SEMANTICS refers to meaning and meaning is so intangible that one group of linguists, the structuralists, preferred not to deal with it or rely on it all. To illustrate what we mean by the intangible quality of ‘meaning’,  think of such words as ‘beauty’, ‘goodness’, ‘love’; it would be hard to find two people who agree absolutely on what each of these words implies. A person may seem good to one onlooker and a hypocrite to another. Similarly, we all think we know what we mean by ‘boy’ and ‘man’, but at what age does a boy cease to be a boy? at thirteen? fifteen? eighteen? twenty-one? Meaning is a variable and not to be taken for granted. Under the subject of semantics we shall deal with the following areas of interest:

(1)         the fact that a word can have more than one meaning, for example ball can be both a dance and a round object for bouncing.

(2)         the fact that different words appear to have the same meaning, for example ‘regal’ and ‘royal’ or ‘big’ and ‘large’

(3)         the fact that some words can be analyzed into components such as adult, female, for example mare implies both adult and female as well as horse.

(4)         the fact that some words seem to have opposites, for example ‘long’ and ‘short’, ‘good’ and ‘bad’ but not ‘desk’ or ‘table’

(5)         the fact that the meanings of some words are included in the meaning of others, for example the meaning of ‘tree’ is included in that of ‘elm’

(6)         the fact that  certain combinations of words have meaning which are very different from the combination of their separate meanings, for example the meanings of ‘pass’ plus the meanings of ‘on’ do not add up to the meaning of ‘die’ although that is what ‘pass on’ can mean.


Semantics is traditionally defined as the study of meaning; and this is the definition which we shall initially adopt. But do all kinds of meaning fall within the scope of semantics, or only some? What is meant by ‘meaning’ in this context?

The noun ‘meaning’ and the verb ‘mean’, from which it is derived, are used, like many other English words, in a wide range of contexts and in several distinguishable senses. For example, to take the case of the verb: of one says

(1)   Mary means well,

one implies that Mary is well-intentioned, that she intends no harm. This implication of intention would normally be lacking, however, in an utterance such as

(2)   That red flag means danger.

In saying this, one would not normally be implying that the flag had plans to endanger anyone; one would be pointing out that it is being used (in accordance with a previously established convention) to indicate that there is danger in the surrounding environment, such as a crevasse on a snowy hillside or the imminent use of explosives in a nearby quarry. Similar to the red flag use of the verb ‘mean’, in one respect at least, is its use in

(3)   Smoke means fire.

In both (2) and (3) one thing is said to be a sign of something else: from the presence of the sign, a red flag or smoke, anyone with the requisite knowledge can infer the existence of what it signifies, danger or fire, as the case may be.

But there is also an important difference between (2) and (3). Whereas smoke is a natural sign of fire, causally connected with what it signifies, the red flag is a conventional sign of danger: it is a culturally established symbol. These distinctions between the intentional and non-intentional, on the one hand, and between what is natural and what is conventional, or symbolic, on the other, have long played a central part in theoretical investigation of meaning and continue to do so.

(4)   Mary means trouble

is ambiguous: it can be taken like (1) Mary means well or like (3) Smoke means fire. Indeed, with a little imagination it is possible to devise a context, or  scenario, in which the verb ‘mean’ in (4) Mary means trouble can be plausibly interpreted in the way that it would normally be interpreted in (2) That red flag means danger. And conversely, if we are prepared to suspend our normal ontological assumptions – i.e., our assumptions about the world – and to treat the red flag referred to in (2) as an animate being with its own will and intentions, we can no less plausibly interpret (2) in the way in which we would normally interpret (1).

Most language-utterances, whether spoken or written, depend for their interpretation – to a greater or less degree – upon the context in which they are used. And included within the context of utterance, it must not be forgotten, are the ontological beliefs of the participants: many of these will be culturally determined and, though normally taken for granted, can be challenged or rejected.

Let us now take yet another sense (or meaning) of the verb ‘mean’. If one says

(5)   ‘Soporific’ means “tending to produce sleep”,

one is obviously not imputing intentionality to the English word ‘soporific’. It might be argued, however, that there is an essential, tough indirect, connection between what people mean, or intend, and what the words that they use are conventionally held to mean.

