Skip to navigation – Site map

HomeIssues19VariaEnglish adjectives of very simila...

Varia

English adjectives of very similar meaning used in combination: an exploratory, corpus-aided study

Stephen James Coffey

Abstracts

This article reports on research into the phenomenon whereby English adjectives of very similar meaning are sometimes used in combination, either as an uncoordinated sequence (as in ‘simple straightforward’) or as a coordinated pair (as in ‘dull and monotonous’). One of the preliminary goals of the research is to identify areas of meaning in which such adjective combinations typically occur. In order to find relevant examples, the British National Corpus was used as a source of textual material to work from.
The article explains the methodology employed to locate phrasal items of interest, which partly involved using the Phrases in English (PIE) database. Details are presented of ten specific areas of descriptive meaning where a number of different adjective combinations were found, as well as a set of emphasizing and/or intensifying adjectives with similar characteristics. Possible reasons are suggested for the doubling-up of meaning, and the relevance of the phenomenon to synonym studies is discussed. More than 200 corpus examples are included.

Top of page

Full text

Introduction

  • 1 All contextualized examples in this paper come from the British National Corpus, unless otherwise s (...)

1This article reports on a study of the phenomenon whereby English adjectives of very similar meaning are sometimes used close together in text, either one after the other or linked by the word and. Examples can be seen in the following short extracts from the British National Corpus (BNC):1

(1) In those days newspapers were filthy, grubby things, often virtually illegible [w]

(2) The council tax is a fair, balanced and carefully thought-out approach to local government finance [w]

(3) to save us from this dull and boring existence [w]

These examples reflect the three main ways in which prenominal adjectives combine in English: in (1) they form a direct sequence without a coordinator; in (2) they are part of a sequence in which the final adjective is preceded by a coordinator; and in (3) two adjectives form a coordinated pair.

2In predicative or other position, it is the norm for adjective sequences in English to include a coordinator. Examples with the word and, and again involving adjectives of similar meaning, are:

(4) If you want somewhere peaceful and quiet, away from work [w]

(5) communication and liaison with the other sections is easy, simple and efficient [w]

  • 2 The type of textual repetition exemplified is not to be confused with the phenomenon whereby a pers (...)

3In examples (1) to (5), the adjectival pairs are not presented in dictionaries as being of particular phraseological significance, and it is this more ‘textual’ repetition of meaning which is the main focus of the present study.2 There are similar sequences in English, by contrast, which are usually considered to be lexicalized units and which therefore involve no choice as regards the individual components. This applies especially to coordinated pairs, as in the following:

(6) It did not declare the Treaty to be null and void [w]

4A rare example of a non-coordinated sequence generally considered to be a fixed unit is great big (discussed below, in Section 4.2.3.):

(7) A great big old country house [s]

5Although fixed units such as null and void and great big are not the main focus of the paper, they will still be commented on. They represent the fixed end of the phraseological spectrum, and therefore provide a useful comparison with freer combinations. Also, there is sometimes a lack of consensus as to whether a given phrase should be considered to be a lexical unit in its own right. An example is the phrase prim and proper:

(8) We had to entertain a very prim and proper Swiss lady the other day [w]

  • 3 The corpus-based dictionaries consulted in this study were: Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary(...)

6The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) lists prim and proper in the Phrases section of the entry for prim, which I take to mean that it is judged to be highly lexicalized. This may be contrasted with five corpus-based dictionaries consulted (CBDs), three of which give prim and proper collocational status but none of which present it as a lexical unit.3

7Following on from this last point, it should also be mentioned that while corpus-based dictionaries are excellent resources, sometimes low corpus frequency may result in a given phrase slipping under the radar. This appears to be the case, for example, of the phrase plain and simple:

(9) This is harassment, plain and simple [w]

8This phrase (with this usage) is given headword status in MEDAL and is indicated as a collocation in OALD, but it is absent from the other three corpus-based dictionaries.

1. Aims, terminology, and outline of the article

9The main aims of the present article are to describe the methodology employed to locate corpus examples of relevant adjective sequences, to report on the types of adjective and the types of meaning which were found, and to speculate on the possible reasons for sense repetition of the types described. A further, broader, aim is to stimulate interest in this aspect of the description of English, especially as a way of broadening our knowledge and understanding of synonymy.

  • 4 Fixed binomials have also been referred to by a number of other names – see Kopaczyk & Sauer [2017: (...)

10With regard to terminology, the adjective combinations will be referred to as follows: where there is coordination between two items, I will use the term ‘binomial’ to refer to fixed phrases (or ‘trinomial’ in the case of three adjectives), and refer simply to ‘coordinated phrases’ when talking about freer combinations.4 If there is no coordination, I will refer to ‘non-coordinated sequences’ or ‘direct sequences’.

  • 5 In general, the concepts and terminology relating to synonymy in language studies are not as clear (...)

11To refer to the concept of ‘very similar meaning’, I will use the term ‘near-synonymy’. This is preferred to ‘synonymy’ in recognition of the fact that absolute synonymy is a very rare phenomenon in language (see, for example, Crystal [1997: 105] and Dolezal [2013]).5 And if there are any adjective pairs included in the present study to which the term ‘synonymy’ might be appropriate, I will not refer to them as such – ‘near-synonym’ is the umbrella term.

12The rest of the article is structured in the following way. Section 2 comments on previous research of relevance to the object of study. In Section 3 there is further discussion of what is meant by near-synonymy in the context of the current article. Section 4 describes the methodology employed to find relevant corpus examples, and also discusses phrases which were found but which do not exactly correspond to the types being looked for. In Section 5, examples of relevant findings are presented, and Section 6 discusses the findings in relation to other aspects of language description.

2. Data and description in previous studies

13The most widely commented on aspect of repeated adjective meaning is probably that of fixed binomials of the type null and void. Repeated word meaning (of any part-of-speech category) is one of several defining features whereby some coordinated items are judged to be fixed binomials. Further examples of adjectival binomials which have been cited in the literature in relation to repeated meaning are each and every, fair and square (involving a previous sense of square), fit and proper, and safe and sound (see, for example, Malkiel [1959], Makkai [1972], Miller [2014], and Kopaczyk & Sauer [2017]).

14Shifting the focus from form (binomials) to meaning, the semantic field which has received most attention in relation to repeated adjective meaning is probably that of ‘size’. For example, in Huddleston & Pullum [2002: 562], there is a brief section devoted to what the authors refer to as ‘intensificatory tautology’ in non-coordinated adjective sequences. They say that the phenomenon “belongs to informal style, and is found with a very narrow range of adjective meanings – normally ‘very small’ or ‘very big’ …”. The examples they give are: huge big, tiny little, enormous great, great big, whopping great, and thumping big. The present author has published a corpus-based study of such adjective sequences (Coffey [2013]) and some of the findings are shared in the current article. They are also examined, from a diachronic perspective in González-Díaz [2021]. Sequences involving, in particular, the word little have been commented on in relation to the adjective’s affective meaning (see, for example, González-Díaz [2010] and Matthews [2009]).

  • 6 With regard to the paradigmatic axis, and to adjectives in particular, there have been several stud (...)

15Other references to repeated adjectival meaning can be found sporadically in the literature on synonymy. For example, Moon [2013: 264] cites three corpus examples of the phrase brave and courageous. Normally, however, studies of synonymic relations are concerned with the paradigmatic axis of language description, not the syntagmatic.6

16It is also quite probable that stylistic studies of specific writers or orators provide information about the repetition of adjectival meaning.

3. Near-synonymy in the context of the present study

17With regard to the concept of ‘very similar meaning’ used in the title of this paper, a first important point to make is that judgements of closeness of meaning were made with reference to the examples found in the corpus. Sometimes dictionaries were also consulted in relation to the semantic properties of individual adjectives, but it was always interpretation of textual usage which was paramount. As Paradis writes [2001: 59-60], “Adjectives are semantically underspecified and require the presence of a noun for a fully-fledged interpretation”.

18With regard to how similar the adjectives needed to be for the purposes of the present study, the central idea is that very little extra meaning (that is, qualitatively different meaning) results from there being two or more adjectives instead of one; the extra adjective/s are mostly ‘more of the same’, so to speak.

19The examples given so far are intended to reflect the type of meaning relationship investigated: filthy, grubby things; a fair, balanced approach; this dull and boring existence; communication and liaison is easy, simple and efficient; somewhere peaceful and quiet.

20By contrast, the following are examples of items which were noted while examining sequences of adjectives in the corpus, but which were set aside because not close enough in meaning:

(10) the other was a tall gangling individual with deep set eyes [w]

(11) One was big and burly, the other was smaller [w]

21In these two cases, the meaning of the first adjective is implicit in the second, and the second provides an additional and very specific physical sense. Other examples of adjective pairs which were excluded are new / innovative, bright / sunny, and exclusive / private:

(12) the church has the responsibility to continue to find new and innovative ways of reaching out [s]

(13) We went out into the bright sunny street [w]

(14) A golf-mad couple have been banned from using an exclusive private course which surrounds their home [w]

  • 7 For some further discussion of what type of semantic relationships might be termed ‘near-synonymy’, (...)

22Of course, what is included and what is excluded in a study of near-synonymy is largely a methodological issue, that is, what degree of synonymy is being looked for. Certainly, the exclusion of combinations such as tall gangling and bright and sunny does not mean that they are not worth studying as a group in their own right.7

23Finally, it is worth remembering that when adjectives of like meaning are used together, the usual perspective on (near-)synonymy changes a little. One of the basic notions in text-based evaluation of synonymy is that of substitutability (Murphy [2010: 110]); and synonymy is therefore (Paradis [1997: 68]) “a lexical relation which holds on the paradigmatic axis”. The syntagmatic axis is also involved of course, notably (in the case of adjectives) with reference to adjective-noun collocational patterning. However, where co-occurring adjectives are concerned, the syntagmatic axis necessarily becomes an even more significant factor, or at least significant in a different way.

4. The methodology employed

24In order to locate adjectival sequences involving synonyms or near-synonyms, the ideal situation would be to have access to a very large corpus which is both grammatically and semantically tagged, and to a high degree of reliability. However, as yet there is no such corpus. As Gries & Otani write [2010: 122]:

[C]orpora do not provide meanings or functions that can be readily extracted and compared, but only the distributions of formal elements – morphosyntactic and lexical (and, depending on the corpus, sometimes phonological or orthographic) elements.

