I would like to thank my supervisor PhDr. Naděžda Kudrnáčová, CSc. for her patience, support and valuable advice she provided me.
The aim of this thesis is to examine a selected group of four English adjectives: awful, dreadful, horrible and terrible. These adjectives are usually regarded as synonyms. What is, however, generally acknowledged is that it is almost impossible to find two or more lexemes which would have the same meaning and which would be interchangeable in all contexts. Therefore, the possible differences in the meanings of these adjectives are discussed in this thesis. For this purpose the adjective-noun collocations are examined.
The thesis is divided into two parts. The first part, or the theoretical part, provides the reader with a necessary theoretical background for this thesis. As the examination of the adjectives is of main concern, the first subchapter of the theoretical part deals with the notion of the word class adjectives. The definitions of the adjectives are given, their functions are discussed and the position of the adjectives awful, dreadful, horrible and terrible within this word class is established. Next, the notions of synonymy, absolute synonymy, cognitive synonymy and near-synonymy are introduced. As the research is based on the examination of the adjective-noun collocations, the definition of the term collocation is specified in this part of the thesis as well. Last but not least, one subchapter is dedicated to the corpus and corpus linguistics because the material which is discussed throughout the whole practical part is taken from the British National Corpus. The information on this particular database is given as well.
The practical part of the thesis is divided into three major subchapters. In the first subchapter the nouns which in the BNC collocate with the adjectives awful, dreadful, horrible and terrible are divided into ten semantic groups. The criteria according to which the groups which will be further examined in the practical part of the thesis are selected are established. There are in total six semantic subgroups which are examined in the practical part of the thesis: Area, Building, Body, Injuries and Deformities, Animals, Creatures and Plants, and Food and Drinks. The following subchapter is dedicated to the examination of the dictionary definitions of the adjectives awful, dreadful, horrible and terrible taken from four different dictionaries. The adjective-noun collocations which the adjectives analysed form with nouns are of main concern in the last subchapter of the practical part of the thesis. Nouns and their use with the adjectives are examined in the following format: First, a brief characterisation of the semantic subgroup in question is given. The nouns which form the subgroup are divided into six tables according to whether they collocate with awful only, dreadful only, horrible only, terrible only, or whether they collocate with more than one of these adjectives. Second, each subgroup contains overviews of senses which the adjectives have when they collocate with nouns from the semantic subgroup in question. There is always one separate overview for each of the adjectives. These data are discussed and compared in the summary part to this section. Finally, the cases in which nouns which collocate with more than one of the adjectives are discussed. The use of the nouns which co-occur with all four adjectives is discussed in a separate subchapter.
Apart from the theoretical and practical part, the thesis also contains an appendix, which comprises nouns which are not included in the analysis.
1 Theoretical Part
In this thesis, the adjectives awful, dreadful, horrible and terrible are of main concern. Therefore, it is relevant to define their properties and position they assume within the system of word class adjectives before the actual research will be presented.
Leech (1991: 13) defines adjectives as follows: “Adjectives describe the qualities of people, things, places, etc.” Crystal offers a similar definition of adjectives when he states that adjective is “a term used in the grammatical classification of words to refer to the main set of items which specify the attributes of nouns” (1985: 7). Chalker points out that “modern grammar prefers to define adjectives – like other major word-classes – by (a) position/function and (b) form and inflection” (1984: 162). What is emphasised by grammarians (e.g. Chalker, Crystal, Huddleston or Quirk) are four properties or features the most central members of this word class have. Huddleston explains that “no one of these properties is unique to adjectives, but only adjectives possess all four” (1984: 299-300). Quirk et al. define these properties of adjectives as follows (1972: 231-2):
(1) They can freely occur in attributive position, i.e. they can premodify a noun,
(2) They can freely occur in predicative position, i.e. they can function as subject complement, or as object complement,
(3) They can be premodified by the intensifier very,
(4) They can take comparative and superlative forms whether inflectionally, or by the addition of the premodifiers more and most (periphrastic comparison).
Quirk et al. emphasise that attributive and predicative syntactic functions “are termed the major syntactic functions, since a word that cannot function either attributively or predicatively is not recognized as an adjective” (1972: 246). Adjectives are divided into two groups according to whether they occur only in one of the major syntactic functions or in both. Hladký comments: “A central adjective can freely occur both in attributive function and in predicative function. A peripheral adjective can occur in only one of these functions” (1998: 55).
As far as the adjectives awful, dreadful, horrible and terrible are concerned, they all have the properties mentioned above and, therefore, may be regarded as central members of word class adjectives.
Chalker comments that “some adjectives have a descriptive meaning that can be both attributive and predicative, plus an attributive-only intensifying or limiting meaning” (1984: 164). The studied adjectives fall into this category as well. E.g. awful weather -› the weather is awful (in this case, the adjective awful may be used both attributively and predicatively), awful fool (only attributive position is possible).
Quirk et al. distinguish three semantic subclasses of intensifying adjectives (1971: 260):
That the adjectives awful, dreadful, horrible and terrible are able to occur in attributive function is crucial to conducting my research as it is based on examination of the adjective-noun collocations, i.e. only if an adjective can assume the attributive position it can be examined in this way.
As Crystal states in his book Linguistics, “for the most part, we convey our meaning by relying on the network of sense relationships which the lexemes of the language have built up between them” (1985: 237). Cruse agrees and states that “meaning is to be studied by observing the interactions between elements and other elements, in larger constructions such as sentences” (2000: 43).
In this thesis, the adjectives awful, dreadful, horrible and terrible, which are usually regarded as synonyms, are examined. The aim of my research, which is based on examination of a number of contexts these adjectives appear in, is to find out whether they may be regarded as cognitive synonyms or not. As the concept of synonymy is crucial to the work, it will be dealt with in this chapter. I will introduce some of the ideas the linguists discuss when dealing with synonymy.
