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Review of  Antonymy

Reviewer: Diana M. Lewis
Book Title: Antonymy
Book Author: Steve Jones
Publisher: Routledge (Taylor and Francis)
Linguistic Field(s): Text/Corpus Linguistics
Issue Number: 14.3137

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Date: Sat, 15 Nov 2003 14:27:56 +0100 (CET)
From: Diana Lewis
Subject: Antonymy: A Corpus-based Perspective

Jones, Steven (2002) Antonymy: A Corpus-based Perspective, Routledge,
Routledge Advances in Corpus Linguistics 2.

Diana Lewis, University of Lyon2.


_Antonymy: A Corpus-Based Perspective_ examines the use, in samples
taken from a corpus of contemporary English newspaper language, of
fifty-six antonymous pairs of lexemes. These include adjectives (e.g.
dry/wet), adverbs (e.g. directly/indirectly), verbs (e.g.
fail/succeed), and nouns (e.g. peace/war).

The aim of the study is threefold (pp. 25-26):
(1) - to investigate and quantify the intra-sentential functions served
by antonymy in written text;
(2) - to generate co-occurrence statistics and textual profiles for
individual antonymous pairs;
(3) - to examine variables (word class, gradability, etc.) which might
affect the function of antonymy.

The book is likely to be of interest to corpus linguists and


The first chapter, describing the attractions of antonymy - for those
acquiring L1 or L2, for writers, for linguists, indeed for everybody -
is followed by a chapter providing a brief overview of some previous
antonymy studies. Antonymous pairs have previously been described and
categorized in terms of gradability, reciprocity, inverseness and so
on. The present study proposes a new classification of antonymy.

Chapter 3 describes the data and method of this study. A selection of
fifty-six antonymous pairs for analysis was made on the basis of the
author's intuition that these "would be intuitively recognised as 'good
opposites', to a greater or lesser degree" (p. 35). Further selection
criteria were that adjectives, nouns, verbs and adverbs be included,
that there be both gradable and non-gradable antonyms, and some
'morphological antonyms' (specifically, some antonyms based on the
prefix -un). Sentences containing one or more of these antonymous pairs
were extracted from a corpus of around 280 million words of text from
The Independent newspaper. 3,000 of these sentences were retained for
analysis, their selection determined by various criteria to ensure they
included large enough samples of each word class, of non-gradable
antonyms and of morphologically-related antonyms. The 3,000 examples of
antonym use were then analysed and grouped according to the perceived
function of the antonymous pair, eight categories emerging from this
analysis. Two of these categories, termed 'Ancillary antonymy' and
'Coordinated antonymy', account for over three-quarters of the
occurrences, and are the subjects of chapters 4 and 5 respectively.

The first major category, 'Ancillary antonymy', comprises occurrences
where the contrast between the members of the antonymous pair evokes a
contrast between the elements the antonyms modify, as in "'Stamps are
popular, but collecting is unpopular'" (p. 35). The function of the
antonymous pair is "to instruct us to interpret a nearby pair of words
or phrases contrastively" (p. 38). There follows a puzzling sub-
categorization of the 'nearby' pairs, called 'B-pairs', into some
heterogeneous classes. Thus in "'Kennedy dead is more interesting than
Clinton alive'" (p. 49), the B-pair Kennedy-Clinton is said to
illustrate the category of 'Human B-pairs', while in "'a happy end to a
sad chapter'" (p, 52), the B-pair end-chapter illustrates the category
of 'Meronymous B-pairs'. These sub-categories are clearly not mutually
exclusive and it is hard to see what purpose they serve. Especially
interesting in this chapter are the examples of the way antonymy is
often used to create syllepsis with humourous effect: two concepts from
different domains are incongruously linked by the parallelism inherent
in antonymy and by phonological parallelism such as rhyme, alliteration
and syllable count. Examples are "regarded male wrestlers as morons and
female wrestlers as oxymorons" (p.52) and "it denotes high butter
mountains and a low boredom threshold" (p.54).