25The decision to use the British National Corpus was, then, a compromise solution, and it was a useful corpus for a number of reasons. First of all, it is a well-established corpus, with both written and spoken components. Secondly, while it is large enough to reasonably expect to find a considerable number of phrases of the type being investigated, at the same time it is not so large that one would have to sift through too much irrelevant data to find the phrases of interest. Thirdly, it was possible to extract phraseological data with the aid of the Phrases in English database (see 4.1.).

26The BNC was also the corpus used in the study of size adjectives mentioned above ([Coffey 2013]), but in that case the search for relevant phraseology was much simpler. A specific semantic field was the starting-point, so it was only necessary to make a list of relevant adjectives and see whether and in what way they were found to co-occur in the corpus. These lists were drawn up with the aid of the corpus-based Longman Language Activator and Oxford Learner’s Thesaurus, as well as the ‘Historical Thesaurus’ of the Oxford English Dictionary so as to guarantee the inclusion of less frequent items.

4.1. The Phrases In English (PIE) database

27The PIE database (see References) was derived from the 2nd edition of the British National Corpus (BNC World, 2001). It allows the user to carry out various types of character-string, word, and phrase search, with the results being returned in easy-to-read tables which can be copied or printed. For inclusion in the database, there must be at least three corpus tokens of a given item.

28For the purposes of the present study, two n-gram queries were run, one stipulating that the phrases being looked for should consist of two ‘general’ adjectives (i.e. not comparative or superlative), and the other query the same but with an intervening and.

29Data output from n-gram queries is of two types, available to the user in two stages. Initial query results take the form of a list of the word sequences found, together with an indication of corpus frequency. This frequency count relates only to tokens without an intervening comma, and it is this count which is used in relation to the above-mentioned minimum of three corpus tokens for an item to be included in the database.

30The second type of data – made available by clicking on any word sequence in the results – consists of contextualizations for all tokens of that sequence, including cases where there is an intervening comma. Thus, for example, in the initial ADJ + ADJ query output, ‘simple straightforward’ has a frequency count of 9; however, when one views the contextualized examples, this figure goes up to 32, since there are 23 tokens of ‘simple, straightforward’ in the corpus. In the present study, all items were of potential interest, irrespective of whether or not there was a comma.

31When items of interest were found, other adjectives of similar meaning were looked for in the Longman Language Activator and the Oxford Learner’s Thesaurus, and following this, further item-specific searches were made directly in the corpus (i.e. without recourse to the PIE database). This seemed a useful strategy, given the very low frequencies of some of the size adjective strings which had been found in the previous study. For the same reason, searches were made for adjective pairs which had been found in one direction but not the other. For example, ‘ordinary everyday’ was noted as being a sequence of interest in the PIE results, and therefore ‘everyday ordinary’ was looked for in the corpus as well.

32In the case of adjectives which are not particularly frequent in the corpus, whether identified through the PIE phrases or through the thesauri, KWIC concordances were run for the single adjectives so that any other adjective combinations of interest could easily be found.

4.2. Examining the PIE query results

33The search for ‘ADJ + ADJ’ returned a total of 23,549 types, and the search for ‘ADJ + and + ADJ’ 5,515. The two query results were retrieved as tables, which were then ‘read’ in order to look for possible cases of semantic repetition. Despite there being a large number of n-grams to look at, the process was much less time-consuming than might be imagined. The table was retrieved in alphabetical order (rather than frequency order); this meant that lines could be scrolled through very quickly wherever the first adjective of a number of n-grams strongly suggested that phrases could be excluded. This was the case, for example, where the first adjective was one of nationality or religion, or a colour adjective.

34For all items considered to be of potential interest, contexts were checked in order to establish what was actually happening in the text. The length of contexts varies, and is partly relatable to text type. The following is an example of average length, in this case for one of the tokens of ‘quiet and peaceful’:

But the fame of the place has driven Dorothy, 59, to buy a home in Mijas, ten minutes from Eldorado. Retired bobby Tom, 64, explained: “It’s so quiet and peaceful out there – just what you want at our age.” Dorothy said: “We groan and bear all the attention from tourists that Summer Wine has brought here, so now we’re looking for a much quieter life out there.

35In addition to the phrases presented and discussed below in Section 5, other combinations were noticed which were of interest, but which were excluded because of what might be called their phraseo-grammatical composition. Three different types were noted, all involving direct sequences, and each is now discussed in turn.

4.2.1. One adjective is bound to the following noun

36In a small number of cases it was found that in a given adjective combination the second adjective was ‘already’ closely linked to a noun, thus forming a lexical unit in its own right or at least a strongly collocational phrase. For example, the words acute and severe are often used in English with more or less the same meaning, and in the BNC we also find examples of synonymy at a collocational level (‘acute shortage of labour’, ‘severe shortage of labour’). However, acute also has a medical meaning which is different from severe, and this distinction is relevant to all 29 corpus tokens of the bigram ‘severe acute’. Reference is made, for instance to ‘severe acute pancreatitis’:

(15) Thirty six consecutive patients treated for severe acute pancreatitis and its complications [w]

This means a severe form of ‘acute pancreatitis’, and the relevant definition of acute in the OED is: “Of a disease, symptom, etc.: coming quickly to a crisis or conclusion; of rapid onset and short duration; of recent or sudden onset; contrasted with chronic”.

37Another example involves four tokens of ‘extra additional’. These all come from the same text and are all used in the same phrase (with singular/plural variation), ‘extra additional assessment/s’. In the text in question, produced by the Scottish Vocational Educational Council (SCOTVEC), there are no less than 57 instances of ‘additional assessment/s’, and it appears to be a specific term with precise referential meaning. At a certain point in the text the notion of ‘extra’ additional assessments is introduced:

(16) SCOTVEC has also been working on a catalogue of extra additional assessments for the first phase of general SVQs, in order to provide candidates with a wider choice of assessments [w]

38Analogous examples can be seen in the following phrases, with the two adjectives underlined and the ADJ + NOUN combination in italics:

(17) the complete full circle from sixties hippiedom [w]

(18) Mademoiselle there’s a, there’s a simply enormous giant spider in my desk [s]

(19) something like that but it’s longer, the whole full name’s about thirty five letters [s]

(20) huge jumbo packets of crisps [s]

39With regard to (18), the phrase ‘giant spider’ is commonly used to refer to very large spiders, whether fictional or in the real world, and the word giant also forms part of the name of some specific species. We could, then, consider ‘giant spider’ as being almost nominal in nature, with enormous as its modifier. In (20), the use of jumbo can be seen in relation to the following definition in COBUILD: “Jumbo means very large; used mainly in advertising and in the names of products”.

4.2.2. Of adverbs and adjectives

40A small number of the sequences of interest include a first ‘adjective’ which could be seen as having an adverbial function. This is the case of the filthy in ‘filthy dirty’:

(21) a tea-chest full of filthy dirty, celluloid toys [w]

All five CBDs categorize this use of filthy as adverbial. It should be added, though, that the dictionaries only indicate two possible adjectival phrases, filthy dirty and filthy rich, and that no suggestion is made that filthy can combine with other adjectives in the same way. Indeed, one of the dictionaries (MEDAL) specifically places the two items in the ‘Phrases’ section of the entry filthy adv., while the customary single-word section at this entry is absent. The OED takes a similar approach, including filthy dirty as a lexical item in the Compounds section of the entry for filthy: “C2. Appositive or adverbial use. filthy dirty adj. colloquial. extremely dirty”. It is to be noted that the whole phrase, filthy dirty, is labelled in the OED as an adjective.

  • 8 For a historical account of the development of both deadly and dead as intensifiers, see Blanco-Suá (...)

41The second sequence I will comment on is ‘deadly dull’. The idea that this could be a case of close adjectival synonymy comes from the fact that one of the adjectival senses of deadly is ‘boring’; this is given in four of the CBDs consulted (e.g. MEDAL: “Some of our lectures were pretty deadly!”). In ‘deadly dull’, however, the word deadly is described in all five dictionaries as an adverb meaning ‘extremely’ or ‘very’ or having an emphatic function; typical phraseology includes ‘deadly serious’, ‘deadly dull’, ‘deadly boring’ and ‘deadly cold’.8 I should add that there are 7 tokens of ‘deadly dull’ in the BNC and that in all cases both words are tagged as adjectives, hence the presence of the sequence in the PIE query output. An example is:

(22) He’s a deadly dull little man as far as I can see [w]

42Lastly, I consider together four similar words – thumping, walloping, whacking and whopping – each of which can be used to mean ‘very big’ with respect to certain areas of meaning (e.g. ‘a thumping majority’, ‘a whacking fine’). Of interest to the present study is their use with a following size adjective, especially great. Examples of usage, with and without a following adjective are:

(23) they’re all making thumping great profits now [s]

(24) you would expect the business as a whole to have made a thumping loss for the year [w]

43Putting together the information for these four words in the five CBDs, no consensus emerges from the point of view of grammatical status when they are followed by a size adjective: perhaps they are adjectives, perhaps adverbs. In the OED, none of the relevant entries have been fully updated to the 3rd edition, though it is worth mentioning the entry for whacking, which includes the comment, “Often quasi-adverbial in whacking big, whacking great”. Given the degree of uncertainty regarding the four words, I have included them in the data in Section 5 (unlike ‘filthy dirty’ and ‘deadly dull’).

4.2.3. One adjective or two?

44In the case of some sequential items, the question of grammatical composition may be set aside, since the best way of viewing the sequence, from a synchronic perspective, is as an (adjectival) phrasal unit. For example, and as was seen above, some dictionaries classify filthy dirty as a fixed unit.

45Another item best described in this way is great big, which is given full lexical status in some dictionaries. The case for seeing great big as a lexical unit is overwhelming, through a combination of factors. First, there is the fact that “great is not much used for expressing largeness in contemporary English” (Huddleston & Pullum [2002]). Then, corpus data is very telling. In the BNC there are almost 400 tokens of great big (far more than any other combination for this area of meaning), and yet there are no tokens whatsoever of ‘big great’, despite the relatively high frequency of the individual adjectives, and despite the fact that both great and big are found in both first and second position in direct sequences of size adjectives. Some discussion regarding the grammatical status of great big can also be found in Matthews [2014: 100, 117-118].

46Great big is also considered to be fully lexicalized in Collins Cobuild Grammar Patterns (Francis et al [1998]), where it is one of the items in a set of 10 phrases “in which two words combine to form an adjective”. Some other phrases in this set also showed up in the PIE query results. These are the following sequences belonging to the semantic fields of HOT and COLD: bitter cold, freezing cold, icy cold, and boiling hot. A corpus example for one of these is:

(25) My chest felt icy cold and I had difficulty in breathing [w]

  • 9 See Matthews [2014: 94] for some discussion of the grammatical status of scorching hot.

