, old version (

  • 241 randomly selected instances of as=CJS from imaginative (written)

  • 241 randomly selected instances of while=CJS from imaginative (written)

  • 241 randomly selected instances of as=CJS from leisure (spoken)

  • 241 instances of while=CJS from leisure (spoken)

    [NB 241=total number of instances of while=CJS in leisure (spoken)]

while-clauses (imaginative): 178 examples

  • change verbs account for only about 20% of the data (change of position verbs account for about 18% of the data). Only about 14% of change-of-position verbs have the same (or part-whole) subject as the main clause;

  • even considering –ing cases (i.e. while V-ing), only about 21% of the while-examples have the same (or part-whole) subject as the main clause.

    as-clauses (imaginative): 100 examples

  • only one example out of 100 with be (in a pseudo-progressive construction), vs. 19.5% for while (also, note that 3 negative while-clauses were found);

  • change verbs account for 72% of the data (change of position verbs alone account for 62% of the data). Almost 50% of change-of-position verbs have the same (or part-whole) subject as the main clause;

  • more than half of the as-examples (54%) have the same (or part-whole) subject as the main clause.

while-clauses (leisure): 131 examples

  • in the spoken language, the use of the verb be is much more frequent than in the written language (47.7% vs. 19.5%). By contrast, the use of change verbs is approximately constant (20.3% spoken vs. 20.7% written);

  • the percentage of same subject cases is higher than in the written data, amounting to around 34% (also including 3 –ing cases).

    as-clauses (leisure): 27 examples

  • in the spoken language, change verbs account for about 89% of the data (24 tokens out of 27). One third of them are change-of-state verbs and most change-of-place verbs (11 out of 18) are instances of go;

  • the percentage of same subject cases is higher than in the written data, amounting to around 63%.


  • As-clauses often involve change verbs (especially in the spoken language; but remember that stative verbs are also possible).

  • While-clauses do not show a strong preference for change verbs. They seem to evoke more stable/static configurations (especially in the spoken language).

  • As-clauses show a stronger preference for subject identity (i.e. the degree of semantic integration between the as-event and the main event is stronger in as-clauses, see also Silva 1991 on this point).

Different lexical entries

Simultaneity while can occur with be, modals, and negated verbs:

Instead, he eats his sausage {while/*as} it’s still warm.

‘Because I must do something{while/*as} I still can. […]’ (=(20))

Fat lot of use I’d be to any girl {while/*as} I don’t have a job. (BNC: FRR 572)

While and as are associated with two different constructional schemas:

Temporal while: [while NP VP]

Temporal as: [as NP VPchange]

That is, temporal as is more construction-dependent than while.

  • You could also say that, in lexical semantics terms, while evokes temporality (i.e. “susceptibility to change” in the sense of Williams 2002) on its own (cf. also the noun while) because, not relying on any specific verb types, its temporal interpretation can be ‘detached’ from the construction in which it occurs.

  • Temporal as, by contrast, needs a temporal ‘exponent’ by way of the VP it occurs with.

  • In other words, temporality cannot be retrieved from the verb be, modals, and negated VPs if as is used.

  • But what about stative verbs (e.g. verbs of posture) occurring with as?

    Sit, stand, and lie, for example, have a high degree of susceptibility to change (when they apply to animate referents).

  • As-clauses construe path events.

Figure 1

  • The motion analogue of the conceptual notion of path easily explains the emergence of the causal meaning for as-clauses (i.e. our perception of objects and events is made possible by motion itself).

  • The fact that the notion of path is not intrinsic to while-clauses accounts for their more “static” character and the lack of purely causal while. While-clauses can be compared to the perception of external reality in the absence of motion (e.g. when we look out of a window).

  • Further, immobility enhances the potential for an adversative construal. Hence, the contrastive meaning of many while-clauses.

Schematic variation in simultaneity as-clauses

A. The temporal expanse of the main clause and that of the as-clause are usually either comparable or the temporal expanse of the as-clause contains that of the main clause:

(29) As she unfolded the pages this time, looking for the picture of Harriet Shakespeare with her son, Jinny’s hands were trembling.

(30) Once, as they were walking down St Martin’s Lane together […] she caught a glimpse of their rippling reflection in a shop window. (Heller 2003: 118)

B. In some cases (e.g. news reports, especially headlines), both events are construed punctually:

(31) Five resign as police chiefs promise action agaisnt [sic] racism. (The Wrap, 23.10.03)

(32) Tim Yeo became the latest senior Tory to rule himself out for the leadership today as party heavyweights gave their support to Michael Howard, who is expected to announce his candidacy this afternoon. (The Wrap, 30.10.03)

(33) Praise for management as postal voters reject strike (The Wrap, 18.09.03)

(34) Among the broadsheets, only the Independent chooses to lead with something other than the Hutton inquiry, […] “Washington suffered a double blow in its plans for Iraq yesterday as France and Germany balked at proposals for an international force, […]”. (The Wrap, 05.09.03)

C. Sometimes the temporal expanse of the main clause is larger than that of the as-clause, which can be either punctual or extended:

(35) The Telegraph highlights a row over the “Mission accomplished” banner which hung behind George Bush on May 1 as he declared victory from the USS Abraham Lincoln. (The Wrap, 30.10.03)

(36) The fog hung low on a brisk January dawn in 2001, as several dozen police agents silently rolled into position in the rugged hills around Mezzojuso, a sleepy town 40km south of Palermo. (Time Magazine, 2004, no.36, p.50)

Figure 2

  • The schemas in Figure 2 can be analysed as extensions of Figure 1 obtained via the principle of family resemblance.

  • The schema in Figure 2a arises from the compression of the path arrow of Figure 1 into a single time point. [N.B. The temporal equivalence between main clause and as-clause is construed. In “objective” time, the event of e.g. promising is antecedent to that of resigning (as well as the cause for the latter).]

  • Figure 2b involves temporal compression andfigure-ground reversal: The backgrounding function prototypically assigned to the as-clause is carried out by the main clause. Figure 2c only involves figure-ground reversal.


As and while-clauses are not identical despite what is usually reported in dictionaries (see entry below from Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, CD-Version; observe that the examples are all path events!):

4 while or when

I saw Peter as I was getting off the bus.

As time passed, things seemed to get worse.

Just as the two men were leaving, a message arrived.

As and while-clauses form a simultaneity network:

  • as-clauses code path events. Unlike while-clauses, they are not compatible with stative be, modals or negated VPs because temporality could not otherwise be retrieved;

  • while-clauses are more stative than as-clauses: change verbs are not peculiar to them. By considering while as a default temporal subordinator, we can motivate its wider use compared to as;

  • at least two more types of as-clause (see Figure 2a and Figures 2b-c) have been recognised (alongside the prototype in Figure 1), depending on the relation between the construed temporal expansions of the as and main clause events.



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