2 Chapter 2. A Crash Course in Linguistics

Adapted from Hagen, Karl. Navigating English Grammar. 2020. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Language is an extremely complex system consisting of many interrelated components. As a result, learning how to analyze language can be challenging because to understand one part you often need to know about something else. In general, this book works on describing English sentence structure, which largely falls under the category of syntax, but there are other components to language, and to understand syntax, we will need to know a few basics about those other parts.

This chapter has two purposes: first, to give you an overview of the major structural components of language; second, to introduce some basic concepts from areas other than syntax that we will need to make sense of syntax itself.

We can think of language both in terms of a message and a medium by which that message is transmitted. These two aspects are partly independent of one another. For example, the same message can be conveyed through speech or through writing. Sound is one medium for transmitting language; writing is another. A third medium, although not one that occurs to most people immediately, is gesture, in other words, sign language. The message is only partly independent of the medium because while it is certainly possible to express the same message through different media, the medium has a tendency to shape the message by virtue of its peculiarities.

When we look at the content of the message, we find it consists of a variety of building blocks. Sounds (or letters) combine to make word parts, which combine to make words, which combine to make sentences, which combine to make a discourse. Indeed, language is often said to be a combinatorial system, where a small number of basic building blocks combine and recombine in different patterns. A small number of blocks can account for a very large variety indeed. DNA, another combinatorial system, uses only four basic blocks, and combinations of these four blocks give rise to all the biological diversity we see on earth today. With language, different combinations of a small number of sounds yield hundreds of thousands of words, and different combinations of those words yield an essentially infinite number of utterances.

The major components that have traditionally been considered the ‘core’ areas of linguistics are the following:

  • Phonology: The patterns of sounds in language.
  • Morphology: Word formation.
  • Syntax: The arrangement of words into larger structural units such as phrases and sentences.
  • Semantics: Meaning. Semantics sometimes refers to meaning independent of any particular context, and is distinguished from pragmatics, or how meaning is affected by the context in which it is uttered. For the purposes of this book, we will work under the assumption that there really is no such thing as completely decontextualized meaning.


Section contributors: Saul De Leon, Jodiann N. Samuels and an anonymous ENG 270 student.

Language varieties sound different from one another because they have different inventories of speech sounds. The sounds that you hear—combined into words that make sense—is called phonology. There is no clear limit to the number of distinct sounds that can be constructed by the human vocal apparatus. To that end, this unlimited variety is harnessed by human language into sound systems that are comprised of a few dozen language-specific categories known as phonemes (Szczegielniak). Phonology is the systemic study of sounds used in language, their internal structure, and their composition into syllables, words, and phrases. Sounds are made by pushing air from the lungs out through the mouth, sometimes by way of the nasal cavity (Kleinman). Think about this: All humans have a different way of pronouncing words that produce various sounds. Tongue movement, tenseness, and lip rounding (rounded or unrounded) are some examples in which sounds or even words are produced in different ways. Consider, for example, the sound of the consonant /ð/ represented by the written <th> in the English word <the>—this sound does not exist in French, but we can understand someone whose first language is French when they pronounce the same word with a /z/. Phonology seeks to explain the patterns of sounds that are used and how different rules interact with each other. Phonology is concerned more about the structure of sound instead of the sound itself; “Phonology focuses on the ‘function’ or ‘organization’ or patterning of the sound” (Aarts & McMahon pg. 360)

Every language variety has an inventory of sounds (essentially, they have different numbers of phonemes) and rules for those sounds. By way of illustration, in English, the phoneme /ŋ/, the last sound in the word sing, will never appear at the beginning of a word, but in some other languages, words can begin with /ŋ/.

Throughout this section, we will use the conventional / / slashes to indicate International Phonetic Alphabet representations of phonemes (the sounds of language) and < > brackets to indicate orthography (the way things are spelled in the standardized English writing system).