The set also includes sweltering hot (which did not show up in PIE because there were only two tokens), as well as scalding hot and scorching hot, in both of which the first word is, for most tokens, tagged in the BNC as the -ing form of a lexical verb.9

47Inspection of the ‘ADJ + ADJ’ data in PIE also revealed a case in which a sequence of two near-synonyms forms part of a multiword unit. This is the combination ‘wee small’ in the wee small hours. The more frequent form in the BNC is the small hours, but the longer expression is also there, and it is included as a (lexicalized) alternative in three of the CBDs. LDOCE, for example, at the entry for the small hours, includes the information “also the wee small hours British English”:

(26) The uneasy silence of the small hours fell over the hospital [w]

(27) On two occasions we were called into the hospital in the wee small hours [w]

48A similar case is that of the sequence ‘principal chief’ in principal chief officers, a term found three times in the BNC in a specialized context:

(28) These principal chief officers should in appropriate cases be responsible for more than one department [w]

49Lastly in this section, of interest is the sequence ‘funny peculiar’. This is a ready-made, meta-linguistic phrase often forming part of the longer (typically questioning) “Funny ha-ha or funny peculiar?”, where meaning is being doubled up in order to disambiguate between two possible meanings of funny:

  • 10 These two meanings of funny are discussed in Murphy [2010: 110], as examples of what she refers to (...)

(29) She said, ‘You are funny, Albert. Funny peculiar, I mean. Not ordinary.’ [w]10

5. Sequences of near-synonymous adjectives in the corpus

50The presentation of near-synonymous adjective sequences is divided into three sections, corresponding to three broad types of adjective. The first deals with intensifiers or emphasizers. The second, which includes the vast majority of sequences, is concerned with adjectives which can be broadly described as ‘descriptive’ in nature. Many of these are what Feist [2012] classifies as ‘epithets’, and which he distinguishes from ‘descriptors’ by virtue of the fact that the former include expressive meaning while descriptors are only factually descriptive. Thirdly, a few sequences of interest were found in which the adjectives function as classifiers (Feist’s terminology); these are words which “commonly subclassify the referent of the headword” ([Feist 2012: 10]).

5.1. Emphasis and Intensification

  • 11 Many of the adjectives exemplified in this section are also mentioned by Bolinger [1972: 59, 150] a (...)
  • 12 For historical accounts of the sense development of some of these adjectives, see Feist [2012: 34-3 (...)

51The examples in this section involve a variety of adjectives (and adjective types), each of which can have, on its own, an emphasizing or intensifying role. The adjectives in question are: absolute, bloody, complete, damn, dirty, filthy, fucking, perfect, plain, pure, sheer, simple, total, unadulterated, unmitigated, utter.11 12

52With regard to syntactic position, virtually no examples of any of the phrases were found in predicative position, which reflects the norm for the individual adjectives when they are used with an emphatic or intensifying function.

53Three sequences, all coordinated binomials, are presented in one or more corpus-based dictionary as fixed phrases. Relevant examples from the BNC are:

(30) Her lovely face reflecting her complete and utter bewilderment [w]

(31) Lower down the chain it was plain and simple buck-passing [w]

(32) ENV Three as I read it is er a pure and simple development control policy [s]

54The two phrases involving simple are found in both pre- and post-nominal position, a fact which may contribute to their being classified as fixed phrases:

(33) she was a nuisance, plain and simple [w]

(34) But lineage pure and simple was not the only consideration [w]

  • 13 With regard to a number of these words, and in the context of near-synonymy, it is of interest that (...)

55Generally, sequences involving two or more of the following words were found with coordination: absolute, complete, perfect, plain, pure, sheer, simple, total, utter.13 Further examples are:

(35) the absolute and total commitment of an inspirational Irish side [w]

(36) but are you telling me the abs absolute and utter truth? [s]

(37) I was a complete and absolute non-drinker at the time [w]

(38) That’s sheer and utter rubbish [s]

(39) people who have utter and total disregard for human life [w]

56The following are examples without coordination:

(40) Loony. He’s an absolute utter loony [w]

(41) You total, utter fool! she told herself grimly [w]

  • 14 For some discussion of phraseological puns, in the context of stylistics, see Naciscione [2010].

57The adjectives complete and total are also found in Section 5.2.1., in relation to their non-intensificatory usage, and the phrase ‘plain and simple’ is included as an example in the miscellaneous Section 5.2.11. Interestingly, there are two corpus examples of ‘plain and simple’ which constitute a play on words between the emphasizing and descriptive uses of the phrase:14

(42) Now it was she who looked astonished. “You have no idea what it is all about?” she asked. He shook his head. “You really don’t know why we’ve done it?” “I assumed …” he faltered. “That it was an attack of prosperity, plain and simple?” He laughed. “Nothing to do with you is ‘plain and simple’ ma’am.” She did not laugh. [w]

58Turning to the remaining adjectives (bloody, damn, dirty, filthy, fucking, unadulterated, unmitigated), no examples were found involving coordination. With regard to the different combinations of adjectives found, unadulterated was only found in sequence with pure and sheer, and unmitigated just with pure:

(43) Billy Butlin stressed fun, pure unadulterated, non-uplifting collective fun [w]

(44) Personally, I think it’s pure, unmitigated shit [w]

(45) and a yearning for a spot of sheer, unadulterated pampering [w]

59In like fashion, as an intensifier dirty was only found with filthy:

(46) You dirty, filthy bastards [w]

  • 15 I will refer to bloody, damn and fucking as ‘impolite words’, though of course this is very generic (...)

60The remaining words in this section (bloody, damn, fucking) have in common the fact that they are usually signalled in dictionaries as being (to varying degrees) impolite.15 They are also complicated words to describe. According to overall description in the five CBDs, they may (or may not) have an emphatic function, and they may (or may not) convey annoyance / anger. Also, it is noteworthy that in the corpus-based dictionaries bloody and fucking are generally not separated into adjectival and adverbial uses, presumably because their meaning sometimes relates to a whole statement, rather than the word to which they are grammatically connected. With regard to bloody in particular, Biscetti [2004: 286] writes:

  • 16 Biscetti also notes that bloody “is distributionally similar to items such as blooming, damn, fucki (...)

What makes bloody especially worthy of interest are the peculiar semantic, syntactic and pragmatic features which mark it as a highly atypical member of any of the categories to which it has been variously assigned.16

61Because of the complexity of bloody, damn and fucking, their use with other emphasizers / intensifiers may sometimes go beyond the idea of near-synonymy. Certainly, it is easier to talk in terms of synonymy when two of the impolite words are used together, even though one may be stronger than the other:

(47) Bloody fucking bus [s]

(48) Already she could see their faces, the faces of the fucking bloody middle class [w]

62Where they are not used together, the impolite word may still have more or less the same function as an adjacent emphasizing word (ignoring the question of expressive meaning associated with the impolite word). This seems to be the case in the following two examples, where each adjective in each sequence could be used on its own, though perhaps with slightly differing degrees of intensity:

(49) It’s absolute bloody nonsense [s]

(50) You had them all the time – you trailed me round – you bloody filthy lying bastard [w]

In (49) and (50), the nouns by themselves imply criticism on the part of the speaker (nonsense, bastard), and the various pre-modifiers emphasize this criticism. In the next two examples, the nouns convey intensity of meaning (‘panic’ and ‘terror’, as opposed to the more neutral ‘fear’), but an implicit critical attitude is absent. Again, both adjectives seem to emphasize the meaning:

(51) the anxiety in Tory Central Office has shifted to sheer bloody panic [w]

(52) and staring into this wee boy’s face a look of sheer fucking terror on his face [s]

63However, with regard to (51) in particular, it seems to me that if bloody were the only adjective, then it would not be very emphatic at all:

(51) the anxiety in Tory Central Office has shifted to bloody panic [w]

64Here, I would expect bloody to have more the following function, as described at the entry for bloody in the OED: “More recently also as a mere filler, with little or no intensifying force (although generally implying some element of dislike, frustration, etc., on the part of the speaker).” In relation to this, it is of interest that Feist classifies prenominal bloody not as an intensifier (in his ‘Reinforcer’ zone) but as an ‘epithet’ (as mentioned in footnote 11).

65Lastly in this section, I will mention the use of whole before the three impolite adjectives:

(53) I think I’ll have the whole bloody lot of you transferred to the infantry [w]

(54) she was the only decent human being on the whole damn train [w]

(55) if I opened my eyes it went like that, the whole fucking sky was going round [w]

There are a number of such sequences in the corpus (76, including the variant spelling damned), and it may be useful to think in terms of the frame ‘the whole [expletive] noun’.

5.2. Descriptive adjectives

66Many of the descriptive sequences can be grouped together in relation to meaning. In this section, ten such groups are presented (each with a self-defining name), and each semantic set begins with a full list of the adjectives found. A sample of (contextualized) sequences is provided, and further information – grammatical, semantic, phraseological – is given whenever appropriate. There is also (see 5.2.11.) a section of miscellaneous sequences, each from a different semantic field.

5.2.1. The full and complete group

67Co-occurring adjectives: complete, comprehensive, entire, full, thorough, total, whole.

Two of the adjectives in this group, complete and total, are also found in intensificatory sequences, but it is not always easy to make an absolute distinction between intensification and description. For example, in the following corpus extract it would seem at first glance that ‘complete and total silence’ is all about intensification; after all, silence is, by definition, ‘complete’ (or ‘total’):

(56) either a spontaneous reaction of a flow of stories or complete and total silence [w]

68However, when looking for corpus examples of ‘complete silence’ and ‘total silence’, it is apparent that silence is not always complete:

  • 17 Compare comments by Murphy [2010: 225-226] on the difference between the ‘absolute adjectives’ perf (...)

