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5.6: Conclusion

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    138652
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    In this chapter we described several ways of identifying lexical ambiguity, based on two basic facts. First, distinct senses of a single word are “antagonistic”, and as a result only one sense is available at a time in normal usage. The incompatibility of distinct senses can be observed in puns, in zeugma effects, and in the identity requirements under ellipsis. Second, true ambiguity involves a difference in truth conditions; so sentences which contain an ambiguous word can sometimes be truly asserted under one sense of that word and denied under the other sense, in the same context. Neither of these facts applies to vagueness or indeterminacy.

    Lexical ambiguity is actually quite common, but only rarely causes confusion between speaker and hearer. The hearer is normally able to identify the intended sense for an ambiguous word based on the context in which it is used. Where none of the established senses lead to a sensible interpretation in a given context, new senses can be triggered by coercion. In Chapter 8 we will discuss some of the pragmatic principles which guide the hearer in working out the intended sense.

    Further reading

    Kennedy (2011) provides an excellent overview of lexical ambiguity, indeterminacy, and vagueness. These issues are also addressed in Gillon (1990). Cruse (1986: ch. 3) and (2000, ch. 6) discusses many of the issues covered in this chapter, including tests for lexical ambiguity, “antagonistic” senses, polysemy vs. homonymy, and contextual modification of meaning. Aronoff & Fudeman (2011: ch. 5) introduce some ways of describing systematic polysemy in terms of zero-derivation.

    Discussion exercises

    A: State whether the italicized words illustrate ambiguity, vagueness, or indeterminacy:

    1. She spends her afternoons filing correspondence and her fingernails.
    2. He spends his afternoons washing clothes and dishes.
    3. He was a big baby, even though both of his parents are small.
    4. The weather wasn’t very bright, but then neither was our tour guide.
    5. Mr. Smith smokes expensive cigars but drives a cheap car.
    6. That boy couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket

    B: In each of the following examples, state which word is ambiguous as demonstrated by the antagonism or zeugma effect. Is it an instance of polysemy or homonymy?

    1. “You are free to execute your laws, and your citizens, as you see fit.”a
    2. “… and covered themselves with dust and glory.”b
    3. Arthur declined my invitation, and Susan a Latin pronoun.
    4. Susan can’t bear children.
    5. The batteries were given out free of charge.
    6. My astrologer wants to marry a star.

    C: Figurative senses. Identify the type of figure illustrated by the italicized words in the following passages:

    1. Fear is the lock and laughter the key to your heart.c
    2. The White House is concerned about terrorism.
    3. She has six hungry mouths to feed.
    4. That joke is as old as the hills.
    5. It’s not the prettiest quarter I’ve ever seen, Mr. Liddell.d
    6. as pleasant and relaxed as a coiled rattlesnakee
    7. Headline: Korean “comfort women” get controversial apology, compensation from Japanese governmentf

    D: Semantic shift. Identify the figures of speech that provided the source for the following historical shifts in word meaning:

    1. bead (< ‘prayer’)
    2. pastor
    3. drumstick (for ‘turkey leg’)
    4. glossa (Greek) ‘tongue; language’
    5. pioneer (< Old French peon(ier) ‘foot-soldier’; cognate: pawn)

    a Star Trek: The Next Generation, via grammar.about.com
    b Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
    c Crosby, Stills & Nash – “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes”
    d Sam Mussabini in Chariots of Fire.
    e Kurt Vonnegut in Breakfast of Champions
    f news.com.au, December 30, 2015

    Homework exercises

    A: Lexical ambiguity. Do the uses of strike in the following two sentences represent distinct senses (lexical ambiguity), or just indeterminacy? Provide linguistic evidence to support your answer.

    a. The California Gold Rush began when James Marshall struck gold at Sutter’s Mill.

    b. Balaam struck his donkey three times before it turned and spoke to him

    B: Dictionary entries. Without looking at any published dictionary, draft a dictionary entry for mean. Include the use of mean as a noun, as an adjective, and at least three senses of mean as a verb.

    C: Polysemy etc.a How would you describe the relationship between the readings of the italicized words in the following pairs of examples? You may choose from among the following options: polysemy, homonymy, vagueness, indeterminacy, figurative use. If none of these terms seem appropriate, describe the sense relation in prose.

    (1) a. Mary ordered an omelette.

    b. The omelette at table 6 wants his coffee now.

    (2) a. They led the prisoner away.

    b. They led him to believe that he would be freed.

    (3) a. King George III was not very intelligent and could not read until he was eleven.

    b. The squid is actually quite intelligent, for an invertebrate.

    (4) a. My cousin married an actress.

    b. My cousin married a policeman.

    (5) a. Could you loan me your pen? Mine is out of ink.

    b. The goats escaped from their pen and ate up my artichokes.

    (6) a. Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations is too deep for me.

    b. This river is too deep for my Land Rover to ford.


    a Adapted from Cruse (2000).


    This page titled 5.6: Conclusion is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Paul Kroeger (Language Library Press) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform.

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