Semantics 2: Distinctions

Apart from the use of semantic features, there are also other means of explaining the differences between words or classifying their differences. The symbols accompanying the examples are taken from Leech (21981).


Gradability is a concept that describes the presence or absence of intermediate values within categories or scales. If a property is gradable, then there are usually a few different values present on a scale, ranging from – or to – an extreme point and often including intermediate comparison stages. The properties involved tend to be relative, rather than absolute. Examples for gradable properties are:

If we have non-gradable properties, we tend to have a binary taxonomy. Individual property items are usually deemed to be absolute.

However, even if the words themselves express non-gradable, absolute properties, we may still be able to modify or relativise their meanings by means of adverbs or adverbial phrases, e.g. half dead, slightly ill, a little pregnant, etc.


Find further examples of gradable or non-gradable properties and try to explain why they may belong to one category or the other.


As we have already stated in connection with the concept of synonymy, antonymy occurs when two words express opposite meanings. We can further distinguish between two different types of antonymy, polarity, where two words express opposite ends of a scale, relative to a norm, as in:

, and in- or converseness, where they express opposite ‘directions’ or ’relations’, e.g.:


Find further examples of polar and converse antonyms, also from different, and possibly additional, word classes.


If there is gradability or polarity, usually one item at one end of the spectrum is a marked one, e.g.

Normally, the unmarked term is more neutral than the marked one, whereas the marked one often has negative connotations, i.e. evokes negative or ‘unfavourable’ associations. Often, it seems to be a question of acceptability or convention whether a negative term may be used in certain constructions at all, cf.:


Try to identify further examples of markedness. Hint: it might be easiest to look for items that are similar to the examples given above first...

Homonymy & Polysemy


Homonymy (Gr. όμοιος = alike, same; όνομα = name) occurs when multiple words have the same form (homographs), but highly distinct, often (apparently) unrelated, meanings. In some cases, however, it is possible to trace the distinction to historical developments, i.e. via the etymology of the word forms. Examples for homonymy are:


Polysemy (Gr. πολλοί = many + σήμα = sign) – in the traditional sense – occurs when a word form has multiple meanings that may potentially be related to one another. However, many linguists theses days tend to avoid making the distinction between homonymy and polysemy and always use the term polysemy to cover all cases where a word form has different meanings. We shall adopt the latter convention here, unless there is an absolutly clear reason for assuming completely different meanings.

On the morphosyntactic level, we can distinguish between two different types of polysemy, one where there is no change/difference of word class between polysemous items – which we shall refer to as ‘lexical’ polysemy –,

and one where there is a difference in word class that may sometimes, but not in all cases, be seen as resulting from zero derivation – and which we’ll refer to as ‘grammatical’ polysemy.


Think of further examples for homonyms or polysemes. How easy is it to classify your examples according to the distinguishing criteria given above, and why may there be problems?

Sources & Further Reading:

Leech, G. 1981. Semantics: the Study of Meaning (2nd ed.). London: Penguin.

Taylor, J. 1995. Linguistic Categorization: Prototypes in Linguistic Theory (2nd ed.). Oxford: OUP.