(57) He was greeted with massive and ironic cheers from the Opposition and listened to in almost total silence by our own benches [w] 17

Perhaps ‘complete and total silence’ can be considered to incorporate both intensification and description. Certainly, it is very different from the following, predicative, use of the same sequence:

(58) yet the union seemed complete and total so that she was no longer a separate entity [w]

69The following are some of the other coordinated phrases found in this meaning group:

(59) I shall stand first and foremost for the exercise of a complete and thorough boycott [w]

(60) The reference is comprehensive and thorough and the text is well indexed [w]

(61) The index must be full and complete with plenty of cross-references [w]

(62) I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that exceedingly full and comprehensive reply [w]

(63) I should have been giving my full and entire concentration to the final chapter [w]

(64) The contract was awarded after a full and thorough evaluation of competing bids [w]

(65) the whole and complete loyalty to Fokine’s design [w]

70With regard to (61), ‘full and complete’ may be of some collocational significance, especially considering the fact that 10 out of the 12 corpus tokens involve a similar type of phrasal meaning, that of gathering or providing information. More specifically, ‘full and complete’ is used in relation to the following: contract, account, report, written decision, lecture, site investigation, (tax) return, and index. Related to this, is the fact that all but one of the tokens were found in non-fiction writing or in spoken English in professional settings. Furthermore, no tokens were found in the reverse order (‘complete and full’).

71Uncoordinated sequences are less frequent in this meaning group. The following are some examples:

(66) you wanna leave the gr the whole complete thing on then we won’t lose them [s]

(67) we tried to get the whole entire floor out on the landing [s]

(68) a full, comprehensive survey of painting in this country during the last four centuries should be created [w]

72In a final example, the post-nominal position of the adjectives, together with the presence of an intervening comma, means that the near-synonyms are in apposition to one another:

(69) a third human being, a new spirit, whole, complete, unlike the handiwork of men [w]

5.2.2. The filthy dirty group

73Co-occurring adjectives: dirty, filthy, grubby, messy, mucky.

Not many corpus examples were found for this group, which was only investigated because of the presence in the PIE database of the already discussed filthy dirty (see 4.2.2.). The same two adjectives, dirty and filthy, have also been seen in the section on emphasis and intensification (see 5.1.). With regard to the inclusion of messy, four out of the five dictionaries say that it can mean either ‘untidy’ or ‘dirty’ (and one of these four specifies ‘dirty and/or untidy’).

74Different meanings are involved in the sequences found, not just the physical meaning of ‘dirty’. The following three examples are with the physical meaning:

(70) Machine shops and engineering works tend to be regarded as very dirty filthy places [s]

(71) Landlords were taken to task today for running ‘dirty, grubby and unfriendly’ pubs [w]

(72) Natural play was good – it was also messy and dirty. It was functional – but it was also enjoyed by the child [w]

75The word grimy was also investigated, and although no relevant phraseology was found, the word was found nearby in the co-text of other relevant adjectives:

(73) On closer inspection the bundle of rags rose and revealed itself to be a woman, filthy dirty, her skin so grimy she was almost invisible in the gloom [w]

76The following is an interesting example in the context of the present study, in that it comments on the different senses of two adjectives:

(74) And your hands are dirty, mucky’s the word I’d say [w]

Strictly speaking, this is a different type of sequence from those being studied, a fact which would be even more apparent if the punctuation were different (‘your hands are dirty; mucky’s the word’).

77Lastly, the following are two examples in which the adjectival meaning relates to morality:

(75) this filthy, filthy, dirty letter somebody had written to her [s]

(76) There is nothing inherently grubby, dirty or second rate about the whole business of getting and spending [w]

Example (75) includes the sequence that was discussed in 4.2.2., with the difference that the intervening comma suggests that the interpretation should be that of two adjectives (rather than adv + adj). The example comes from the spoken part of the corpus, and I presume that the comma reflects a slight pause in speech, though I have not been able to verify this by listening to the recording. In (76) the phrase “grubby, dirty or second rate” is of interest, since the presence of the word or suggests that grubby and dirty are being considered to have slightly different meanings.

5.2.3. The big massive group

  • 18 In the case of some of the adjectives (hefty, thumping, whacking) physical size is not normally inv (...)

78Co-occurring adjectives: big, colossal, enormous, giant, gigantic, great, great big, hefty, huge, humongous, jumbo, large, massive, thumping, walloping, whacking, whopping.18

There are a considerable number of near-synonyms in this group, and this is probably for a number of reasons. Firstly, corpus searches began from the adjectives themselves, as described above (Section 4). Secondly, the meaning of many of these adjectives, including when they are used in sequences, involves not only physical size. A third point is quite simply that it may be an area of meaning where there are a lot of adjectives available in the language.

79Very few examples of coordination were found for this meaning group. One exception is:

(77) We are probably also acquainted with examples where local and national government, large and big business impinge on the local community [w]

This looks very much as if it might be a classificatory usage, though I have not been able to ascertain that a technical difference exists between ‘large business’ and ‘big business’.

80The lack of coordinated phrases also means that the vast majority of sequences were found in prenominal position. In second adjective position, great is by far the most frequently found word. It occurs after eight different size adjectives, and it might be useful to consider it as the fixed element in a partially open frame: [whacking, massive, huge, enormous etc.] + great:

(78) enormous great sirens with a very piercing, loud sound [s]

81In some contexts, great would be out of place without the preceding word, since by itself it would have a different meaning. For example:

(79) Yes! But she’s got a whacking great alibi [w]

82The words thumping, walloping, whacking and whopping were found only before other items in the list, and in 20 out of a total of 23 corpus tokens, the second word was great. We could therefore talk in terms of the more specific ‘[-ing] great’ frame (see discussion in 4.2.2.).

83The word big is less frequent than great in size sequences, but it has similar characteristics. It is found after six different adjectives (in addition to great), and it too could be seen as the second part of the frame ‘[huge, etc.] + big’. Examples are:

(80) That’s a huge big one you see? [s]

(81) [name] built a massive big bungalow for himself [s]

84Both big and great were also found in first adjective position. Examples are:

(82) No it’s a big gigantic screw! [s]

(83) it all went into this big huge copper [s]

(84) these gorgeous great enormous stepping stones [s]

(85) there is a stone out there a great huge stone [s]

85With regard to the list of co-occurring adjectives, the combination great big (see above, 4.2.3.) is included as an adjective in its own right, found in combination with some of the other size adjectives. Examples are:

(86) it’s all sort of great big massive dials [s]

(87) They came in massive great big humongous boxes packed with polystyrene [s]

86There were also a few cases where great and big appear to be functioning as separate adjectives, through the use of an intervening comma, for example:

(88) there was a great, big, brown paper parcel lying on the kitchen table [w]

  • 19 A number of authors have pointed out differences between the adjectives large and similar adjective (...)

87The most frequent adjectives found in combination were great, big, huge and massive. This reflects the overall corpus frequency of the respective adjectives, though by this measure alone one would expect to find large in more combinations, while it is in fact rather infrequent in the data.19 The following is one of the few examples with large:

(89) He’s got a great big large Porsche [s]

88Two rare examples of sequences in predicative position both include separating commas:

(90) Of course one had to remember that Lorne, in his time, had been very big, enormous, colossal [w]

(91) There was no denying that the Soviet Embassy was large, enormous, one might say [w]

89The first of these can be thought of in terms of intentional intensification through apposition. For discussion of such emphatic effects, see Blakemore [2008]. The second example is of particular interest in the context of the present study since the writer points to the difference between the two adjectives by using the phrase ‘one might say’, which can be thought of as a marker of reformulation (again, see Blakemore [2008]).

5.2.4. The wee small group

  • 20 Teensy-weensy and teeny-weeny are also found without hyphens; I have written them with hyphens to u (...)

90Co-occurring adjectives: itty-bitty, little, miniature, minute, small, teensy, teensy-weensy, teeny, teeny-weeny, tiddly, tiddy, tiny, titchy, wee, weeny.20

As with sequences in the big massive group, almost all examples were found as direct sequences in prenominal position. There was just one example of a coordinated pair, and this was a predicative use:

(92) The pollen is tiny and minute, so minute that it can get up your nose and give you hay fever [s]

91By far the most frequent sequences found were ‘little tiny’ (98 tokens) and ‘tiny little’ (93 tokens). Some writers have assumed ‘tiny little’ to be much more usual than ‘little tiny’, for example Givón [2001: 7] and Matthews [2009: 364], but this is not reflected in the BNC data. The following are examples of usage:

(93) A tiny little place we could run ourselves [w]

(94) But when I was a little tiny baby ... [w]

92In the context of tiny little / little tiny, it is worth comparing little with small. No examples were found in the corpus of ‘tiny small’ and only one token of ‘small tiny’:

(95) the column of traffic now coming through this small tiny town [w]

The frequency of little tiny and tiny little is very high in comparison with the next most frequent combinations, which are ‘small little’ and ‘wee small’ (15 tokens each). With regard to the latter, however, it should be pointed out that 13 of the tokens form part of the already discussed phrase wee small hours (see 4.2.3.). Examples with ‘small little’ and ‘wee small’ are:

(96) the Orange Order displayed pathetically small little notices on top of their banners [w]

(97) he was a wee small boxer [s]

  • 21 For some discussion regarding the affective meaning of little, see Bolinger [1972: 59], González-Dí (...)

93Little was found to combine with the greatest number of other adjectives, both in first and second position. This is not surprising since it is the most frequent adjective denoting ‘smallness’ in the spoken part of the corpus, where more than two-thirds of the sequences were found. It may also be related to its affective meaning.21 Some further examples with little are:

(98) whether I’ve all my little itty-bitty prayers answered [s]

  • 22 With regard to miniature, examples were retrieved only when it was being used in the vague sense of (...)

(99) when you you pick up a a a a little miniature bearing [s]22

(100) I’m not used to these little titchy baths [s]

(101) there’s just a teeny little drop of oil [s]

94Finally in this section, the following is a corpus example involving a sequence of three adjectives:

(102) I don’t know what it was, but only a little tiny wee bit and it was real funny [s]

5.2.5. The ordinary everyday group

  • 23 It is to be noted that the meaning of the adjective everyday is not to be found just in its morphol (...)

95Co-occurring adjectives: common, common-or-garden, commonplace, everyday, mundane, normal, ordinary.23

Sequences in this meaning group were found mostly in prenominal position. The most frequent item is ‘ordinary everyday’ (42 tokens, with or without a comma). Examples are:

(103) Many ordinary everyday objects and buildings could have been used for religious purposes [w]

(104) it provides a deeper cause than that supplied by ordinary, everyday reasoning [w]

96Other examples of attributive sequences are:

(105) it seems to me that erm our common and everyday and perhaps very deficient notion of individuation is, what makes me different from the rest of you? [s]

(106) Erm just everyday common or garden conversation [s]

(107) and the more affectionate ‘moggie!’ returned as the popular term for the ordinary, common-or-garden cat [w]

(108) I found myself thinking the ordinary, commonplace thoughts [w]

97Lastly, the following are two examples in predicative use:

(109) In modern professional partnerships with very numerous partners a power of expulsion, far from being “special and extraordinary”, is commonplace and normal [w]

(110) and there was nothing in our words or manner to suggest that all this was not quite ordinary and everyday [w]

5.2.6. The simple and straightforward group

98Co-occurring adjectives: easy, simple, straightforward, uncomplicated.

