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Functional re-evaluation of grammatical forms in context potential polysemy in grammar

The problem of potential polysemy in grammar is one of the most important, the one which is very complex and seems to be relevant to a number of aspects.

All languages seem to have polysemy on several levels. Like words which are often signs not of one but of several things, a single grammatical form can also be made to express a whole variety of structural meanings. This appears to be natural and is a fairly common development in the structure of any language. The linguistic mechanism works naturally in many ways to prevent ambiguity in patterns of grammatical structure. Orientation towards the context will generally show which of all the possible meanings is to be attached to a polysemantic grammatical form.

It is sometimes maintained that in case of grammatical polysemy we observe various structural meanings inherent in the given form, one of them being always invariable, i. e. found in any possible context of


the use of the form. And then, if this invariable structural meaning cannot be traced in different uses of the given form, we have homonymy. In point of fact, this angle of view does not seem erroneous.

Functional re-evaluation of grammatical forms is a source of constant linguistic interest. We may say with little fear of exaggeration that whatever may be the other problems of grammar learning the polysemantic character of grammatical forms is always primary in importance.

Most grammatical forms are polysemantic. On this level of linguistic analysis distinction should be made between synchronic and potential polysemy. Thus, for instance, the primary denotative meaning of the Present Continuous is characterised by three semantic elements (semes): a) present time, b) something progressive, c) contact with the moment of speech. The three semes make up its synchronic polysemy.

By potential polysemy we mean the ability of a grammatical form to have different connotative meanings in various contexts of its uses. Examine for illustration the connotative (syntagmatic) meanings of the Present Continuous signalled by the context in the following sentences:

Brian said to his cousin: "I'm signing on as well in a way, only for life. I'm getting married." Both stopped walking. Bert took his arm and stared: "You're not."

"I am. To Pauline (Sillitoe) — future time reference. "It was a wedding in the country. The best man makes a speech. He is beaming all over his face, and he calls for attention... (Gordon) — past time reference; ... "I'm sorry", he said, his teeth together, "You're not going in there". (Gordon) — the Present Continuous with the implication of imperative modality;

"I am always thinking of him", said she. (Maugham) — recurrent actions; She is always grumbling about trifles — the qualitative Present, the permanent characteristic of the subject.

The asymmetric dualism of the linguistic sign 1 appears to be natural and is a fairly common development in the structure of any language. One sign can have several semantic elements, and one semantic element may find its expression in different linguistic signs.

Suspension of oppositions on the morphological level presupposes establishing points of similarity between the contrasted members of a given opposition.

Transposition of grammatical forms will thus lead to their synonymic encounter.

The paradigmatic meaning of one grammatical form can coincide with the syntagmatic meaning of another, e. g.:

the Past Tense and the historic Present;

the Future Tense and the Present Tense used with future time relevance;

verb-forms of the Imperative and the Present Tense used with the implication of command, order or request.

1 See: S. Каrсevsку. Du dualisme asymétrique du signe linguistique. TCLP. Prague, 1929.


Syntagmatic meanings of different grammatical forms can also coincide.

Consider, for illustration, the functional similarity of the simple Present and Present Continuous in:

The House sits on Monday. (Galsworthy) I'm not coming back to England. (Galsworthy)

future time relevance


You're coming with me now! You will come with me now! You will be coming with me now!

imperative modality implied in the syntagmatic meanings of different grammatical forms.

Oppositions are known to take different specific character on different linguistic levels: in phonology, morphology and vocabulary.

The linguistic structure is a highly organised system where we generally distinguish syntagmatic and paradigmatic relationships between words.

Syntagmatic relationships are conditioned by the context and as such are generally said to be based on the linear character of speech.

Paradigmatic relations reveal themselves in the sets of forms constituting paradigms. Forms making up the paradigm are analysed in morphemic terms.

Morphological neutralisation is a development of syntagmatic order. Observations in this area of grammar have proved the efficiency of contextual, distributional and transformational methods of linguistic analysis. We distinguish here the interdependence of word-forms within the syntactic structure, the interdependence of elements within the word-forms and the influence of other levels of the same language.