       Intentionally is certainly of importance in any theoretical account that one might give of the meaning of language utterances, even if it is not a property of the words of which these utterances are composed. For the moment, let us simply note that it is the meaning of the verb ‘mean’ exemplified in (5), rather than the meaning exemplified in

(6)   Mary didn’t really mean she said,

which is of more immediate concern in linguistics.

We have noted that the noun ‘meaning’ (and the corresponding verb ‘mean’) has many meanings. But the main point that I want to make in this section is, not so much that there are many meanings, or senses, of ‘meaning’; it is rather that these several meanings are interconnected and shade into one another in various ways. It follows that, if semantics is defined as the study of meaning, there will be many different, but intersecting, branches of semantics: philosophical semantics, psychological semantics, anthropological semantics, logical semantics, linguistics semantics, and so on.


The same morphological word may have a range of different meanings as a glance at any dictionary will reveal. Polisemy, meaning ‘many meanings’, is the name given to the study of this particular phenomenon. In a dictionary entry for any given word the meanings are listed in a particular order with the central meaning given first, followed by the most closely related meanings and with metaphorical extensions coming last. If we look up the word ‘star’, for example, in the Concise Oxford Dictionary, we find the meanings:

(1)   celestial body

(2)   thing suggesting star by its shape, especially a figure or object with radiating points

(3)   (in card game) additional life bought by player whose lives are lost

(4)   principal actor or actress in a company

 in theory, the idea of words having several meanings is straightforward; in practice there are problems, especially in relation to drawing boundary lines between words. It is not always easy to decide when a meaning has become so different from its original meaning that it deserves to be treated like a new word. The Concise Oxford Dictionary, for example, lists ‘pupil’ as having two meanings:

(1)   one who is taught by another, scholar

(2)   circular opening in centre of iris of eye regulating passage of light to the retina

Many speakers of English, however, regard these as two different words. Stated simply, the essential problem is that it is not always easy or even possible to be certain whether we are dealing with polysemy, that is, one word with several meanings, or homonymy, that is, several words with the same form.

Normally dictionaries decide between polysemy and homonymy by referring to etymology (the origins and history of a word) when this is known, but even this rule is not foolproof because, on occasions, etymologically related words may have different spellings as in the case of ‘flower’ and ‘flour’. The simplest solution is to seek a core of meaning and any homonymous items sharing the core of meaning should be classified as polysemous.

The phenomenon of polysemy is not restricted to full words in English. Multiplicity of meaning is a very general characteristics of language and is found in prefixes a verb, it usually means ‘reverse the action of the verb’: undo, unpack, untie, unzip. When ‘un’ precedes a noun to form a verb, it can mean ‘deprive of this noun’: ‘unhorse’, ‘unman’ (that is deprive of mainly qualities). This usage is rare in English now but previously words like ‘unbishop’, ‘unduke’, ‘unking’, unlord’ occurred. When ‘un’ precedes an adjective, it can mean ‘the opposite of’: ‘unfair’, ‘ungracious’, ‘unkind’, ‘untrue’.


Most people think of ‘synonymy’ as implying ‘having the same meaning’ but it is easy to show that synonymy is always  partial, never complete. ‘Tall’ and ‘high’ are usually given as synonyms but whilst we can have both:

     a tall building


    a high building

we cannot have both:

     a tall boy


     *a high boy

We can best define synonymy by saying that it is the relationship in which two or more words are in free variation in all or most contexts. The closest we come to absolute synonymy is when the synonyms belong to different dialects as with:

            British usage                                          US usage

            autumn                                                            fall

            estate agent                                         realtor

            pavement                                             sidewalk

but even here the choice of one term rather tan another indicates a regional preference. As well as regionally marked synonyms, we find synonyms which differ stylistically, in that one term may be more formal than another:

            die       pass on/over               kick the bucket                        decease

            steal     relieve one of               pinch/half inch            purloin

            smell    odour                           stink/pong                   effluvium

And, as the above items also illustrate, items which are cognitively synonymous may arouse very different emotional responses, the A list below implying less approval than the B list:

                 A                                             B

            conceal                                                hide

            politician                                 statesman

            stubborn                                  resolute

Total synonymy, that is, the coincidence of cognitive, emotive and stylistic identity, is more of an ideal than a reality. In addition, the choice of one word rather than its synonym can have an effect on the words and phrases than can co-occur with it. Let us illustrate this briefly by listing dictionary synonyms for ‘put up with’ and ‘noise’:

            put up with                                noise

            bear                                         clamour

            brook                                       din

            endure                                     disturbance

            stand                                        sound level


All the verbs can collocate with ‘such noise’ although ‘brook’ is more likely to occur with words like ‘impertinence’, ‘offhandedness’ or ‘rudeness’. As soon as we try to substitute ‘clamour’ for ‘noise’ we meet our first problem. We can say:

            I can’t put up with such noise.

but for most native speakers:

            I can’t put up with such clamour.

is unacceptable. In addition, if we substitute ‘din’ we need to include an indefinite article ‘such a din’, and the same applies to ‘racket’. What is being stressed here is the fact that items collocate and interact. We must take levels of formality into account in selecting synonyms.


This is the general term applied to the sense relation involving oppositeness of meaning. For our purposes, it will be convenient to distinguish three types of ‘oppositeness’, namely (1) implicitly graded antonyms, (2) complementarity and (3) converseness.

(1)   IMPLICITLY GRADED ANTONYMS refer to pairs of items such as ‘big’ and ‘small’, ‘good’ and  ‘bad’, ‘young’ and ‘old’. In other words, ‘big’, ‘good’ and ‘young’ can only be interpreted in terms of being ‘bigger’, better’ or ‘younger’ than something which is established as the norm for the comparison. Thus, when we say that one fly is bigger than another, we imply that ‘big’ is to be understood in the context of flies. This accounts for the apparent paradox of a ‘big fly’ being smaller than a ‘small dog’ because ‘small’ in the latter context means ‘small when compared with other dogs’.

In English, the larger item of the pair is the unmarked or neutral member. Thus we can ask:

            How big is it?

            How old is he?

            How wide is the river?

without implying that the subject is either  ‘big’, ‘old’ or ‘wide’. Such questions are unbiased or open with regard to the expectations of the enquirer. On the other hand, to ask:

            How small is it?

does prejudge the matter, claiming that it is indeed small. There is nothing universal about the larger member of the pair being the neutral member. In Japanese, for example, one would ask the equivalent of:

            How thin is it?

when an English speaker would have to ask:

            How thick is it?

(2)   COMPLEMENTARITY refers to the existence of such pairs as ‘male’ and ‘female’. It is characteristic of such pairs that the denial of one implies the assertion of the other. Thus if one is not male, then one is certainly female. Notice the difference between graded antonyms of the ‘food’/’bad’ type and complementary pairs. To say:

            John is not single.


            John is married.

but to say:

            John is not bad.

does not imply:

            John is good

In certain contexts, the following can be complementary pairs:

food                             drink

and                              sea

transitive                     intransitive

warm blooded              cold blooded

Related to complementary sets are sets of terms like colors or numbers where the assertion of one member implies the negation of all the others. Thus, if we have a set such as: green, yellow, brown, red, blue, to say:

            This is green.

implies that it is not yellow, brown, red or blue. In a two-term set such as (male, female), the assertion of male implies the denial of the only other term in the set. Such terms, as well as being described as ‘complementary’, are often referred to as ‘incompatible’.

(3)   CONVERSENESS is the relationship that holds between such related pairs of sentences as:

John sold it to me.


      I bought it from John.

where SELL and BUY are in a converse relationship. English has a number of conversely related verbs and so sentence converseness is a common phenomenon:

      John lent the money to Peter.

      Peter borrowed the money from John.

Other frequently occurring converse verbs include:

      buy and sell

      push and pull

      command and serve

      give and take

      hire out  and hire

      lease and rent

      teach and learn

Occasionally, the same verb can be used in the conversely related pair of sentences as in:

      John rented the house to Peter.

      Peter rented the house from John.

and also:

      John married Marry.


      Marry married John.

