Category: Semantics

Semantics is the study of meaning in communication.

So many negative prefixes

15 Sep 2008 In: Etymology, Morphology, Phonology, Semantics

In English, we can use a number of prefixes on adjectives to form their opposites. The following pairs come to mind as examples:

typical atypical
hydrous anhydrous
social antisocial
honest dishonest
legal illegal
possible impossible
active inactive
regular irregular
existent nonexistent
kind unkind

In most cases, these prefixes are not interchangeable, so we do not have *unlegal or *apossible, for instance. Of course, fluent speakers have no problem in using the right prefix for the right word, as more than often, the negative adjectives are learned word by word. But that should not stop us from pausing and asking, “Are these prefixes randomly matched with the words?” The lesson from Why is probible not possible and possable not probable? tells us that while not everything has a reason, most things indeed do not come from nothing. So the question that we should really ask is “What are the differences between these prefixes?”

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Even though vs even if

4 Aug 2008 In: Contrastive Analysis, Semantics, Syntax

Yesterday I had private lessons with two students who were in form 6 and 7 respectively, and were thus reasonably advanced learners. Nevertheless, both students failed to distinguish between the meanings of even though and even if when they encountered them in an article. Therefore, I think it is justified to create a new category under the title “Contrastive Analysis,” dedicated to comparing various aspects of the English and Chinese grammars which differ from each other, as it will be of practical uses to Chinese learners of English, and possibly to English learners of Chinese as well.

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Impossible is nothing!

25 Jun 2008 In: Pragmatics, Semantics, Syntax
Impossible is nothing

“Able was I ere I saw Elba.” – Napolean

Poetic as it may sound, “able was I ere” is not a sentence we may normally use, even if we forgive the archaism of the expression. When you introduce yourself to someone, it is customary to say ”My name is Thomas” rather than “Thomas is my name”. Grammatically speaking, there is nothing in particular that forbids you to say that. The verb ‘to be’ is a so-called copular verb, which means that it acts like an equal sign, signifying that the two nouns or adjectives surrounding it are equal (or at least that is the simplistic view). For an equal sign, then, which one of the two arguments comes first should not be a matter of concern, because they are, after all, equal. But we know that is not true.

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