I will now introduce five definitions of synonymy and synonyms. As far as synonymy is concerned Crystal defines it as follows: “Synonymy can be said to occur if items are close enough in their meaning to allow a choice to be made between them in some contexts, without there being any difference for the meaning of the sentence as a whole” (1985: 299). Harris argues that “synonymy is held to be sameness of meaning of different expressions” (1973: 11). Yule offers the following definition of synonymy: “Two or more words with very closely related meanings are called synonyms” (2006: 104). According to McArthur, a synonym is “a word with the same or nearly the same meaning as another word in the same language” (1981: 368). Jackson argues that “synonymy [...] needs to be defined in terms of contexts of use: two words are synonyms if they can be used interchangeably in all sentence contexts” (1988: 65).
What may be observed from these definitions is that they are not unanimous. As far as Jackson’s and Harris’ definitions are concerned, the criteria two or more words have to meet to be regarded as synonyms are as follows: they must have the same meaning and they must be interchangeable in all contexts. On the other hand, Crystal’s, Yule’s and McArthur’s criteria are less strict. According to them it is possible to regard two or more words as synonymous if they have “very closely related meanings” or “nearly the same meaning.”
To explain the discrepancy in definitions above, Lyons argues that “one may distinguish a stricter and a looser interpretation of the term ‘synonymy’” (1968: 446). Cruse claims that “if we interpret synonymy simply as sameness of meaning, then it would appear to be a rather uninteresting relation; if, however, we say that synonyms are words whose semantic similarities are more salient than their differences, then a potential area of interest opens up” (2000: 156). He also says that “within the class of synonyms [...] some pairs of items are more synonymous than others, and this raises the possibility of a scale of synonymity of some kind” (1986: 267-268). He concludes that “it is obvious that synonyms must have a significant degree of semantic overlap as evidenced by common semantic traits” (ibid. 266). Another important characteristic of synonyms is that “they must also have a low degree of implicit contrastiveness” (ibid.).
It may be seen that according to the linguists, there is a space for defining various types of synonymy. As Harris says, “pointing out various ways of distinguishing between alleged synonyms is the traditional pastime of synonymists” (1973: 13).
1.2.1 Absolute synonymy
Lyons (1995: 60-61) introduces three conditions which are necessary for two expressions to be regarded as absolute synonyms:
(i) all their meanings are identical;
(ii) they are synonymous in all contexts;
(iii) they are semantically equivalent (i.e., their meaning or meanings are identical) on all dimensions of meaning, descriptive and non-descriptive.
Cruse’s definition of absolute synonymy is as follows: “Absolute synonymy refers to complete identity of meaning [...] Absolute synonyms can be defined as items which are equinormal in all contexts: that is to say, for two lexical items X and Y, if they are to be recognized as absolute synonyms, in any context in which X is fully normal, Y is, too; in any context in which X is slightly odd, Y is also slightly odd, and in any context in which X is totally anomalous, the same is true for Y” (2000: 157).
Ullmann claims that “in contemporary linguistics it has become almost axiomatic that complete synonymy does not exist” (1967: 141). The linguists offer several explanations for this assumption. Hurford and Heasley claim that “examples of perfect synonymy are hard to find, perhaps because there is little point in a dialect having two predicates with exactly the same sense” (1983: 102). Jackson (1988: 66) agrees and opines that “the definition of synonymy as ‘interchangeable in all contexts’ is sometimes referred to as strict synonymy, and many linguists doubt whether synonymy of this kind occurs at all in language. He claims that “having two words which are totally synonymous, and even more so if there are large numbers of such pairs, is a luxury which a language can afford to do without” (ibid.). Cruse concludes that “The usefulness of the notion lies uniquely in its status as a reference point on a putative scale of synonymity” (2000: 157).
1.2.2 Cognitive (Propositional) synonymy
Cruse offers the following definition of cognitive (propositional) synonymy: “X is a cognitive synonym of Y if (i) X and Y are syntactically identical, and (ii) any grammatical declarative sentence S containing X has equivalent truth-conditions to another sentence S¹, which is identical to S except that X is replaced by Y” (1986: 88). In other words, “if two lexical items are propositional synonyms, they can be substituted in any expression with truth-conditional properties without effect on those properties” (2000: 158). He states that “differences in the meanings of propositional synonyms [...] necessarily involve one or more aspects of non-propositional meaning, the most important being (i) differences in expressive meaning, (ii) differences of stylistic level (on the colloquial-formal dimension), and (iii) differences of presupposed field of discourse” (ibid.). Therefore, “in the majority of cases, a lexical item must, in some respect at least, be different in meaning from any of its cognitive synonyms” (Cruse 1986: 271). Violin and fiddle are given as examples of cognitive synonyms.
1.2.3 Near-synonymy (Plesionyms)
The last type or degree of synonymy Cruse defines is near-synonymy. He argues that “synonyms do not function primarily to contrast with one another [...] in certain contexts, of course, they may contrast, and this is especially true of near-synonyms” (2000: 159). The distinction between cognitive synonyms and plesionyms is in the fact that plesionyms “yield sentences with different truth-conditions” (1986: 285). Cruse claims that “permissible differences between near-synonyms must be either minor, or backgrounded, or both. Among ‘minor’ differences may be counted: (i) adjacent position on scale of ‘degree’; (ii) certain adverbial specialization of verbs; (iii) aspectual distinctions; difference of prototype centre” (2000 159-160). Cruse provides the readers with various examples of near-synonyms, e.g. kill and murder (He was killed, but I can assure you he was not murdered, madam.).