Linguistics Department

Colloquium - Patrick Hanks (University of Wolverhampton, Wolverhampton, England)

Meaning and Phraseology

Mon, September 25, 2017 | CLA 1.302B (Glickman Center)

3:00 PM - 5:00 PM

In this talk, I will develop a theme that was articulated by the late Professor John Sinclair (1998) in the following words: “Many, if not most, meanings depend on the presence of more than one word for their normal realization.”

If Sinclair is right about this (and the evidence suggests that he is), his simple observation presents a serious challenge to traditional dictionaries and traditional theories of meaning. This is because dictionaries, especially monolingual dictionaries, present lists of words, each of which is associated with a list of one or more definitions, which are sometimes believed to represent all the possible meanings of the definiendum (the word being defined). However, such dictionaries rarely if ever say anything about how one meaning can be distinguished from another.

I shall argue that, strictly speaking, words do not have meaning.  Instead, each word has a range of meaning potentials. Different aspects of a word’s meaning potential are activated by different contexts. Language users make meaning by two different but interlinked rule systems: 1) ordinarily, people observe phraseological norms (regularly recurring phraseological patterns) in order to to create ordinary, everyday meaningful utterances; 2) people can also exploit normal patterns creatively in various ways.  If time allows, I will conclude by saying something about the nature of linguistic creativity.


Sinclair, John (1998); ‘The lexical item.’ In Edda Weigand (ed.), Contrastive Lexical Semantics. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins.


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