Say the following out loud: Vvvv. It has a “buzz” sound that ffff does not have, right? Keep in mind that the “buzz” sound is caused by the vibration of your vocal folds.  Speech sounds are produced by moving air from the lungs through your larynx, the vocal cords that open to allow breathing—the noise made by the larynx is changed by the tongue, lips, and gums to generate speech. Most importantly, however, sounds are different from letters that are in a word. For example, a world like English has seven letters (<English>), six sounds (/ɪŋɡlɪʃ/), and two syllables (eng·lish). We often tend to think of English as a written language, but when studying phonology, it’s important not to conflate sounds and letters. This is more often true in English than in many other languages that use alphabets for their scripts; not only are the correspondences between sounds and letters not always one-to-one, sounds are often pronounced in many ways by different people. When you are speaking to someone, you automatically ignore nonlinguistic differences in speech (i.e., someone’s pitch level, rate of speed, coughs) (Szczegielniak).

Phonemes are a vital part of speech because they are what dictates how a sound of letter or word is distinguished which differentiates the meaning of words. Sometimes a letter represents more than one phoneme (<x> is often pronounced /ks/) and sometimes two or three letters are used to represent a single sound (like <sh> for the phoneme /ʃ/ ).

The sounds of a word can be broken down into phonemes, the smallest units of sound that distinguish meaning.  These basic sounds can be arranged into syllables and a metrical phonological tree can be used to simplify breaking up a syllable  (AAL Alumnae, Gussenhoven & Haike).

There are about 200 phonemes across all known languages; however, there are about forty-four in the English language and the forty-four phonemes are represented by the twenty-six letters of the alphabet (individually and in combination). The forty-four English sounds are thus divided into two distinct categories: consonants and vowels. A consonant gives off a basic speech sound in which the airflow is cut off or restrained in some way—when a sound is produced. On the other hand, if the airflow is unhindered when a sound is made, the speaker is producing a vowel. (DSF Literary Resources). Even with diphthongs, or sequences of two vowels, your tongue changes when you say a different vowel.

A syllable consists of an initial sound or onset and followed by another sound called a rhyme.  A rhyme is further split into a nucleus which are the vowel sounds and the coda which are the consonants that come after the nucleus.  The onset is simply the consonants before the rhyme.  These aspects are all brought together to identify the differences of languages due to each language’s unique phonemes and syllable structures.  (AAL Alumnae, n.d.).

Phonology and Phonetics

The study of phonology is closely related to another field, phonetics.  Phonetics involves the study of the way sound is produced by certain parts of the body.  The synchronous use of body parts like the mouth, teeth, tongue, voice box or larynx, and pharynx are involved with making speech sounds and what sounds exist in a language, and in sign languages, the shape and position of fingers and hands serves a similar purpose.  Phonology and phonetics together can even analyze the distinction between distinctive accents or challenges native speakers may face attempting to acquire another language when facing phonemes that are not a part of their language (FSI, n.d.; Gussenhoven & Haike, 2017, p. 17).

Minimal Pairs and Allophones

Understanding how to pronounce and to make a clear distinction of letters is essential to the structure of a language sound system. In English and other languages, there are many words that sound similar to one another, but differ in a single sound, like ‘pit’ and ‘bit’, or like ‘leap’ and ‘leave’. Linguists call these minimal pairs. “Minimal pairs are word that differs in one phoneme” (McArthur Oxford Reference). Even though they end identically both words are completely unrelated to each other in meaning. Minimal pairs are useful for linguists because they provide comprehension into how sounds and meanings coexist in language. They tell us which sounds (phones) are distinct phonemes, and which are allophones of the same phoneme.

Allophones are a related concept, in which a single phoneme can be produced differently in different circumstances. For example, the phoneme /k/ in the word ‘kite’ is aspirated, meaning it’s accompanied by a puff of air. But in the word ‘sky’ there is no puff of air along with the /k/ sound. We still think of these as the same sound, and they don’t occur in the same positions, which makes them allophones of a single phoneme.

Allophones are determined by their position in the word or by their phonetic environment. Speakers often have issues hearing the phonetic differences between allophones of the same phoneme because these differences do not serve to distinguish one word from another. In English, the /t/ sounds in the words “hit,” “tip,” and “little” are all allophones (Britannica)—they are all realizations the same phoneme, though they are different phonetically in terms of how they are produced.