Depending on the precise context, and co-text, adjective combinations in this group can focus more on the idea of ‘easy’ (easy to do, understand, etc.) or more on that of ‘uncomplicated’ (in itself). The words most frequently found together are simple and straightforward, with simple usually occurring first. Examples with coordination are:

(111) However, this relatively simple and straightforward view has, for a variety of reasons, been rejected by many sociologists [w]

(112) Well what used to be simple and straightforward now leaves you with th wondering whether you got the right card in your pocket [s]

99Examples of uncoordinated sequences of the same adjectives are:

(113) and it’s a very simple straightforward progressive sort of way of dealing with problems of the Fire Service [s]

(114) I had rather thought that that you had been given erm sufficient information already to perhaps make a straightforward simple strategic choice between between districts [s]

100Examples of other word combinations for this meaning group are:

(115) Devlin felt that the relationship was a straightforward and uncomplicated one [w]

(116) Monthly payments can be guaranteed exactly until 1993. Easy and simple transfer from your present mortgage [w]

(117) She realised that he would want an easy uncomplicated life where everything ran smoothly and he was not troubled with domestic difficulties [w]

(118) Nadirpur had explained in simple, uncomplicated words his confused feelings and emotions [w]

101When the word easy is the second of two coordinated adjectives, it is generally followed by an infinitive, as in:

(119) A good filing system should be simple and easy to understand and operate [w]

102In addition to the four adjectives included in this group, some others found in the BNC also appear to add little meaning when used with them, at least in some instances. For example, the adjectives plain and user-friendly in the following two examples:

(120) What is needed is a plain, simple, and straightforward, “I do forgive you.” [w]

(121) Any letter announcing a public consultation exercise should be written in simple, straightforward and ‘user–friendly’ language [w]

5.2.7. The dull, boring group

  • 24 The adjective mind-numbing is stronger than the rest, typically explained in dictionaries as meanin (...)

103Co-occurring adjectives: boring, deadly, drab, draggy, dreary, dull, humdrum, mind-numbing, monotonous, repetitive, tedious, tiresome, uninteresting, wearisome.24

Other words could perhaps be added to this list, including the following (which were all found in combination with one or more of the words already listed): lifeless, repetitious, unexciting.

104Particularly interesting in regard to this sense group is the fact that there are a number of sequences of more than two adjectives, and it is tempting to see iconicity at work here:

(122) the boring, monotonous and repetitive nature of the work [w]

(123) Computers are ideal for boring, repetitive and mind-numbing tasks [w]

(124) We are not employed just for work – dull, boring, monotonous work [w]

(125) based upon deliberately ‘dull, monotonous, wearisome and uninteresting tasks’ [w]

105Following on from this point, the presence of ‘boringness’ in some co-text is also of interest:

(126) someone entirely immersed in domestic affairs, a colourless personality, a drab, uninteresting automaton [w]

(127) At the end of a long, draggy, boring Friday afternoon [w]

(128) Long mundane months of boredom could make this a dull and tedious year [w]

(129) not that we’ve a drab, grey, dull uninteresting life [s]

(130) Oh, it’s not even worth writing down – the same, usual, dismal, tedious, boring story [w]

(131) spoken of as being ‘microchrome’ – that is, drab, dreary, depressing, with no vitality, colour or beauty [w]

106Another point of interest in this meaning set is the fact that the word dull was found as first adjective in a number of different coordinated phrases:

(132) our five day diet plan proves that it doesn’t have to be dull and boring [w]

(133) Local Derbies on Merseyside or in Manchester are often dull and drab [w]

(134) I’m afraid this is dull and dreary [w]

(135) suggesting that the new development tends to be dull and monotonous [w]

(136) its potential for relieving people of dull and repetitive tasks [w]

(137) I find a “normal” bass sound rather dull and tedious [w]

(138) This is dull and uninteresting in the extreme [w]

107Finally, the following example is of interest, since the phrase ‘boring and/or tedious’ explicitly suggests that a distinction can easily be made between the two adjectives concerned:

(139) communal entertainment in situations which might otherwise be tense, boring and/or tedious [w]

5.2.8. The just and fair group

108Co-occurring adjectives: balanced, equitable, fair, just, proper, reasonable, right.

Many of the sequences in this group involved the coordination of two adjectives. The following are examples:

(140) but his account of events is balanced and fair [w]

(141) the Bible has little to say in a positive sense as to what constitutes fair and just wages and prices [w]

(142) and we’ll bid a low bid, that really wouldn’t have been getting fair and proper competition into the system [s]

(143) argued that collectivist planning was the only way to achieve a just and fair society [w]

(144) She wanted the case dealt with in a proper and fair way [w]

(145) to decide moral issues about which reasonable and fair people disagree [w]

(146) which was that the peasant has a, a view of what is right and fair [w]

109Some of the coordinated phrases are used at times as fixed binomials in legal or law-related contexts.

(147) which has resulted in the development of a fair and equitable selection scheme [w]

(148) that is an entirely fair and reasonable restriction in all the circumstances [s]

(149) the proprietor’s claim shall be dismissed, unless it is ‘just and equitable’ that the proprietor should be allowed to continue the action [w]

(150) he recognised the principle of the case of Harris v. Watson as founded on just and proper policy [w]

(151) any works that may be required by statute and proper and reasonable incidental expenses [w]

  • 25 Crystal [1997: 386] notes that “[t]he use of tautologous expressions in English documents is often (...)

110Compare also the adjectival phrase null and void, which is one of the binomials discussed by Crystal [1997: 390] in a section on ‘The Language of the Law’.25

111The following are examples of sequences which do not involve coordinated pairs:

(152) The council tax is a fair, balanced and carefully thought-out approach to local government finance [w]

(153) A reputation for being fair, just, reasonable and courageous is worth winning even if it does mean occasionally upsetting some people [w]

112Lastly, I will mention a phrase which is of a different type from the others cited:

(154) It wasn’t fair, just or right for the Signora to come before the hour appointed [w]

113Here, the phrase ‘fair, just or right’ is of interest, since the presence of the word or, at least from the point of view of logical analysis, suggests strongly that the three words should be interpreted differently (cf. “grubby, dirty or second-rate” in example (76)).

5.2.9. The calm, peaceful group

114Co-occurring adjectives: calm, peaceful, placid, quiet, serene, tranquil.

The calm referred to in this group refers mainly to people or to places, and these are linked, since places are usually calm because that is how people perceive them.

115There are no particular grammatical restrictions. Phrases are found in both prenominal and predicative position, and in the case of the former, they are found as direct sequences or as coordinated pairs. Some examples are:

(155) standing there in the middle of the room, staring at the calm, peaceful setting [w]

(156) Then I went through a stage that was absolutely fantastic, the most beautiful, peaceful, calm feeling that I have ever had [w]

(157) The hotel has a sun terrace and swimming pool set in the peaceful and tranquil gardens on the lakeside [w]

(158) He was aware of a profoundly warm, placid, peaceful silence [w]

(159) If you want somewhere peaceful and quiet, away from work and life’s pressures [w]

(160) You might think all is serene and calm, which on the surface it is [w]

(161) The language we use in the Council should be serene and tranquil [w]

116Another example of ‘peaceful and quiet’ is of particular interest because the words are part of the frame ‘both … and …’. The context is:

(162) The banging of car doors, the starting of engines and the noise from car alarms would be introduced close to habitable rooms and adjacent to residents’ gardens which might normally be expected to be both peaceful and quiet [w]

The question arises as to whether this frame makes the two adjectives slightly farther apart in meaning (as with the use of the word or in 76 and 154). I would add that a subsequent search in the PIE database for the frame ‘both adj and adj’ did not reveal any other examples of relevance to near-synonymy.

5.2.10. The calm, unruffled group

117Co-occurring adjectives: at ease, calm, collected, composed, cool, cool-headed, placid, unperturbed, unruffled.

This group could have been amalgamated with the preceding group, and two of the adjectives are the same (calm, placid), but a more precise focus of ‘calm notwithstanding difficulty’ has led me to consider this set of examples separately. The following are some examples of relevant sequences:

(163) With a solid, straight-batted technique and a calm, unruffled temperament [w]

(164) Charity had an impression, again, of strength. Cool, composed strength [w]

(165) He threw her a cool, unperturbed look [w]

(166) He is very composed and calm. If anyone can make it he can [w]

(167) the interest behind the slave trade created a passion which ‘is cool, collected, steady and permanent’ [w]

(168) but tall willowy Angus […] looked cool and unperturbed [w]

118In the following example, the adjective meaning is extended into the text beyond (‘… and in control of the situation’):

(169) it is absolutely essential that the receptionist remains cool, calm and in control of the situation [w]

A similar example is:

(170) black sportsmen try to present the image of being cool, calm and unaffected by tension [w]

119Two of the sequences in this group are presented in some dictionaries as being phraseologically significant, the trinomial cool, calm and collected, and the binomial calm and collected. Contextualized examples are:

(171) Eddie’s cool, calm and collected approach still amazes me [w]

(172) and after the trial Bellingham remained calm and collected [w]

120The following example includes the words cool, calm and collected as the final part of an adjectival sequence:

(173) He was at all times placid, unruffled, cool, calm and collected [w]

121Calm features as the first element in a number of coordinated phrases in both this semantic group and the preceding one. If we put the phrases together and also include other meaning-related tokens of ‘calm and’, the following is the resulting list of second adjectives coordinated with calm: at ease / collected / composed / cool-headed / level-headed / peaceful / placid / quiet / relaxed / serene / still / unperturbed / unruffled / unworried.

Some relevant examples in context are:

(174) she was surprised at how much more calm and at ease she felt [w]

(175) it will certainly help you to appear at the right place and at the right time looking calm and unruffled [w]

(176) He appeared calm and cool-headed [w]

5.2.11. Some other adjectival meanings

122Quite a number of other adjective meanings were found, and in this section individual examples are given for some of the areas of meaning.