Chapter 5 explores 'Coordinated antonymy', that is, antonymous pairs
that signal "inclusiveness or exhaustiveness" (p. 37). Coordinated
antonyms designate a whole scale, as in "'.. we cannot prove or
disprove the idea that God is angry'" (p. 62). Instead of sub-
categorizing this type of antonymy, as was attempted for Ancillary
antonymy in the previous chapter, the author here identifies its
typical structural frameworks. These are 'X and Y'; 'X or Y'; 'neither
X nor Y'; 'X as well as Y', where X and Y represent the antonymous

Ancillary antonymy and Coordinated antonymy together account for over
77% of the 3,000 tokens of antonymy in the database. The remaining
tokens were attributed to six 'minor classes', to which chapter 6 is
devoted. Where antonymy occurs in a comparison, such as "'..light crude
is more easily broken down than heavy crude'" (p. 76), it is said to be
'Comparative'. Where the focus is on the "inherent semantic
dissimilarity" of the antonyms, there is 'Distinguished antonymy'. This
typically occurs in frameworks such as '[the difference/gap] between X
and Y', as in "'one must distinguish between hard and soft drugs'" (p.
83). 'Transitional antonymy' is the label given to the expression of a
change of state, as in "'..from success to failure'" or "'..moves the
gas from the hot part of the cylinder to the cold'" (p. 85). Antonymy
in an antithetical relation is labelled 'Negated antonymy'. Typical
frameworks are 'X not Y', 'X instead of Y', 'X as opposed to Y': An
example is "'..government must play an active, not passive, role..'"
(p. 88). 'Extreme antonymy' describes antonyms in "a framework that
unites the outer-most areas of their given semantic scale" (p. 91), as
in "'.. conditions are either too dry or too wet for racing on turf..'"
(p. 92). Again, typical frameworks are identified. Finally, a class of
'Idiomatic antonymy' is posited, comprising idioms built on antonymy,
such as 'the long and the short of it', 'easy come, easy go', agree to
disagree' (pp. 93-4). The chapter ends with a description of some
'residual' occurrences of antonymy that resisted placement in one of
these eight categories.

Chapter 7 assesses the prevalence of antonymy in the 280 million-word
corpus by comparing the actual co-occurrences of the selected
antonymous pairs with the expected co-occurrence rate "if those words
occurred at random" (p. 106). It is not clear how these results are to
be interpreted, as there seems to be no way of ensuring that the two
lexemes concerned are actually in an antonymous relationship each time
they occur in the same sentence (or indeed are not in such a
relationship when they occur in adjacent sentences). Statistical
criteria for gauging what constitutes a pair of 'good opposites' are
suggested, but the discussion in this chapter ends rather

Chapter 8 discusses markedness and typical orderings of antonymous
pairs: 'good and bad' rather than 'bad and good'; 'success or failure'
rather than 'failure or success', and so on. It is observed that
positive tends to precede negative, and base forms precede derived
forms. Magnitude, chronology, gender, phonology and idiomaticity are
also posited to play some role, while some orderings are simply
conventional. It would have been useful here to see if there was a
correlation between ordering and 'framework'.

Chapter 9 considers the relationships between the functions of antonymy
and (a) the word class of the antonyms and (b) the gradability of the
antonyms. It concludes that neither word class nor gradability
significantly correlate with the textual functions of antonymy.

Chapter 10 takes a closer look at some of the structural frameworks
identified in chapters 5 and 6 to see whether, by looking at the
framework and seeing what lexemes appear in the slots, it may be
possible to identify emergent antonyms. Specifically, emergent antonyms
for the target words 'good', 'natural' and 'style' are sought by
retrieving from the corpus the frameworks 'both X and Y', 'between X
and Y' and 'whether X or Y', where X is the target word. For 'good' and
'natural', opposites predominate in the Y position; e.g. 'flawed',
'nasty', 'wicked' with the former, and 'artificial', 'man-made',
'social' with the latter. The numbers here are too small for
generalizations to be made, but it would be fascinating to see this
method applied to larger and more diversified corpora. The exploration
of all the recurrent frames identified in this study as associated with
antonymy would make an excellent starting point for frame-based
research into lexical relations.