The relationship between syntax and phonology

Syntax and phonology are both structural components of language, but it is common to think of them as parallel levels of structure that do not often interact. What they both address at their core is the structure of the language, but we could consider morphology (described in the next section) to mediate between the two.

Citations and Further Reading:


Contributors: Paul Junior Prudent and an anonymous ENG 270 student


Morphology is a branch of linguistics that deals with the structure and form of the words in a language (Hamawand 2). In grammar, morphology differs from syntax, though both are concerned with structure. Syntax is the field that studies the structure of sentences, which are composed of words, while morphology is the field that studies the structure of the words themselves (Julien 8). Unlike phonology, covered earlier, morphology is more directly related to syntax, and will see some coverage in this textbook.


In language, some words are made up of one indivisible part, but many other words are made up of more than one component, and these components (whether a word has one or more) are called morphemes. A morpheme is a minimal unit of lexical meaning (Hamawand 3). So, while some words can consist of one morpheme and thus be minimal units of meaning in and of themselves, many words consist of more than one morpheme. For example, the word peace has one morpheme and cannot be broken down into smaller units of meaning. Peaceful has two morphemes, peace the state of harmony that exists during the absence of war, plus -ful, a suffix, meaning full of something. Peacefully has three morphemes: peace + –ful + –ly, with the final morpheme –ly indicating ‘in the manner of’. So really, peacefully contains three units of meaning that, when combined, give us the meaning of the word as a whole. Words can have a lot more than three morphemes, however (Kurdi 90).

Comparative Morphology

In some languages, there are only simple words and straightforward compounds, and therefore very little morphology—most of the grammatical complexity is syntactic in these languages. Languages like these are referred to as having an isolating morphology. On the other end of the scale, languages that combine many morphemes to produce words are referred to as polysynthetic. Polysynthetic essentially means that the language is characterized by complex words consisting of several morphemes, in which a single word may function as a whole sentence. Other types of language morphology in between are fusional (where morphemes often encode multiple meanings or grammatical categories at once) and agglutinative (where morphemes are added on to each other to create long words, but generally have individual meanings). Modern English is closer to the isolating end of the spectrum, while still having a productive morphology on some morphemes. Languages like this are known as analytic languages, in which sentences are constructed by following a specific word order.

Types of morphemes

Morphemes can be further divided into several types: free and bound. Free morphemes are the morphemes that can be used by themselves. They’re not dependent on any other morpheme to complete their meaning. Open-class content words (generally speaking, nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs) such as girl, fish, tree, and love are all considered free morphemes, as are closed-class function words (prepositions, determiners, conjunctions, etc.) such as the, and, for, or it (Hamawand 5). Bound morphemes are another class of morphemes that cannot be used by themselves and are dependent on other morphemes, like the -er in worker.

Bound morphemes are further divided into two categories: affixes and bound roots (Kurdi 93). Bound roots are roots that cannot not be used by themselves. For example, the morpheme -ceive in receive, conceive, and deceive cannot stand on its own (Aarts et al. 398). Affixes occur in English primarily as prefixes and suffixes. Prefixes are morphemes that can be added to the front of a word such as pre- in preoccupation, re- in redo, dis- in disapprove or un– in unemployment. Morphemes that can be added to the end of a word (a suffix) such as –an, -ize, -al,or -ly. In other languages, there are morphemes that can be added to the middle of a word called infixes, and morphemes that can be added to both sides of a word called circumfixes. English also has limited infixation, usually in casual speech and involving taboo language: consider abso-goddamn-lutely or un-fucking-believable.  In terms of function, affixes can be divided into two categories of their own: derivational affixes and inflectional affixes (Hamawand 10).