Sometimes, in English, we can find converse nouns corresponding to converse verbs:

      command         serve                master              servant

      teach                learn                teacher             pupil

      treat                 consult             doctor              patient


Hyponymy is related to complementarity and incompatibility. Whereas the relationship of implicit denial is called incompatibility, the relationship of implicit inclusion id called hyponymy. This relationship is easy to demonstrate. The colour ‘red’, for example, includes or comprehends the colours ‘scarlet’ and ‘vermilion’ just as the term ‘flower’ includes ‘daisy’, ‘forget-me-not’ and ‘’rose’. The including term and the included items are known as ‘co-hyponyms’. The assertion of a hyponym:

      This is a rose.

implies the assertion of the superordinate:

      This is a flower.

but the assertion of the superordinate does not automatically imply one specific hyponym. We can  thus say that the implicational nature of hyponymy is unilateral or works one way only.

One of the most useful features of the principle of hyponymy is that it allows us to be as general or as specific as a particular linguistic occasion warrants, as can be seen from the following hierarchies:


Often these hierarchical diagrams are called ‘taxonomies’. With each downward step we encounter terms of more specific meaning.

Hyponymy is a recently invented method of indicating the relationships that can exist between words. occasionally, items have to be put into a context to see whether their relationships can best be illustrated by means of one classification rather than another. ‘Black’ and ‘white’ are co-hyponyms when considered as colors but they can be complementary in discussions about race, draughts and piano keys.


A word is a hypernym (literally meaning ‘extra name’) if its meaning encompasses the meaning of another word of which it is a hypernym; a word that is more generic or broad than another given word.

For example. Wehicle denotes all the things that are separately denoted by the words train, chariot, dogsled, airplane, and automobile and is therefore a hypernym of each of those words.

A hypernym is the opposite of a hyponym. For example, plant is hypernymic to flower whereas tulip is hyponymic to flower.

Hypernymy is the semantic relation in which one word is the hypernym of another. Hypernymy, the relation words stand in when their extensions stand in the relation of class to subclass, should not be confused with holonymy which is the relation words stand in when the things that they denote stand in the relation of whole to part. A similar warning applies to hyponymy and meronymy.


MERONYMY (from the Greek words meros = part and anoma = name) is a semantic relation concept used in linguistics. A meronym denotes a constituent part of, or a member of something. That is,

            X is a meronym of Y if Xs are parts of Y(s), or

            X is a meronym of Y if Xs are members of Y(s).

For example, ‘finger’ is a meronym of ‘hand’ because a finger is part of a hand. Similarly ‘wheel’ is a meronym of ‘auto’.

Meronym is the opposite of HOLONYMY. A closely related concept is that of mereology, which specifically deals with part/whole relations and is used in logic. It is formally expressed in terms of first-order logic.

Meronym means part of a whole. A word denoting a subset of what another word denotes is a hyponym.

   In knowledge representation languages, meronymy is often expressed as “part-of


When two sequences are synonymous, they have a different form but a single meaning. Ambiguity is the opposite of synonymy – an ambiguous sequence is one with a single form which represents more than one meaning. For example:

Fighting elephants can be dangerous.

There is no way to tell, by looking at sentence (13) in isolation, which of the meanings represented in (14) is intended by the speaker.

  1. For  someone to fight elephants can be dangerous.
  2. Elephants which are fighting can be dangerous.

The importance phrase here is “in isolation.” Ambiguity in real life – either in conversation or in reading – is not likely to be met with frequently. The context of the potentially ambiguous sequence (the other sentences around it, or the real world situation in which it is used, or both) will ordinarily serve to make clear which meaning is intended. you will not usually be aware that a sentence you have heard or read in context is ambiguous, unless that fact is pointed out to you.

The ambiguity of a sequence like (13) is due to a lack of clarity as to the functions of the various pieces of the sentence (usually referred to as its constituents). We cannot tell whether those elephants are doing the fighting themselves or are being attacked. Ambiguity can also be caused – again, in isolation – by the multiple possible meanings of a single word, as in:

George gave Benjamin a plane Christmas.

Although a plane could be either a carpentry tool or an airplane, in real life you probably would know whether George could afford to buy something so expensive as an airplane, whether Benjamin was old enough for such a gift to be suitable, and so son. Thus the context would be sufficient to specify the meaning in the vast majority of cases.

Like synonymy, ambiguity is found in every human language, both for single words and for longer sequences.