A final chapter summarizes the findings.


Intuition, or convenience, drives many a research design, and it is
always disappointing to encounter hollow post hoc justifications of
data choices or methods. No such disappointment here. The design, data
and method are clearly presented and for the most part admirably well
explained. What is not explained, however, is why the sentence was
chosen as the unit of analysis, nor what its relevance to antonymy is.
Intuitively, it is a strange choice: at best the sentence is a
syntactic unit, while antonymy as defined in this book as a lexical
semantic relation which cuts across syntactic categories and units. The
author's characterizations of the categories he identifies purport to
be semantic, and bear little relation to sentential structure. Yet the
conclusions he arrives at often hang on the choice of the sentence as
the unit of analysis.

For instance, both the 'Ancillary antonymy' pattern and the 'Negated
antonymy' pattern, as described in the text, occur frequently across
sentential boundaries, while the 'Coordinated antonymy' pattern does
not. The quantitative analyses are therefore likely to be severely
distorted. 'Sentence' is not defined in the text, but from the examples
cited, it seems to correspond to a sequence between full stops.
Examples such as "The bad news is now largely behind; the good news is
to come" (p.50) are included, while there are no examples across full
stops, such as "The bad news is that he failed to reach the second
round of the event. The good news is that he is still alive." (The
Independent, 09.08.2002). Inter-sentential antonymy is only mentioned
in passing (p. 104). Intuitively, a span (number of words) designed to
maximize recall while retaining enough precision to make manual sorting
feasible would seem to make more sense. And since antonym use involves
a type of reference, it would be of interest anyway to see at what
point diminishing returns set in. Another qualm is the absence of
significance indicators. It would be nice for readers to be given some
indication of the statistical significance of the results obtained,
rather than be left to try to work it out for themselves from the
figures (tricky, given the sampling method).

Given that, as the author points out, writers often choose an
entrenched antonymous pair for argumentational reasons, it is
disappointing that there is no attempt to examine the information
structure of the sequences containing the antonyms. For instance, the
discussion in chapter 4 of the role of conjunctions in 'Ancillary
antonymy' (pp.57-8) fails to appreciate that the key difference between
the use of 'and' and the use of 'but' to conjoin two contrasted clauses
of the type 'a(x) and/but b(y)' is one of scope: 'and' takes scope over
the whole propositions, while 'but' takes scope over the predicates
only. Other things being equal, 'and' thus produces a symmetrical
information structure and 'but' an asymmetrical one. The examples given
throughout the text suggest that many uses of antonymous pairs are
closely tied to asymmetrical information structure and that information
structure may therefore be relevant to the discussion of antonym
sequence in chapter 8.

The final chapter on profiling is by far the most interesting and the
reader is left wishing this framework retrieval had been extended to
include several of the other interesting frameworks identified in
chapters 5 and 6 and had used many more target words from among those
fifty-six selected as having 'good opposites'. Not only does this
procedure test intuitions about 'good antonyms', it can also tell us a
lot about polysemy networks. Indeed, it is a pity that issues of
polysemy and contextual modulation (Cruse 1986: 52), which are key to
understanding the antonymous behaviour of many of the lexeme pairs
selected for this study, are not addressed.

Overall, the text with its wealth of examples amply illustrates that
antonymy does have a special appeal; that it has indeed, as Jones puts
it, "transcended its role as a mere sense relation" (p. 1).


Cruse, D. A. (1986) Lexical semantics. Cambridge University Press.

Diana Lewis is an associate professor of English linguistics at the
University of Lyon2. She has research interests in lexical semantics
and pragmatics, language change and variation, corpus linguistics and
contrastive linguistics.

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