Types of affixes

Derivational affixes are affixes that when added to a word create a new word with a new meaning. They’re called derivational precisely because a new word is derived when they’re added to the original word, and often, but not always, these newly created words belong to a new grammatical category. Some affixes turn nouns into adjectives like beauty to beautiful, some change verbs into nouns like sing to singer, and  some change adjectives to adverbs, like precise to precisely. Still others turn nouns to verbs, adjectives to nouns, and verbs to adjectives. Other affixes do not change the grammatical category of the word they’re added to. Adding -dom to king yields kingdom, which is still a noun, and adding re- to do yields redo, still a verb. We use derivational affixes constantly and they’re a very important part of English because they help us to form the majority of words that exist in our language (Aarts et al. 527-529).

In English, the other type of affix, inflectional affixes, are suffixes that when added to the end of the word don’t change its meaning radically. Instead, they change things like the person, tense, and number of a word. English has a total of eight inflectional affixes:

  • (on verbs) the third person singular –s as in Anakin kills younglings,
  • (on verbs) the preterite (and participial) -ed as in Ron kissed Hermione,
  • (on verbs) the progressive –ing as in Han is falling into the sarlacc pit,
  • (on verbs) the past participle –en in  the Emperor has fallen and cannot get up,
  • (on nouns) the plural –s in vampires make the worst boyfriends,
  • (on nouns) the possessive -‘s in that’s Luke’s hand isn’t it,
  • (on adjectives) the comparative –er in the car is cooler than Kirk, and
  • (on adjectives) the superlative –est in that’s the sweetest thing I’ve ever seen.

Compared to other languages English has very few inflectional affixes. (Aarts et al. 510), but they’re a common point where confusion emerges, particularly in writing. For example, the third person singular -s, the plural -s, and the possessive -‘s are all pronounced identically, but the possessive often uses an apostrophe.

The Relationship between Morphology and Syntax

Morphology and Syntax are closely related fields in English grammar. Syntax studies the structure of sentences, while morphology studies the formation of words. However, both domains must interact with each other at a certain level. On one level, the morpheme should fit a syntactic representation or a syntactic structure. And on another level, the morpheme can have its syntactic representation. That notion is called “the syntactic approach to morphology” by Marit Julien (8).


  • Aarts, Bas, and April McMahon. “The Handbook of English Linguistics.” The Handbook of    English Linguistics, 1. Aufl., Wiley-Blackwell, 2008.
  • Hamawand, Zeki. Morphology in English Word Formation in Cognitive Grammar. Continuum, 2011.
  • Julien, Marit. Syntactic Heads and Word Formation A Study of Verbal Inflection. Oxford University Press, USA, 2002.
  • Kurdi, Mohamed Zakaria. “Natural Language Processing and Computational Linguistics 1: Speech, Morphology and Syntax.” Natural Language Processing and Computational Linguistics 1, John Wiley & Sons (US), 2016.

Speech vs. Writing

Section contributors: Terrell McLean and two anonymous ENG 270 students.

We first learn to speak when we are children, and we do this for at least five years of our lives before we learn to write. Once we learn to do both of these, we think we have mastered the ways of communicating, forgetting that: 1) these two are not the only ways we communicate, and 2) the line, in some cases, is blurred concerning the difference between speech and writing.

Linguists have given more attention to oral communication, giving it more authority and validation, which suggests that written communication is secondary—we learn to speak before we learn to write. However, both speech and writing are forms of language use and deserve equal amounts of recognition.

Differences between Speech and Writing

Let’s take a deeper look at writing and speech. What are some of the distinctions between them? Writing is edited; we can more easily delete or rewrite something over again to make sure how we want to come across is shown in our writing. We can prewrite and brainstorm, which is an effective way of writing (Sadiku 31). This is something we cannot do as we speak. Another reason writing is different from speech because writing is not something everyone can do. Literacy, or the ability to read and write, is not universal, though it is more common today than in previous eras. In some communities today, there are individuals who do not have the skill of writing amongst their neighbors who can. Among the 7000+ languages that exist in the world, more than 3,000 do not have a written language (“How Many Languages in the World Are Unwritten?”) and only 23 languages are spoken by half the population of the world (“Languages in the World”). Written language has historically been seen as a mark of prestige.