(177) Even the most abstract theoretical thesis uses data of some kind [w]

(178) He’s direct, brave and courageous and his inclusion would give them a lift [w]

(179) Andrew’s proposal was very correct and proper, but he doubted if his friend’s thoughts were quite so pure [w]

(180) from formulation of general overall policy to implementation in the form of decisions in particular cases [w]

(181) Sentencing two men and a 22-year-old mother, Judge Denis Clark said that they had been ‘nasty, despicable, vandalistic’ offences [w]

(182) The exterior of Byzantine churches is plain and simple; its appearance is ceded to the glory of the interior [w]

(183) It is crucial that only pure, unadulterated essential oils are used in therapy [w]

(184) the only thing that really mattered to her in those tense and anxious moments [w]

(185) The hotel still records bookings on a traditional conventional chart and continues to prepare guests’ bills by hand [w]

(186) Does the Chancellor of the Exchequer realise that ability to pay must be the underlying and fundamental principle of any fair taxation policy? [w]

(187) this modern 180 bedroomed hotel, conference and banqueting centre offers a warm friendly welcome [w]

123The adjective sequences in (182) and (183) can be compared with their emphasizing uses in 5.1.

5.3. Classifiers

124In general, individual classifying adjectives are sufficiently different, by their very nature, for near-synonymy to be unlikely in juxtaposed adjectives. A few combinations of interest were found, however. There is significant overlap of meaning, for example, in the phrase ‘economic and financial’ (also found in the reverse order). The following are contextualized examples:

(188) The campaign against American economic and financial power began in earnest in 1963 [w]

(189) The concept of financial and economic independence for women does not get a look in [w]

125The adjective monetary is also used in conjunction with each of the two adjectives, and sometimes with both together:

(190) if East Germany has undergone decisive monetary, financial and economic reform [w]

Of course, to an expert in the field the differences between economic, financial and monetary may be clear, but to many people this won’t be the case.

126A similar example involves the words moral and ethical, where again there is a lot of overlap in meaning, and again, the average person would be hard pushed to explain the difference between them:

(191) the working party will examine the moral and ethical considerations of launching an advertising campaign [w]

(192) and creating an ethical and moral climate founded on the teachings of religion [w]

127A third and final example involves the adjectives toxic and hazardous, which, judging from corpus evidence, usually modify waste/s when they are used together, as in the following:

(193) We do not believe that the United Kingdom should import any toxic and hazardous waste [w]

(194) ideal ‘dump’ sites for hazardous and toxic chemical wastes [w]

Again, it would probably be difficult for most people to distinguish accurately between these two words when they are used to describe ‘waste’. And indeed, even in the OED, where both toxic waste and hazardous waste are given phraseological status, no clear difference emerges from the respective definitions. Toxic waste is defined as “waste, esp. industrial waste, that is hazardous to human health or the environment and which requires special facilities for its disposal”, while the definition given for hazardous waste is “waste, esp. industrial waste, that is potentially harmful to human health or to the environment and which requires special facilities for its disposal; cf. toxic waste”.

6. Further discussion

6.1. Repeated adjectival meaning as part of the description of English

  • 26 See, for example, Goyvaerts [1968], Martin & Ferb [1973], Dixon [1982: 24-26], Vandelanotte [2002], (...)

128Description of meaning in adjective sequences most often relates to adjectives of clearly different meaning, which is the norm in English; much work has been done, for example, on analyzing the order in which different types of attributive adjective are typically found.26 This should not mean, however, that sequences of like meaning are of no interest; they are the marked alternative to the norm, and therefore they too should form part of language description. Furthermore, if the general phenomenon of repeated adjectival meaning is found to involve certain areas of meaning more than others, then their significance increases.

129A number of semantic areas have been illustrated in the present article, and there are most certainly more. The examples in 5.2.11. suggest other possible meaning groups, and some of these are currently being investigated; for example, in relation to ‘those tense and anxious moments’ (184), the adjective anxious is also found in the BNC in conjunction with apprehensive, fearful, insecure, preoccupied, restless and wary (while the adjective tense is found with nervous and restless).

130With regard to both the individual sequences and the areas of meaning found in the present study, it also needs to be said that the search methodology employed was not necessarily the most productive. Some individual sequences were not found through the PIE database queries, either because there were fewer than three corpus tokens or because there were intervening commas in the text (see 4.1.). It may well be more fruitful to work from specifically drawn up lists of near-synonyms, as was done for the work on size adjectives; this would also mean that the size of the corpus would no longer constitute a problem.

  • 27 With regard to this point, the following statement in the Oxford Learner’s Thesaurus is of interest (...)

131Whether and to what extent relevant sequences are found for a given meaning will depend partly on how many adjectives there are ‘available’ in the language in the first place.27 This is a factor which works in favour of the size adjectives discussed above: that is, there are a lot of adjectives to begin with (and they are also used in a variety of contexts). By contrast, the more specific notions of ‘tall’ and ‘short’ (as applied to people) do not appear to offer many synonyms. Lofty and towering are occasionally used with reference to people who are very tall, and diminutive and tiny can be used of people who are very short, though probably with the idea of thinness as well. Other adjectives incorporating the idea of ‘tall’ or ‘short’ definitely bring additional denotative meaning; examples are gangling (see example (10)), willowy (as in “tall willowy Angus” in example (168)), and petite.

132Interestingly, in relation to the current study, Feist [2012: 64] writes of epithets that:

This section on Epithets has shown they are rich in synonyms: their gradability, their having many sense elements, and their having expressive and social meaning as well as conceptual meaning, all provide the basis for multiple synonymy.

With regard to gradability in particular, some of the semantic fields discussed in the present article have near-synonym pairs of different intensity, for example, small / tiny, dirty / filthy, boring / mind-numbing (and see Cruse [2015: 198-199]).

6.2. Why repeat meaning?

133This section is not concerned with the historical reasons which have given rise to specific, lexicalized, units. It is more concerned with the synchronic perspective of language use.

  • 28 For a discussion of the notion of ‘Redundancy in language’, see Wit & Gillette [1999].

Looking at examples of semantic repetition in text and speech from a strictly logical perspective, one could talk in terms of ‘redundancy’ or ‘tautology’, both of which terms, however, carry rather negative connotations when applied to human language.28 Looking for more positive explanations, a number of reasons come to mind. One of these is, quite simply, that more than one adjective is used in order to underline a point being made. This may apply to the following sequences, for example:

(195) Alright, so all these points are quite easy and straightforward, aren’t they? [s]

(196) I’m very proud of her. She was very brave and courageous and I’m glad she is safe [w]

Example (196) is taken from Moon [2013]; it includes one of three corpus tokens of ‘brave and courageous’ which the author says appear to be “purely additive” (p. 264).

134At times, repetition of meaning may make a phrase more emphatic than in these examples. This can be seen most clearly when there are more than two adjectives involved, as in the already quoted:

(173) He was at all times placid, unruffled, cool, calm and collected [w]

135It can also be seen when a single adjective would itself have been emphatic, as in the following two examples:

(197) I decided to be tactful and told him he would no longer be considered for the team because he is complete and utter rubbish [w]

(198) Well I mean it’s not the huge massive billboards [s]

In (197), ‘complete rubbish’ or ‘utter rubbish’ would already have been more emphatic than ‘rubbish’, and in (198), both massive and huge are intensifying adjectives when compared with the more neutral big.

136Another perspective from which to explain some uses of repetition is to see it as part of narrative style, with the writer wishing to paint a picture more slowly, possibly adding a little more detail each time:

(199) There was George – dull, dreary George – sprawled full-length on the settee [w]

(158) He was aware of a profoundly warm, placid, peaceful silence [w]

(200) Only lately Ludens had been preoccupied, nervous, anxious, restless [w]

And with regard to ‘adding a little more detail’, one of two (or more) adjectives may have been chosen in order to emphasize a particular aspect of meaning through its morphological make-up. This may apply, for example, to the following: ‘a quiet and peaceful life’; ‘boring and uninteresting people’; ‘simple, uncomplicated words’; ‘ordinary every|day objects and buildings’.

137A related aspect of sense repetition, or sense overlap, is the fact that two adjectives may be used because there is no single adjective in English which covers both precise senses. According to dictionary definitions, the word wearisome combines the notions of ‘boring’ and ‘tiring’. But is there, I wonder, a word which combines the ideas of ‘boring’ and ‘uninteresting’, or ‘sudden’ and ‘unexpected’, or ‘bright’ and ‘sunny’?

(201) The problem there is that graduates are so terribly boring and uninteresting people [s]

(202) A sudden, unexpected frost can cause devastation [w]

(203) It was a bright, sunny day and a light breeze blew [w]

138Finally, I will mention the possible role of phraseology in adjectival sense repetition, with reference to two main phenomena. The first depends on the idea of analogy: if certain fixed binomials exist, in the language and in our mind, then others may be created which echo them in some way. For example, if complete and utter has evolved to become a fixed phrase, then it may, at least partly, give rise to the use of phrases such as complete and absolute. The same could be said of the more recognizable phrase cool, calm and collected in relation to cool, calm and composed:

(204) However, outwardly cool, calm and composed, and trying to use up as many minutes as possible [w]

Similarly, the very frequent sequence great big may help foster the use of combinations such as huge big and massive big.

  • 29 For a general discussion of word order in binomials, not specifically related to adjectives, see Mo (...)

139A second, related, phenomenon is the fact that certain coordinated phrases could be viewed as constituting binomial frames in which the first part is a fixed adjective and the second part is variable (and thus any appropriate adjective may easily be used). Examples involving repeated meanings are ‘dull and [adj]’ and ‘calm and [adj]’ – see 5.2.7. and 5.2.9./10.29

140Lastly, I will mention two examples where phraseology is being echoed at a very local, textual level. In the following corpus extracts, there are two coordinated adjective pairs, and it could be said that one (or both) is the result of stylistic choice:

(205) I am sure we all know horses that are exceptions to them – thoroughbred chestnut mares that are calm and placid and bay cobs who are nervy and excitable [w]

(109) In modern professional partnerships with very numerous partners a power of expulsion, far from being “special and extraordinary”, is commonplace and normal [w]

6.3. Repeated adjectival meaning: relevance to Synonymy studies

141Various authors have stated that synonymy is an understudied phenomenon (Cruse [2015: 142], Taylor [2002: 264], Edmonds & Hirst [2002: 106]. In the latter study, written from a computational perspective, the authors write that:

[A]lthough synonymy is one of the fundamental linguistic phenomena that influence the structure of the lexicon, it has been given far less attention […] than the equally fundamental and much studied polysemy. Whatever the reasons – philosophy, practicality, or expedience – synonymy has often been thought of as a ‘non-problem’: either there are synonyms, but they are completely identical in meaning, and hence easy to deal with, or there are no synonyms, in which case each word can be handled like any other. But our investigation of near-synonymy shows that it is just as complex a phenomenon as polysemy and that it inherently affects the structure of lexical knowledge.