The problem of neutralisation on the grammatical level is relevant to a number of other important questions. These are: functional transpositions in grammar, contextual restrictions of grammatical meanings, the linguistic nature of the context which resolves ambiguity providing the formal clue to distinguish the necessary meaning in a position of neutralisation and contextual synonymy in grammar.

S. Karcevsky rightly points out that transpositions on the grammatical level are more regular and less free than lexical ones.

Transpositions of grammatical forms resulting in the neutralisation of meaning cannot be studied without a considerable relevance to a system of oppositions of which the given form is a part. It has been customary to say that grammatical forms make up an opposition if they have one grammatical feature in common and are contrasted by one or several points of their denotative content. The common element is the grammatical category itself revealed in the linguistic forms of its expression. Transposition is generally based on some points of the grammatical meaning which is retained though somewhat transformed thus producing the necessary effect in communication. This transformation may be of different kind. If, for instance, transposition results in yielding synonyms the latter are not interchangeable. As we shall further see, transpositions are always attended by the neutralisation of the contrasted grammatical meaning in special syntactic, lexical or situational environment where the given word-form occurs.


We find it necessary to distinguish two types of transposition on the morphological level:

  1. regular transpositions established by long use in ordinary denotative grammar and

  2. stylistic transpositions of special connotative value in expressive language.

Regular ordinary transpositions may be well illustrated by indirect speech with the concord of tenses which usually occurs between the finite verb in the main clause and that in the object clause of a complex sentence reporting a statement or question.

He says he knows all about it. He said he knew all about it.

Regular transpositions also occur in subordinate clauses of condition and time for the logical reasons of economising speech efforts 1 e. g.: I shall recognise the place directly I see it.

(I see it = I shall see it) If I receive her letter, I shall ring you up.

(I receive = I shall receive)

The necessary meaning is generally signalled by the verb-form of the principal clause.

It is important to observe that the content of a grammatical form may be signalled by:

1. The lexical meaning of the words combined with a given grammatical form. These are often, for instance, adverbs of future time: tomorrow, next week, next month, next year, soon, etc. which will signal futurity in the use of the Present Indefinite and Present Continuous, e. g.: She comes up tomorrow night. She is coming up tomorrow night. Cf.: Експедиція прибуває наступного тижня.

Adverbs of past time will generally give the formal clue to distinguish the use of the Present tense with past time reference, e. g.: Fancy, I come home yesterday and find her letter on my table. Cf.: Уявляєш собі, приходжу я вчора додому...

The Present Continuous in patterns with adverbs of frequency and

1 Conveying the necessary information by the use of the present tense in such patterns of grammatical structure is most reasonably economic. This is one of the numerous examples illustrating the primary point of the theory of information which can be wholly applied to the functional aspect of language. Examples to illustrate "economy of speech" in human communication may be found in numbers. So-called sentence fragments, or, say, verbless predicatives and shortened forms in colloquial speech (apocope, syncope and aphaeresis), the use of auxiliaries as verb-substitutes, clipped words and extreme abbreviations of different kind will give sufficient evidence to recognise this regular universal feature in language development. In English it may be well illustrated by various other examples, such as:

(I'm) afraid not. (I shall) see you again to-morrow. That do? (Will that do?) Well, I never.


repetition will imply the frequentative character of the action, e. g.: He is for ever finding faults with whatever you do. I'm always thinking of him.

2. The whole syntactical structure, e. g.: I shall recognise the place directly I see it.

Oh, to have this happen when Rhett was just on the point of declaration. (Mitchell)

3. Consituation or "implied" context. Instances are not few when the meaning of a grammatical form is signalled by the context much larger than a given sentence or by a whole situation of the utterance. Examples are not far to seek.

Her thin arms slid away from his neck: "You'll soon get back to the English way". He was used to the rhythm of her voice, so that while complete sentences registered more quickly he lost the facility for reading hidden meanings in them, accents and stresses being removed as the need for repetition wanted. His dexterity at reading morse rhythms had proved a loss in that it enabled him to master Mimi's too soon, and because her own language was Chinese, she was able to hide so much in her flat deliverance of English. "I'm not going back to England", he said. (Sillitoe)

Michael walks and talks. (Galsworthy) — the implication of the past is made clear by the contents of the whole chapter.