The majority of people learn how to speak by the time they are two years old. As we communicate through speech, we have the option of speaking informally or formally. Someone who only speaks formally might find that others say, “You talk like a book” (Bright 1); the book being a textbook or some form of an academic book. However, we all lean towards informal speech when we are surrounded by people we are comfortable with or when we want to be casual.

A greater range of expression is available when using speech because you can use the tone of your voice to express how you feel when you talk about a certain topic. However, the way you use your voice can have many meanings. For example, shouting can mean that you are angry, excited, or surprised. Sometimes you might have to use an extra sentence to connect your tone of voice to how you feel. With writing, a lot of this paralinguistic content (pitch contours, tone of voice) is not available to the reader, but there are strategies writers use like writing in all capital letters or using various forms of punctuation (not a feature available in speech) to compensate.

Finally, a distinction of writing is its durability. Composed messages are passed on through time as well as through space. With writing, we can keep in touch with somebody nearby or on the opposite side of the world (although advances in communication technology have made this true of speech as well).

Similarities between Speech and Writing

In the sections above, we’ve examined differences between speech and writing, but these two forms of language and communication do have similarities as well. Let’s take the example of formal and informal writing and speech. As mentioned before, we can talk informally—talking casually in conversations, or when you’re talking to someone close to you—and this can be done by using slang, short words, and a casual tone of voice. While writing is often thought of as formal by nature, informal writing can also be acceptable in a number of contexts, like freewriting. This is one of the ways we can write informally. In this form of writing, we can write down all the things that come to mind, however we want to write it; it doesn’t matter the quality of the writing or how we produce sentence structure (Elbow 290). Informal writing can also be found in much of what is called Computer-Mediated Communication, or CMC. One example is personal blogs, which are often different from more formal news articles. Blog posts have more flexibility to be informal because most people write with a conversational tone to appeal to their audience.

Writing has often been differentiated from speech by the nature of its participation. According to classical views, when we write, we write by ourselves; writing is done independently. Speech on the other hand is understood to take more than one person because we need at least two people to hold a conversation; therefore, speech is dependent on another person. However, technology has blurred the lines here as well. For example, take the CMC mode of the internet forum (Elbow 291). This media is a form of constant writing where we can continuously respond to people without interruption. This has been set in place since the 70s and one that is popular today that has a collection of forums pertaining to different topics is Reddit. YouTube is also a great example of this because while we watch a video on a particular topic, we can then respond in the comment section immediately and give our own opinions. This conversation can continue with the person in the video and other people that may agree or disagree with you.

Speech, Writing, and Syntax

Syntax is the way words are arranged to form sentences, and is a part of all linguistic communication, regardless of whether it is written or spoken. However, there can be differences in the syntax of speech vs. writing. In a study with 45 students, Gibson found that speech “has fewer words per sentence, fewer syllables per word, a higher degree of interest, and less diversity of vocabulary” (O’Donnell, 102). In another study that Drieman did in Holland, he found that speech, compared to writing, has “longer texts, shorter words, more words of one syllable, fewer attributive adjectives, and a less varied vocabulary” (O’Donnell, 102).

While many think of prescriptive rules applying primarily to written grammar, speech is seen as more lenient, allowing for fluidity nor replicated in written works. However, it comes with own fair share of complexities and rules that need to be managed, one of them being syntax. Syntax is the structuring of words and their overall arrangement in relation to each other. Even though grammar isn’t as strict when it comes to writing a lot of the same principles follow, words need to flow in a cohesive manner that is understandable to others. Even with slang and regional dialect coming into play, syntax creates a cohesive use of language during a conversation. Even in complex usages of language such as code-switching (the use of multiple language varieties in a single discourse event) the necessity for clear structure and communication lies under all of that. In Code Switching and Grammatical Theory the idea is presented that even with code switching in the middle of a sentence, there is a grammatical structure: “In individual cases, intra-sentential code switching is not distributed randomly in the sentence, but rather it occurs at specific points” (Muysken, 155).


