Linguistics ‘Hall of Shame’ 29

Hi again, everybody! ‘Hall Of Shame’ continues (a short one this time!).


In his book The Structure of Complex Words , 2nd edn (Cambridge, MA, 1989), William Empson focuses upon the complex ‘play’ of semantically rich and variable words such as English man and in the ensuing potential for confused thinking.

Such ideas are by no means without interest; similar material can be found in the work of mainstream linguists. However, Empson’s own grasp of linguistics appears too weak for the task he has set himself. For example, his discussion of the various senses of the English word quite is rendered confused by his apparent ignorance of two key issues. Firstly, the distinction between the word’s two senses ‘altogether’ and ‘to some degree’ is quite sharp: these are discrete meanings, not parts of a continuum, and cases such as He was quite drunk thus exhibit ambiguity rather than vagueness as Empson appears to suggest (this is a matter of linguistic semantics). Secondly, the dialectology of this word is crucial in context. In its second sense, quite has a stronger force – akin to ‘very’ – in the USA than in the UK. The contrast between the two senses is thus even sharper in British than in American English. Writers like Empson need to learn more linguistics before pronouncing on such matters.

More next time!


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