How mysterious women were! One lived alongside and knew nothing of them. What could she have seen in that fellow Bosinney to send her mad? For there was madness after all in what she had done crazy moonstruck madness, in which all sense of values had been lost, and her life and his life ruined! (Galsworthy)

It's a kind of queer peace, and I often wonder how I could have been so torn and tortured. (Galsworthy)

It is important to remember that could + Infinitive II may imply two diametrically opposite meanings: a) a real action in the past and b) a non-fact with reference to the past. And here the implied context is all that can be considered relevant.

It is indeed true that languages seem to offer fairly "naturally" a large measure of polarisation, but it is usual to find the antonymous polarity restricted to certain contexts. Observations in this domain will serve to remind us that the history of grammar displays a peculiar unity of opposites — manifestation of the dialectic nature of language.

The meaning of each necessary grammatical abstraction makes itself clear only in the course of its usage.

Compare also the following patterns with the verb should:

Had I known about it, I should have come yesterday. (should + Infinitive II used with reference to a non-fact).

That science in the USSR should have attained so high a level of development is but natural (should + Infinitive II expressing a real action in the past with special emphasis laid upon its realisation).

We may say with little fear of exaggeration that whatever may be the other problems of grammar learning the potential polysemy of grammatical forms is always primary in importance. The variety of meaning as potentially implicit in a grammatical form, which we naturally associate with the development of synonymy in grammar, may be illustrated by numerous examples.


Take, for instance, the multifarious use of the inflected genitive which in Modern English may be of possession, origin, source, consisting of, extent of, association with or direction towards. There is no formal differentiation between different patterns and this may lead to ambiguity but generally the context or lexical probability makes clear which is meant.

Compare the following:

his brother's room (possession)

his brother's information (source)

his brother's invention (authorship)

his brother's arrival (subjective

duty's call genitive)

joy's recollection (objective

the criminal's arrest genitive)

wife's duty (qualitative

lawyer's life meaning)

It is interesting to note that the qualitative genitive may be synonymous with adjectives of kindred meaning, but they are not always interchangeable: wife's = wifely, wifelike; mother's = motherly, father's = = fatherly, etc.

Compare the following: Soames was silent for some minutes; at last he said: "I don't know what your idea of a wife's duty is. I never have known!" (Galsworthy)

(wife's duty = the duty of a wife)

Irene, whose opinion he secretly respected and perhaps for that reason never solicitated, had only been into the room on rare occasions, in discharge of some wifely duty. (Galsworthy)

(wifely = befitting, like, or pertaining to a wife)


We next turn our attention to synonymy in grammar as immediately relevant to the study of potential polysemy of grammatical forms discussed above.

There is a system behind the development of grammatical synonyms in any language. This is a universal linguistic feature and may be traced in language after language. English shares these feature with a number of tongues, but its structural development has led to such distinctive traits as merit attention. Observations in this area are most useful for insight into the nature and functioning of the language.

The very concept of synonymy implies variation. It does not mean however that we must include under grammatical synonyms absolute parallelisms which are presented by different kind of grammatical doublets such as, for instance, variant forms of degrees of comparison of adjectives: clever cleverer the cleverest and clever more clever the most clever; capable capabler the capablest and capable more capable the most capable, etc., or, say, variation in forms observed in the plural of nouns e. g.: hoofs hooves; wharfs wharves, etc.


There are no absolute synonyms in grammar. And this is to illustrate the fact that a language does not for any length of time retain side by side two means of expressing exactly the same thing. This would burden the language.

Synonymic forms in grammar are not exactly alike, they commonly have fine shares of difference in style and purpose, and students need to be alive to these differences. There is always selection in the distribution of grammatical forms in actual speech. They must harmonise with the context as appropriate to a given situation.

The change in synonymous grammatical forms is often a change in style, and the effect on the reader is quite different. Even a slight alteration in the grammatical device can subtly shift the meaning of the utterance. Examine the following sentence:

"... Have you been wounding him?"

"It is my misfortune to be obliged to wound him", said Clara.

"Quite needlessly, my child, for marry him you must". (Dreiser)

Ellen had wrung her hands and counseled delay, in order that Scarlett might think the matter over at greater length. But to her pleadings, Scarlett turned a sullen face and a deaf ear. Marry she would! And quickly, too. Within two weeks. (Mitchell)

Cf.: Marry she would! and She would marry.