Even though both speech and writing require the use of syntax to remain cohesive, the differences between writing and speech are clear and abundant; as Casey Cline writes, “Speech is generally more spontaneous than writing and more likely to stray from the subject under discussion.” (Cline, Verblio). Written works, on the other hand, are usually seen as something that must stay grammatically correct, thus not being able to always mimic the freedom of speech. As put in Grammar for Writing? “… Grammar is frequently presented as a remediation tool, a language corrective.” (Debra Myhill, 4). However, formal speech and informal writing have existed for a long time, and new communications technologies have increasingly challenged the distinctions between speech and writing.


  • Bailey, Trevor. Jones, Susan. Myhill Debra A. “Grammar for Writing? An investigation of the effects of contextualized grammar teaching on students’ writing”. University of Exeter, 2012.
  • Brewer, Robert L. “63 Grammar Rules for Writers”. Writer’s Digest, 2020, pp. 4. https://www.writersdigest.com/write-better-fiction/grammar-rules-for-writers/
  • Bright, William. “What’s the Difference Between Speech and Writing.” Linguistic Society of America. https://www.linguisticsociety.org/resource/whats-difference-between-speech-and-writing. Accessed 22 September 2020.
  • Chafe, Wallace, and Deborah Tannen. “The Relation between Written and Spoken Language.” Annual Review of Anthropology, vol. 16, 1987, pp. 383–407. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2155877. Accessed 22 September 2020.
  • Cline, Casey. “Do You Write the Way You Speak? Here’s Why Most Good Writer’s Don’t”. Verblio, 2017. https://www.verblio.com/blog/write-the-way-you-speak/.
  • Elbow, Peter. “The Shifting Relationships between Speech and Writing.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 36, no. 3, 1985, pp. 283–303. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/357972. Accessed 22 September 2020.
  • “How Many Languages Are There in the World?” Ethnologue: Languages of the World. https://www.ethnologue.com/guides/how-many-languages
  • “How Many Languages in the World Are Unwritten?” Ethnologue: Languages of the World. https://www.ethnologue.com/enterprise-faq/how-many-languages-world-are-unwritten-0. Accessed 6 October 2020.
  • Muysken, Pieter. “Code-Switching and Grammatical Theory”. One Speaker, Two Languages: Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives on Code-Switching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Text, 1995 pp.155.
  • O’Donnell, Roy C. “Syntactic Differences Between Speech and Writing.” American Speech, vol. 29, no. ½, 1974, pp. 102–110. JSTOR, https://www-jstor-org.york.ezproxy.cuny.edu/stable/3087922. Accessed 22 September 2020.


Semantics, or the study of meaning in language, is one of the most complex subfields of lingusitics. Semantics can be approached on the word level, examining the meanings of particular words (lexical semantics), or on the level of compositionality, in which the way in which meanings interact and compose larger meanings is examined.

Lexical Semantics

Adapted from Anderson, Katherine. Essentials of Linguistics.  10.1 Elements of Word Meaning: Intensions and Extensions

Creative Commons License
This subsection is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

One way to define the meaning of a word is to point to examples in the world of things the word refers to; these examples are the word’s denotation, or extension. Another component of a word’s meaning is the list of attributes in our mind that describe the things the word can refer to; this list is the intension of a word.

If someone asked you, “What’s the meaning of the word pencil?” you’d probably be able to describe it — it’s something you write with, it has graphite in it, it makes a mark on paper that can be erased, it’s long and thin and doesn’t weigh much. Or you might just hold up a pencil and say, “This is a pencil”. Pointing to an example of something or describing the properties of something, are two pretty different ways of representing a word meaning, but both of them are useful.

One part of how our minds represent word meanings is by using words to refer to things in the world. The denotation of a word or a phrase is the set of things in the world that the word refers to. So one denotation for the word pencil is this pencil right here. All of these things are denotations for the word pencil.  Another word for denotation is extension.