142The study of combinations of adjectives of similar meaning provides an additional dimension for the field of synonymy studies. Some questions that may be asked are:

a) In a given adjective combination, could each adjective have been used on its own in the ‘same’ phrase, or would this result in some deviation from the collocational norm? For example, the adjective cool sounds to me improbable on its own in the following examples, certainly more so than the other adjectives:

(164) Charity had an impression, again, of strength. Cool, composed strength [w]

(165) He threw her a cool, unperturbed look [w]

And in the following (expanded) example it seems to me that the adjective everyday would sound odd without the word ordinary:

(110) Afterwards she came into the kitchen while I washed her clothes and hung them on a bush in the garden to dry – and there was nothing in our words or manner to suggest that all this was not quite ordinary and everyday [w]

b) In a given adjective combination, would the meaning change (and in what way and to what degree), if only one of the adjectives were used? This is, at least in part, a methodological issue, closely bound up with the question of which adjectives are chosen for inclusion in a given study.

c) Do some largely synonymous adjectives function well together and others not, and if so, why?

d) Are some such adjectives found more in coordinated binomials than in uncoordinated sequences (and vice versa)?

143Another area of interest is the way in which near-synonyms are explicitly compared in text, as in the following examples seen above:

(74) And your hands are dirty, mucky’s the word I’d say [w]

(91) There was no denying that the Soviet Embassy was large, enormous, one might say [w]

And the following is an example which would not have been found automatically with the query parameters used for the present study:

(206) Tom Parker with his calm, almost placid professionalism [w]

6.4. Other related phenomena

144Repetition of meaning, or significant overlapping, can take other lexical forms as well. The most obvious is direct repetition of a lexical item. Examples from the BNC are:

(75) this filthy, filthy, dirty letter somebody had written to her [s]

(207) You made life horrible for me cos I was doing the washing up, you horrible horrible horrible person [s]

145Bolinger [1972: 288-290] discusses such lexical repetition in the context of intensification, and two of the examples he gives are “She’s a tiny tiny baby” and “It was an easy, easy choice to make”, both of which are relevant to the meaning groups in 5.2. Huddleston & Pullum [2002: 561] also discuss such items, under the heading ‘intensificatory repetition’ and include a list of adjectives which are commonly found in the construction. From a diachronic perspective, the phenomenon is discussed in González-Díaz [2017].

Lexical repetition of this sort is a much easier phenomenon to study than sequences of near-synonymous adjectives: it is much easier to locate corpus examples, and it is easier to decide on the reason for repetition.

146A second form of meaning repetition involving adjectives is found in the phrasal structures ‘adv + adj’ and ‘adj + noun’. Respective examples (and of relevance to Section 5.2.9.) are ‘serenely peaceful’ and ‘tranquil serenity’. The following are contextualized examples for these particular phrases:

(208) giving way to one of those serenely peaceful summer evenings when harbour and estuary seem embalmed in golden light [w]

(209) Richard Hollison, deputy head of the FBI, couldn’t quite match Sir John’s tranquil serenity but he had his obvious anger under tight control [w]

Bolinger [1972: 291] comments on the first type, noting that “if we say transparently clear there is a semantic relationship of virtual inclusion between ‘clear’ and ‘transparent’…”. Cruse [2015], in a section entitled ‘Semantic duplication without pleonasm’ (189-190), gives various examples in which semantic repetition has an intensifying effect, and two of these examples take the form ‘adj + noun’: ‘scorching heatwave’, ‘huge giant’.

147Some further examples of this second type, come across in the course of the present study, are ‘a non-partisan impartiality’, ‘drab monotony’, ‘mind-numbing tedium’, ‘stupid idiot’, and ‘unruffled calm’. A contextualized example of the last of these is:

(210) he insisted on absolute punctuality and an atmosphere of unruffled calm [w]

148A final phenomenon I will mention in this section is that of morphological reduplication (or ‘echo formation’). Examples have been seen in relation to small adjectives, where some of the individual adjectives include repetition at a morphological level (e.g. teeny-weeny). In some cases the second element does not exist as a separate morphological item (e.g. super-duper). For discussion of such formations, see, for example, Marchand [1957], Thun [1963], Mattiello [2013: chapter 5], and Miller [2014: chapter 14].

Concluding remarks

149The main aim of the research described in this article was to investigate the way in which adjectives of very close meaning are sometimes found in combination, and what areas of meaning are involved. This is no doubt an atypical use of adjectives, but it is one which nonetheless warrants description. Possible reasons have been suggested for such repetition, reasons which try to go beyond the very general notion of ‘intensification’.

Certain other grammatical configurations might also lend themselves to such investigation, for example ‘adv + adv’ combinations used in conjunction with verbs.

150From a methodological perspective, investigation is not easy, especially in the initial stages, both because of the relatively small number of frequent items, and because of the lack of semantic tagging in corpora. From the point of view of data analysis, the main problem is ‘meaning’, always the much more difficult side of the form-meaning coin.

151As suggested by the title, the study is an exploratory one. It would be useful if further studies were carried out, targeting the specific semantic fields discussed above, but in larger corpora, and seeing whether there is any correlation between semantic repetition and text type. Furthermore, the various semantic fields illustrated are presumably only part of the story, and it would be useful to have a wider, clearer picture of which areas of meaning are involved, and why some and not others. A starting point for such investigation might be the miscellaneous meanings presented in 5.2.11., as well as adjective sets which mean the opposite of some of those mentioned in this paper, for example the notions of ‘empty’, ‘clean’, ‘difficult’ and ‘interesting’.

152Lastly, as has been said above, this area of language description should be of value to the general field of synonym studies.

Top of page

Bibliography

Biscetti Stefania, 2004, “Using corpus techniques to study pragmatic meaning: The case of bloody”, in Partington Alan, Morley John & Haarman Louann (Eds.), Corpora and Discourse, Bern: Peter Lang, 285-301.

Blakemore Diane, 2008, “Apposition and affective communication”, Language and Literature 17 (1), 37-57.

Blanco-Suárez Zeltia, 2013 “The competition between the intensifiers dead and deadly: Some diachronic considerations”, in Hasselgård Hilde, Ebeling Jarle & Ebeling Signe Oksefjell (Eds.), Corpus Perspectives on Patterns of Lexis, Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 71-90.

Bolinger Dwight, 1972, Degree Words, Janua Linguarum, Series Maior, Vol 53, The Hague – Paris: Mouton.

Coffey Stephen James, 2013, “Sequences of size adjectives in text: Great big, tiny little, and less frequent combinations”, in Hasselgård Hilde, Ebeling Jarle & Ebeling Signe Oksefjell (Eds.), Corpus Perspectives on Patterns of Lexis, Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 47-68.

Cruse Alan, 2015 [2011], Meaning in Language: An Introduction to Semantics and Pragmatics, 3rd edn, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Crystal David, 1997 [1987], The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, 2nd edn, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dixon R.M.W, 1982, Where Have All the Adjectives Gone? and other essays in Semantics and Syntax, Janua Linguarum, Series Maior, Vol. 107, Berlin: Mouton Publishers.

Dolezal Fredric, 2013, “Synonymy and Sameness of Meaning: An Introductory Note”, International Journal of Lexicography 26 (3), 255-259.

Edmonds Philip & Hirst Graeme, 2002, “Near-Synonymy and Lexical Choice”, Computational Linguistics, 28 (2), 105-144.

Feist Jim, 2012, Premodifiers in English: Their structure and significance, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Francis Gill, Hunston Susan & Manning Elizabeth, 1998, Collins Cobuild Grammar Patterns 2: Nouns and Adjectives, London: HarperCollins. (see: https://grammar.collinsdictionary.com/grammar-pattern/combining-forms_39)

Ghesquière Lobke, 2010, “On the subjectification and intersubjectification paths followed by the adjectives of completeness”, in Davidse Kristin, Vandelanotte Lieven & Cuyckens Hubert (Eds.), Subjectification, Intersubjectification and Grammaticalization, Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton, 277-314.

Ghesquière Lobke & Davidse Kristin, 2011, “The Development of intensification scales in noun-intensifying uses of adjectives: sources, paths and mechanisms of change”, English Language and Linguistics 15 (2), 251-277.

Givón Talmy, 2001, Syntax: An Introduction Vol II, Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

González-Díaz Victorina, 2009, “Little old problems: Adjectives and subjectivity in the English NP”, Transactions of the Philological Society 107 (3), 376-402.

González-Díaz Victorina, 2010, “Iconicity and subjectivisation in the English NP: The case of little”, in Conradie C. Jac, Johl Ronél, Beukes Marthinus, Fischer Olga & Ljungberg Christina (Eds.), Signergy, Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 319-345.

González-Díaz Victorina, 2017, “Tracing the development of an old old story: Intensificatory repetition in English”, Transactions of the Philological Society 116 (1), 30-58.

González-Díaz Victorina, 2021, “Intensificatory Tautology in the History of English: A Corpus-based Study”, Journal of English Linguistics 49 (2), 182-207.

Goyvaerts Didier L., 1968, “An introductory study on the ordering of a string of adjectives in present-day English”, Philologica Pragensia 11, 12-28.

Gries Stefan Th. & Otani Naoki, 2010, “Behavioral profiles: A corpus-based perspective on synonymy and antonymy”, ICAME Journal 34, 121-150.

Henkel Daniel, 2020, “Differentiating synonyms and adjective subclasses by syntactic profiling”, Lexis 15.

Huddleston Rodney & Pullum Geoffrey (Chief Eds.), 2002, The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kopaczyk Joanna & Sauer Hans, 2017, “Defining and Exploring Binomials”, in Kopaczyk J. & Sauer H. (Eds.), Binomials in the History of English: Fixed and Flexible, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1-23.

Liu Dilin, 2010, “Is it a chief, main, major, primary, or principal concern? A corpus-based behavioral profile study of the near-synonyms”, International Journal of Corpus Linguistics 15 (1), 56-87.

Makkai Adam, 1972, Idiom structure in English, The Hague – Paris: Mouton.

Malkiel Yakov, 1959, “Studies in irreversible binomials”, Lingua 8, 113-160.

Marchand Hans, 1957, “Motivation by Linguistic Form: English ablaut and rime combinations and their relevancy to word-formation”, Studia Neophilologica 29, 54-66.

Martin James E. & Ferb Thomas E., 1973, “Contextual factors in preferred adjective ordering”, Lingua 32, 75-81.