We cannot fail to see that there is a marked difference in style between the two verb forms: the former is neutral, the latter is highly expressive.


"But, no matter when her foot healed she would walk to Jonesboro. It would be the longest walk she had ever taken in her life, but walk it she would". (Mitchell)

Cf.: walk it she would she would walk it

As synonyms in grammar express different shades of the grammatical meaning, one should be careful in the choice of the right forms, the best to convey the subtler nuances of that meaning.

Knowledge of synonymic differentiation between the grammatical forms permits a systematic, objective investigation and description of style. Many of the most characteristic stylistic traits of diverse writers are, indeed, in the field of grammar. A study of grammatical synonyms can also supply a descriptive foundation for the aesthetic interpretation and comparison of diverse styles. Synonyms lend variety to language. There are different manners of writing, and these differ among themselves not only by virtue of the content or the subject matter treated but also by virtue of a host of "stylistic" elements which are present in varying degree in samples of communication.

It is most important to observe that grammatical forms may differ in connotative power; they grow in connotation in accordance with the nature of the meanings connected with them. In the power of their connotation lies the reserve force of expressive language. To acquire a sense of their right use students of English should study them in context in the light of their relations with other grammatical devices. With this approach to the study of the distributional value of word-forms grammar takes on new life.


The problem of synonymy in grammar has received due attention in linguistic investigations of recent years.

There is much truth in what V. N. Yartseva says about the necessity of a consistent linguistic approach to the problem of synonymy in grammar, in general. The first to be mentioned here is a conscious understanding of the organic relation between different aspects of language. The merging of morphology, syntax and vocabulary into one brings little scientific order to language learning and is always responsible for the distortion of linguistic facts.

With regard to the methodology employed in our description of synonymy in grammar there are certain observations which are pertinent tо a summary statement. It will be helpful to distinguish between a) paradigmatic synonyms and b) contextual synonyms or synonyms by function in speech.

In English morphology synonyms of the first group are very few in number. Such are, for instance, synthetical and analytical forms in the Subjunctive and Suppositional Mood, e. g.:

...'I now move, that the report and accounts for the year 1886 be received and adopted". (Galsworthy)

(be received and adopted = should be received and adopted)

Paradigmatic synonyms with similarity in function and structural features may also be exemplified by the following:

Non-emphatic Emphatic

Present Indefinite

I know

I do know

He knows

He does know

Past indefinite

I knew

I did know

Imperative Mood


Do come

Analytical verbal forms with the intensive do can express a whole variety of subjective modal meanings: pleasure, admiration, affection, surprise, anger, mild reproach, encouragement, admonition, etc.,

e. g.

Oh! darling, don't ache! I do so hate it for you. (Galsworthy) There was so much coming and going round the doors that they did not like to enter. Where does he live? I did see him coming out of the hotel. (Galsworthy)

Eagerly her eyes searched the darkness. The roof seemed to be intact. Could it be could it be ? No, it wasn't possible. War stopped for no-thing, not even Tara, built to last five hundred years. It could not have passed over Tara. Then the shadowy outline did take form. The white walls did show there through the darkness. Tara had escaped. Home! (Mitchell)


But Swithin, hearing the name Irene, looked severely at Euphemia, who, it is true, never did look well in a dress, whatever she may have done on other occasions. (Galsworthy)

For the sake of stronger emphasis the principal verb may be given first and the emphatic do placed at the end. This is often the case in clauses of contrast or concession, e. g.:

When he looked up, her face wore again that strange expression.

I can't tell, he thought as he went out, but I mustn't think I mustn't worry. But worry he did, walking toward Pall Mall. (Galsworthy)

And follow her he did, though bothered by unfamiliar words that fell glibly from her lips. (London)

Strong emphasis is also produced by using pleonastic patterns with segmentations, e. g.: He never did care for the river, did Montmorency. (Jerome)

As we have already said, there are no absolute synonyms in grammar. Synonymic forms will generally differ either in various shades of the common grammatical meaning, expressive connotation or in stylistic value. The former may be referred to as relative synonyms, the latter as stylistic ones.

