Summary of the week

During Week 5, we have looked at the topic of meaning from two separate angles:

  • How meanings are created in text

  • How meanings are described in dictionary definitions

Starting with the way people create meanings (and the way other people understand them): we saw that in many cases (and especially high-frequency everyday vocabulary), the meaning of a word in a given text is highly dependent on the context it appears in. The word ‘goal’ has several meanings, but when we see a sentence like:

Salah was sensational for Liverpool last season, scoring 44 goals and providing 16 assists.’

… the context (especially the verb ‘score’) clearly tells us that this refers to the football meaning of ‘goal’. On the other hand, in a sentence like this:

‘We can achieve this goal if there is a strong will to resolve the problem.’

… the context (and especially the verb ‘achieve’) tells us that this is about ‘goals’ when they mean aims or objectives.

What happens in cases like these is best summed up in Patrick Hanks’ idea of ‘meaning potentials’ (see Step 5.10). Here, and in his book Lexical Analysis: Norms and Exploitations, Patrick argues that words like ‘goal’ or ‘treat’ don’t really have meanings on their own, but rather meaning potentials which are activated when the word appears in certain contexts. These contexts may be collocational (the difference between ‘score’ a goal and ‘achieve’ a goal) or syntactic (the difference between treat someone ‘for’ something, and treat someone ‘to’ something), but in either case, we as human communicators don’t usually have any problems in ‘knowing what other people mean’ because the context will always resolve any potential ambiguity.

Lexicographers mimic this process when they analyse words in order to create dictionary entries. Using corpus data (in concordances and Word Sketches) they try to identify clusters of examples where the same patterns of usage – the same contexts – occur, and these form the basis for a description of the different meanings of complex words.

Moving on to definitions, we considered the job of defining from the point of view of content (the information we want the definition to convey) and wording (the language we use to encode this information). We saw how both these features can vary widely according to the type of dictionary and the needs and capabilities of different kinds of dictionary user – such as adult native speakers, schoolchildren, and second-language learners. And in many cases, the interplay of content and wording is not easily disentangled. Finally, we discussed the topic of definitions which convey the definer’s personal opinions, and we showed that – although this is generally undesirable – it isn’t always easy to avoid.

Your task

In the comments area share your thoughts and reflections on what you have learned so far.

Remember to comment, ‘like’ and bookmark other learners’ comments too.

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This article is from the free online course:

Understanding English Dictionaries

Coventry University