The two properties of language just discussed, ambiguity and synonymy are not major problems in daily conversation between native speakers of the same language. Translations, however, can be utterly destroyed by them. The point of a translation (whether spoken or written) is to produce a sequence in one language which will be equivalent to a sequence in the other, and the resulting sequence must not be ambiguous. When two languages which share no common ancestor in their history, success becomes much more difficult to achieve.


Knowing a language includes knowing the morphemes, simple words, compound words, and their meanings. In addition, it means knowing fixed phrases, consisting of more than one word, with meanings that cannot be inferred from the meanings of the individual words.

An idiom is a group of words whose meaning cannot be explained in terms of the habitual meanings of the words that make up the piece of language. Thus ‘fly off the handle’ which means ‘lose one’s temper’ cannot be understood in terms of the meaning of ‘fly’, ‘off’ or ‘handle’. Idioms involve the non-literal use of language and they can be categorized as follows:

(1)   alliterative comparisons:

            dead as a dodo

            fit as a fiddle

            good as gold

(2)   noun phrases:

            a blind alley (route that leads nowhere, a false trail)

            a close shave (a narrow escape)

            a red letter day (a day that will never be forgotten)

(3)   preposition phrases:

            a sixes and sevens (unable/unwilling to agree)

            by hook or by crook (by whatever methods prove necessary)

            in for a penny, in for a pound (‘I’m involved irrespective of cost’)

(4)   verb + noun phrase:

            kick the bucket (die)

            pop your clogs (die)

            spill the beans (reveal a secret)

(5)   verb + preposition phrase :

            be in clover (be exceptionally comfortable)

            be in the doghouse (be in disagree)

            be between a rock  and a hard place (have no rooms for manocuvre)

(6)   verb + adverb:

            give in (yield)

            put down (kill)

            take to (like)

Idioms range from the semi-transparent where either the meaning can be interpreted in terms of metaphor:

            clip someone’s wings (reduce someone’s mobility)

or because one part of the idiomatic phrase is used literally:

            run up a bill

to the totally opaque:

            go bananas (lose one’s temper)

They tend to be relatively fixed with regard to number:

            spill the beans     and not     *spill the bean

the use of determiners:

            a dead duck  and not   *the/that dead duck

the use of comparatives and superlatives:

            good as gold    and not   *better than gold

            red tape    and not   *reddest tape

word order:

            hale and hearty   and not   *hearty and hale

the use of passives:

            They buried the hatchet    and not   *The hatchet was buried

            He spilt the beans    and not    *The beans were spilt

There is a tendency for the more transparent idioms to allow some change:

            run up a bill    and   run up an enormous bill


            kick the bucket            and not  *kick the enormous bucket

and there is a marked tendency for a few colors – black, blue, green, red and white – to be used idiomatically:

            blackmail         a blue moon     a red herring    a white elephant

Idioms differ according to region and according to formality. They are more frequently found in speech than in writing and, because they are both hackneyed and imprecise, they are best avoided in formal contexts. Idioms are a marked example of non-literal use of language and, although they occur in all languages, they can rarely be translated from one language to another.


Meaning is not an easy concept to deal with partly because we are dealing with abstractions (one person’s idea of ‘goodness’ may differ radically from another’s), with mobility (‘silly’ used to mean ‘holy’ and ‘regiment’ used to mean ‘government’), with difference of opinion (when for example, does a hill become a mountain or a sea become an ocean?) and with distinctions essential in one language but not in another (the English only need one word for ‘sand’ but Arabs need many more). To meet some of these problems linguists have tried to deal with sense relations, that is, with the relationships that exist within a specific language, in terms of similarity (synonymy), differences (antonymy), related sets (complementarity and hyponymy) and the non-literal use of language (idiom). They examine the lexicon in terms of systems in which individual words depend for their meaning on being opposed to ‘bad’ or ‘better’ or ‘worse’. In addition, qualitative adjectives can only be understood in terms of an implied norm. ‘Good’ for example can be used to modify:




We can even talk about a ‘good liar’ because, in each case, ‘good’ is related to a standard relevant to behaviour, looks, moods and liars. Meaning is not ‘given’ and is never absolute.