Semantic relations (only get you so far)

The study in a sentence

Proper noun modifiers are a relatively new construction in English (used since the 19th century).

This study explores what semantic relations can be expressed using proper noun modifers in English, and whether differences in which semantic relations are possible influences the choice between using a proper noun modifier or another closely related construction: a proper noun genitive.

The results show that both types of construction convey a range of semantic relations, and, as a result, that the 'meaning' of both these types of noun phrases can only be determined in context.

The question

In English we can use a noun to modify another noun; that is, we can describe a noun using a noun:

We can also express the relationship between two nouns using the possessive 's (or genitive 's):

After reading those examples, you might instinctively feel that the two phrases do not mean exactly the same thing, in each case. That feeling is the focus of this study: the authors used an experiment to find out if and when the meanings of these two types of expressions overlap or are distinct.

Key concept: semantic relations

  • We can describe the meaning relationship between the two nouns in a proper noun modifier (and in other constructions) in terms of semantic relations.

    • Some common semantic relations include: actor, undergoer, possessor, location, name, involvement and beneficiary. (See the Extension Task for examples.)

  • However, the combinations of words that we see or hear rarely map to a single interpretation of the relationship between them.

    • We might therefore describe the relationship between the words in a phrase or sentence as semantically underspecified.

  • Constructions are stored in the mental lexicon with some information about how to interpret them, but not so much information that only one interpretation is possible.

What semantic relations can be expressed using proper noun modifiers and proper noun genitives in English?

Do differences in the 'default' semantic relations influence the choice to use one construction rather than another?

Explainer video (2m30s)

Method: eliciting speaker judgements on examples taken from a corpus

This study used a standard grammaticality judgement task design, but with an important twist.

Rather than ask participants to judge artificially constructed examples devised for the purpose of testing a particular hypothesis, instead, the researchers used 'real' examples identified in a corpus.

Watch the video to see how to use the British National Corpus to search for examples of one or more constructions that you want to study. Written instructions are also provided in the Extension Task.

See the case study on be like quotatives for an example of a controlled judgement task using constructed examples (in a study where the nature of the construction being investigated makes it difficult to use examples from a corpus).
Figure 1: Relative probability of a given semantic relation being expressed by a proper noun genitive versus proper noun modifier construction.

The answer

  1. Which semantic relations can the two constructions express?

    • All seven categories of semantic relations can be expressed by proper noun modifiers and by proper noun genitives; none of the semantic relations was restricted to just one construction.

  2. Which semantic relations do they share? And when can one construction be replaced by the other without a change in meaning?

    • The two constructions share all semantic relations, but there were some preferred associations (illustrated in Figure 1).

Semantic relations are not categorical but have to be worked out on a case-by-case basis in context.

Classroom activities

How would you respond to the survey questions used in this study?

Predict which construction will be used, identifying semantic relations and using the BNC to find examples

In more detail

Pre-workshop taster video (3 mins)


Workshop talk slides

Live Workshop talk video (18 mins)

Meet the author

Julia Kolkmann

Julia is a Lecturer in English Language and Linguistics and teaches modules in semantics, pragmatics and English Language.

Read the paper

Breban, T., Kolkmann, J., & Payne, J. (2019). The impact of semantic relations on grammatical alternation: An experimental study of proper name modifiers and determiner genitives. English Language & Linguistics, 23(4), 797-826. download pdf