If we look at the phrase, the Prime Minister of Canada, the denotation or extension of that phrase right now in 2017 is Justin Trudeau. So does it make sense to say that Trudeau is the meaning of that phrase the Prime Minister of Canada? Well, only partly: in a couple of years, that phrase might refer to someone else, but that doesn’t mean that its entire meaning would have changed. And in fact, several other phrases, like, the eldest son of former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, and the husband of Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, and the curly-haired leader of the Liberal Party all have Justin Trudeau as their current extension, but that doesn’t mean that all those phrases mean the same thing, does it? Along the same lines, the phrase the President of Canada doesn’t refer to anything at all in the world, because Canada doesn’t have a president, so the phrase has no denotation, but it still has meaning. Clearly, denotation or extension is an important element of word meaning, but it’s not the entire meaning.

We could say that each of these images is one extension for the word bird, but in addition to these particular examples from the bird category, we also have in our minds some list of attributes that a thing needs to have for us to label it as a bird. That mental definition is called our intension. So think for a moment: what is your intension for the word bird? Probably something like a creature with feathers, wings, claws, a beak, it lays eggs, it can fly. If you see something in the world that you want to label, your mental grammar uses the intension to decide whether that thing in the word is an extension of the label, to decide if it’s a member of the category.

One other important element to the meaning of a word is its connotation: the mental associations we have with the word, some of which arise from the kinds of other words it tends to co-occur with. A word’s connotations will vary from person to person and across cultures, but when we share a mental grammar, we often share many connotations for words. Look at these example sentences:

(1) Dennis is cheap and stingy.

(2) Dennis is frugal and thrifty.

Both sentences are talking about someone who doesn’t like to spend much money, but they have quite different connotations. Calling Dennis cheap and stingy suggests that you think it’s kind of rude or unfriendly that he doesn’t spend much money. But calling him frugal and thrifty suggests that it’s honorable or virtuous not to spend very much. Try to think of some other pairs of words that have similar meanings but different connotations.

To sum up, our mental definition of a word is an intension, and the particular things in the world that a word can refer to are the extension or denotation of a word. Most words also have connotations as part of their meaning; these are the feelings or associations that arise from how and where we use the word.

Compositionality and Ambiguity

Adapted from Anderson, Katherine. Essentials of Linguistics. 9.1 Ambiguity

Creative Commons License
This subsection is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

One core idea in linguistics is that the meaning of some combination or words (that is, of a compound, a phrase or a sentence) arises not just from the meanings of the words themselves, but also from the way those words are combined. This idea is known as compositionality: meaning is composed from word meanings plus morphosyntactic structures.

If structure gives rise to meaning, then it follows that different ways of combining words will lead to different meanings. When a word, phrase, or sentence has more than one meaning, it is ambiguous. The word ambiguous is another of those words that has a specific meaning in linguistics: it doesn’t just mean that a sentence’s meaning is vague or unclear. Ambiguous means that there are two or more distinct meanings available.

In some sentences, ambiguity arises from the possibility of more than one syntactic structure for the sentence. Think about this example:

Hilary saw the pirate with the telescope.

There are two interpretations available here: one is that Hilary has the telescope, and the other is that the pirate has the telescope. Later in this course, you will be able to explain the difference by showing that the prepositional phrase (don’t worry about what that is yet) with the telescope is connected to a structure controlled by either pirate or by saw. This single string of words has two distinct meanings, which arise from two different grammatical ways of combining the words in the sentence. This is known as structural ambiguity or syntactic ambiguity. Structural ambiguity can sometimes lead to some funny interpretations. This often happens in news headlines, where function words get omitted. For example, in December 2017, several news outlets reported, “Lindsay Lohan bitten by snake on holiday in Thailand”, which led a few commentators to express surprise that snakes take holidays.


Another source of ambiguity in English comes not from the syntactic possibilities for combining words, but from the words themselves. If a word has more than one distinct meaning, then using that word in a sentence can lead to lexical ambiguity. In this sentence:

Heike recognized it by its unusual bark.

It’s not clear whether Heike recognizes a tree by the look of the bark on its trunk, or if she recognizes a dog by the sound of its barking. In many cases, the word bark would be disambiguated by the surrounding context, but in the absence of contextual information, the sentence is ambiguous.



Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Chapter 2. A Crash Course in Linguistics Copyright © 2022 by Matt Garley; Karl Hagen; and The Students of ENG 270 at York College / CUNY is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book