Matthews Peter H., 2009, “On the Microsyntax of Attributive Adjectives”, Transactions of the Philological Society 107 (3), 358-375.

Matthews Peter H., 2014, The Positions of Adjectives in English, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mattiello Elisa, 2013, Extra-grammatical Morphology in English, Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton.

Miller Gary, 2014, English Lexicogenesis, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mollin Sandra, 2012, “Revisiting binomial order in English: ordering constraints and reversibility”, English Language and Linguistics 16 (1), 81-103.

Mollin Sandra, 2014, The (Ir)reversibility of English Binomials: Corpus, constraints, developments, Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Moon Rosamund, 2013, “Braving Synonymy: from data to dictionary”, International Journal of Lexicography 26 (3), 260-278.

Murphy M. Lynne, 2003, Semantic Relations and the Lexicon: Antonymy, Synonymy, and Other Paradigms, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Murphy M. Lynne, 2010, Lexical Meaning, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Naciscione Anita, 2010, Stylistic Use of Phraseological Units in Discourse, Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 91-103.

Paradis Carita, 1997, Degree modifiers of adjectives in spoken British English, Lund Studies in English, Vol. 92, Lund: Lund University Press.

Paradis Carita, 2000, “Reinforcing adjectives: A cognitive semantic perspective on grammaticalization”, in Bermúdez-Otero Ricardo, Denison David, Hogg Richard & McCully Christopher B. (Eds.), Generative theory and corpus studies, Berlin: Mouton, 233-258.

Paradis Carita, 2001, “Adjectives and Boundedness”, Cognitive Linguistics 12 (1), 47-65.

Taylor John R., 2002, “Near synonyms as co-extensive categories: ‘high’ and ‘tall’ revisited”, Language Sciences 25, 263-284.

Thun Nils, 1963, Reduplicative Words in English, Lund: Carl Bloms Boktryckeri.

Vandelanotte Lieven, 2002, “Prenominal Adjectives in English: Structures and Ordering”, Folia Linguistica 36 (3-4), 219-259.

Wit Ernst-Jan C. & Gillette Marie, 1999, What is Linguistic Redundancy?, Technical Report, The University of Chicago: https://www.math.rug.nl/~ernst/linguistics/redundancy3.pdf

Wulff Stefanie, 2003, “A multifactorial corpus analysis of adjective order in English”, International Journal of Corpus Linguistics 8 (2), 245-282.

Databases, Dictionaries & Thesauri

Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english

Collins Cobuild Advanced Learner’s English Dictionary, Glasgow: HarperCollins: https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english

Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, Harlow: Pearson Education Ltd: https://www.ldoceonline.com

Longman Language Activator, 2002 [1993], Harlow: Longman.

Macmillan English Dictionary for Advanced Learners, Oxford: Macmillan: www.macmillandictionary.com

Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary of English, Oxford: Oxford University Press: https://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com

Oxford Learner’s Thesaurus: A dictionary of synonyms, 2008 (chief editor, D. Lea), Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford: Oxford University Press: http://www.oed.com

Phrases In English (PIE) database: http://phrasesinenglish.org

Top of page

Notes

1 All contextualized examples in this paper come from the British National Corpus, unless otherwise stated. After each example an indication is given of whether it was found in the written [w] or spoken [s] part of the corpus.

2 The type of textual repetition exemplified is not to be confused with the phenomenon whereby a person reformulates an utterance while he or she is speaking, replacing one word with another.

3 The corpus-based dictionaries consulted in this study were: Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (CALD), Collins Cobuild Advanced Learner’s English Dictionary (COBUILD), Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English (LDOCE), Macmillan English Dictionary for Advanced Learners (MEDAL), and Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary of English (OALD). I use here the names by which the print editions are currently known, though most consultation was carried out online. References in the text to specific dictionaries use the conventional abbreviations indicated above.

4 Fixed binomials have also been referred to by a number of other names – see Kopaczyk & Sauer [2017: 7] for some discussion.

5 In general, the concepts and terminology relating to synonymy in language studies are not as clear as they might be. For some relevant discussion, see the chapter on ‘synonymy and similarity’ in Murphy [2003], as well as Dolezal [2013: 255-256].

6 With regard to the paradigmatic axis, and to adjectives in particular, there have been several studies in recent years which involve, or at least include, the identification of differences between near-synonym pairs or sets. Examples are: high and tall (in Taylor [2002]); big, great, large; little, small, tiny (in Gries & Otani [2010]); chief, main, major, primary, principal (in Liu [2010]); brave, courageous, intrepid, plucky, valiant (in Moon [2013]); old, young; large, big; glad, happy; sorry, sad (in Henkel [2020]).

7 For some further discussion of what type of semantic relationships might be termed ‘near-synonymy’, see Cruse [2015: 144-145].

8 For a historical account of the development of both deadly and dead as intensifiers, see Blanco-Suárez [2013].

9 See Matthews [2014: 94] for some discussion of the grammatical status of scorching hot.

10 These two meanings of funny are discussed in Murphy [2010: 110], as examples of what she refers to as ‘sense synonyms’: “funny and peculiar are not absolute synonyms, and neither are funny and comical. Instead, they are sense synonyms, in that they each have one sense that means the same as one of the other word’s senses.”

11 Many of the adjectives exemplified in this section are also mentioned by Bolinger [1972: 59, 150] and Feist [2012]. They correspond mainly to examples in Feist’s Re-inforcer zone, though two of the words (bloody and unmitigated) are indicated by Feist as being Epithets.

12 For historical accounts of the sense development of some of these adjectives, see Feist [2012: 34-35] (bloody); Paradis [2000] (absolute, complete, perfect, total, utter); Ghesquière [2010], Ghesquière & Davidse [2011] (complete and total).

13 With regard to a number of these words, and in the context of near-synonymy, it is of interest that Feist comments [2012: 66]: “In the phrase ‘sheer arrogance’ […] sheer could adequately be replaced by complete, absolute, pure, outright, utter or perfect …”.

14 For some discussion of phraseological puns, in the context of stylistics, see Naciscione [2010].

15 I will refer to bloody, damn and fucking as ‘impolite words’, though of course this is very generic labelling – whether and to what extent there is actual impoliteness will depend on the precise situation in which they are used.

16 Biscetti also notes that bloody “is distributionally similar to items such as blooming, damn, fucking but just how similar is a matter for empirical investigation” [2004: 286].

17 Compare comments by Murphy [2010: 225-226] on the difference between the ‘absolute adjectives’ perfect and odd (the latter in reference to numbers). Whereas they both denote properties that something either has or does not have, the former of the two can be modified so as to express the notion of ‘less-than-perfect’, as in Murphy’s example of an ‘almost perfect diamond’. There are many such examples in the BNC, and the following is one in which the noun is (like silence) perfect by definition: “The inlet is an almost perfect semi-circle backed by huge cliffs”.

18 In the case of some of the adjectives (hefty, thumping, whacking) physical size is not normally involved.

19 A number of authors have pointed out differences between the adjectives large and similar adjectives of size; one is Bolinger [1972: 149, 152], who, while discussing individual intensifying adjectives, notes that large, unlike many other size adjectives, is not usually found as a noun intensifier, so “a big failure” is normal but not “a large failure”.

20 Teensy-weensy and teeny-weeny are also found without hyphens; I have written them with hyphens to underline the fact that they are here considered as single (reduplicative) words. Three of the individual components, teensy, teeny and weeny are also listed separately, since they were found as individual items in sequences; weensy, by contrast, was not.

With regard to reduplication, it is also worth noting that there appear to be no English reduplicatives which denote the notion of ‘big’. None were found in the thesaural works consulted, nor do there appear to be any in Thun [1963] or Miller [2014]. Nor was anything relevant found after making a search for the word ‘reduplicative’ in the Etymology field of OED entries.

21 For some discussion regarding the affective meaning of little, see Bolinger [1972: 59], González-Díaz [2009: 382-384; 2010], and Matthews [2009].

22 With regard to miniature, examples were retrieved only when it was being used in the vague sense of ‘very small’ and not in its more precise sense. In terms of the following (COBUILD) definition, it is only the first part of the definition which was of interest: “Miniature is used to describe something which is very small, especially a smaller version of something which is normally much bigger”.

23 It is to be noted that the meaning of the adjective everyday is not to be found just in its morphological make-up, and can be significantly different from that of the adverbial ‘every day’. The latter is used for things which happen ‘every day’, while the former is more complex. The definitions of everyday in two CBDs (CALD, MEDAL) make no reference at all to the notion of ‘days’, while in the other three dictionaries the idea of ‘happening every day’, or similar, is just one of the alternatives which form part of the definition, the other sense being the idea of ‘ordinariness’.

24 The adjective mind-numbing is stronger than the rest, typically explained in dictionaries as meaning ‘very / extremely boring’. It can also go beyond the sense of ‘boring’; the definition in COBUILD is: “If you describe an event or experience as mind-numbing, you mean that it is so bad, boring, or great in extent that you are unable to think about it clearly.”

25 Crystal [1997: 386] notes that “[t]he use of tautologous expressions in English documents is often due to the influence of different languages: for example, a French or Latin term used alongside an Anglo-Saxon one […] reflects the uncertainty of early draftsmen as to whether the two terms had the same meaning. In such cases, the safest course of action was to include both.”

And although binomials are found in a number of semantic fields, I find it appealing in this particular case to make a connection between coordinated binomials and the notion of ‘fairness’ / ‘balance’ as represented by the scales of justice.

26 See, for example, Goyvaerts [1968], Martin & Ferb [1973], Dixon [1982: 24-26], Vandelanotte [2002], Wulff [2003], and Feist [2012].

27 With regard to this point, the following statement in the Oxford Learner’s Thesaurus is of interest (though not specifically to do with adjectives): “The aim was to present learners with manageable groups of between three and ten synonyms. In a few cases the upper limit was extended to twelve; a few entries present just a pair of synonyms, when there was simply not a third synonym to add to the number” [2008: vi].

28 For a discussion of the notion of ‘Redundancy in language’, see Wit & Gillette [1999].

29 For a general discussion of word order in binomials, not specifically related to adjectives, see Mollin [2012], [2014].

Top of page

References

Electronic reference

Stephen James Coffey, English adjectives of very similar meaning used in combination: an exploratory, corpus-aided studyLexis [Online], 19 | 2022, Online since 26 March 2022, connection on 24 May 2022. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/lexis/6440; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/lexis.6440

Top of page

About the author

Stephen James Coffey

Università di Pisa, Italy (retired)
coffeystephenjames@gmail.com

Top of page
Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search