Further examples of paradigmatic synonyms will be found among the so-called periphrastic forms of the English verb.

Relatively synonymous are, for instance, the Future Indefinite tense-forms and the periphrastic "to be going to" future. A simple affirmative statement of intention with no external circumstances mentioned (time, condition, reason, etc.) is generally expressed by the periphrastic form. When a future action depends on the external circumstances the "to be going to" is rare. Cf.:

1. a) He will sell his house, (rare)

b) He's going to sell his house. (normal)

2. a) He'll sell it if you ask him. (normal)

b) He is going to sell it if you ask him. (rare) 1

To be going to with a personal subject implies a much stronger intention than the Future Tense with shall/will does. Here is an excellent example of its emotional use in expressive language:

... "I'm going to have money some day, lots of it, so I can have anything I want to eat. And then there'll never be any hominy or dried peas on my table. And I'm going to have pretty clothes and all of them are going to be silk..." I'm going to have money enough so the Yankees can never take Таrа away from me. And I'm going to have a new roof for Таrа and a new barn and fine mules for plowing and more cotton that you ever saw. And Wade isn't ever going to know what it means to do without the thing he needs. Never! He's going to have everything in the world. And all my family, they aren't ever going to be hungry again. I mean it. (Mitchell)

Further examples are:

"I never thought about what it meant to Wade", said Rhett slowly. "I never thought how he's suffered. And it's not going to be that way for Bonnie." (Mitchell)

1 See: R. W. Zandvoort. A Handbook of English Grammar. London, 1965, pp. 77—78.


He ought to understand! "He piles up his money for me", she thought; but what's the use, if I'm not going to be happy? Money, and all it 'ought, did not bring happiness". (Galsworthy)

Darling, said Dinny, I do hope things are going to be all right. (Gals-worthy)

Dinny put her hand on his sleeve. "You are not going to lose your job. I've seen Jack Muskham". (Galsworthy)

Quivering at the thought of this long dark night with her, he yet knew

it was going to be torture. (Galsworthy)

Patterns with the passive auxiliaries be and get will also illustrate grammatical synonyms of the first type.

The passive forms in Modern English are represented by analytic combinations of the auxiliary verb to be with the past participle of the conjugated verb. The verb to get can also function as an auxiliary of the passive, e. g.: (1) My dress got caught on a nail. (2) He got struck by a stone. these are not new usages, but ones which are spreading.

To get seems closer to the true passive auxiliary be in patterns like the following: She got blamed for everything. She gets teased by the other children.

The stabilisation of lexico-grammatical devices to indicate the aspective character of the action has also contributed to the development of synonymy in Modern English.

A special interest attaches to contextual synonyms on the grammatica1 level created through transposition of related grammatical forms, Neutralisation of the distinctive features of the opposed grammatical forms leads to situational synonymy.

Here are a few examples to illustrate the statement:

(1) Are you coming to the PPRS Board on Tuesday? (Galsworthy) (The Supposition Present — Future is neutralised; Are you coming? is synonymus with Will you come?)


(2) Whom do you think I travelled with? Fleur Mont. We ran up against each other at Victoria. She's taking her boy to boring next week to convalesce him. (Galsworthy) (She's taking = she will take)

Present Continuous and Present Indefinite may function as situational synonyms in cases like the following:

  1. Dicky! said James. You are always wasting money on something. (Galsworthy) (You are always wasting is synonymous with You always waste).

  2. She is continually imagining dangers when they do not exist. (She is imagining = she imagines).

  3. June read: Lake Okanagen. British Columbia, I'm not coming back to England. Bless you always.John. (Galsworthy) (I'm not coming = = I shall not come).

  4. Fleur huddled her chin in her fur. It was easterly and cold. A voice behind her said: Well, Fleur, am I going East? (Galsworthy) Cf. Am I going East? = Shall I go East?

And here is a good example to illustrate how the situational context can neutralise the opposition "Indicative — Imperative":

"Let me get in there". He tried to brush Anthony aside. But Anthony firmly stood his ground.

"I'm sorry", he said, his teeth together, "You're not going in there". (Gordon) (Cf. syn. You are not going there = Don't go = You shall not go there).

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