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Review of  The Semantics of English Negative Prefixes

Reviewer: Galit W. Sassoon
Book Title: The Semantics of English Negative Prefixes
Book Author: Zeki Hamawand
Publisher: Equinox Publishing Ltd
Linguistic Field(s): Semantics
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 21.2587

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AUTHOR: Zeki Hamawand
TITLE: The Semantics of English Negative Prefixes
PUBLISHER: Equinox Publishing Ltd.
YEAR: 2009

Galit W. Sassoon, ILLC, University of Amsterdam


This book presents research on a wide range of negative prefixes arguing that
(i) each affix has multiple interpretations, prototypical and peripheral; (ii)
the set of interpretations of an affix are partially overlapping with the
interpretations of other affixes; (ii) due to a competition between affixes, a
decision to use one rather than another always affects interpretation. Chapters
1-2 are devoted to criticism of previous theories and description of the
framework, methodology (cognitive linguistics and usage based semantics), and
main goals and ideas. Chapter 3 introduces a list of the interpretations for
each affix. Chapter 4 defines DOMAINS - super-categories of interpretations; it
describes the common denominator between prefixes belonging to a single domain,
as well as different FACETS - subcategories of interpretations - along which
these prefixes differ. Two prefixes and two domains are presented by way of
illustration in the introductory chapters. Chapter 5 explains the notion of
CONSTRUAL of a situation - the ways in which a situation is linguistically
encoded. In this chapter, the author presents word pairs sharing a base but
differing in prefix, such as 'non-social' vs. 'asocial', exemplifying his ideas
about the prefixes and their categories.

All in all, the book describes eight general domains of interpretation for
negative prefixes, and their different facets, as follows.

The domain of DEGRADATION contains affixes that can express decline in rank,
importance, size, etc. (p14-15) where, typically, 'ab' expresses quality (as in
'abnormal'), 'sub' expresses degree (as in 'sub-human') and 'under' - rank (as
in 'under-servant').

The domain of INADEQUACY contains affixes that can express partial possession of
the thing described by the base (p36) where, typically, 'pseudo' expresses
deception (as in 'pseudo-intellectual'), 'quasi' expresses resemblance (as in
'quasi-judicial role') and 'semi' - incompleteness (as in 'semi-literate').

The domain of DISTINCTION contains affixes that can express contrast and
dissimilarity between entities or their properties. The prefixes in this domain
differ along the scale of contrariness-contradictoriness. The most strongly
associated with contrariness is 'in', followed by 'un', 'dis', 'a', and 'non',
which is the most contradictory. 'Non' is the most neutral and least evaluative
(followed by 'a', etc.), as in, e.g., 'non-professional' vs. 'unprofessional'
(the former relates to people who are not trained, while the latter evaluates
people as being under the standard expected in their profession),
'non-essential' vs. 'inessential' (roughly, not necessary vs. not important) and
'non-approval' vs. 'disapproval' (mere lack of approval vs. condemnation),
'atypical' vs. 'untypical' work (only the latter can mean 'bad'), 'non-moral'
and 'amoral' vs. 'immoral', 'unmeasurable' (something for which no measuring
means exist) vs. 'immeasurable' (too huge to be measurable), etc. (cf. p130-137
and notes 3-5 of ch.5).

The domain of OPPOSITION contains affixes that can express disagreement (the
idea of 'in response to'), through reacting, preventing, defending, etc. (p104)
where 'anti' is typically used to express opposition to attitudes and opinions
(as in 'anti-colonialism'), harmful medical states (as in 'anti-histamine') and
weapons (as in 'anti-missile'); 'counter' describes an event or action to deal
with a situation (as in 'counter-attack') and 'contra' expresses extreme
contrasts between things (as in 'contra-distinction'). Thus, we find the pair
'anti-revolution' (objection to the idea of a revolution) vs.
'counter-revolution' (revolution against the result of a prior revolution; p138-9).

The domain of TREATMENT contains affixes expressing wrong, false or improper
treatment of people or things (p116-119), where 'mal' relates to intentional
behavior (as in 'maladministration') and 'mis' unintentional or accidental
behavior (as in 'misconstrued'); cf. 'maladjustment' vs. 'misadjustment'
(inability to properly adapt vs. non-fit; the latter applies to, for instance,
knobs) and 'maltreat' vs. 'mistreat' (roughly, treat cruelly or brutally vs.
treat unkindly; p143).

The domain of PRIVATION contains affixes that can express lacking, not having,
and preventing from having (p108). It is argued that typically 'dis' is used to
express actions such as harming, reducing and punishing people (as in
'dishonor'), 'de' expresses damaging, neglecting or relocating of concrete
things (as in 'debase') and 'un' relates to abstract things and situations (as
in 'unhealthy'). While 'dis' conveys lacking, 'un' conveys 'bereft of',
illustrated by the pair 'disbelief' (lack of belief) vs. 'unbelief' (lack of
faith) and 'disburden' vs. 'unburden' (p139-140).

The domain of REMOVAL contains affixes that can express removal, releasing,
ridding or taking away, where typically 'dis' relates to people (as in
'disarmed'), 'de' to things (as in 'degreased') and 'un' to objects ('unload').
In p140, we find 'decoupled' vs. 'uncoupled' and 'defrock' vs. 'unfrock' (remove
from a privileged position vs. remove clothes).

The domain of REVERSAL contains affixes that can express reversing, turning
around, or inverting from one state to the opposite (undoing), where typically
'dis' refers to people (as in 'discredit'), 'de' to things and places
('decipher') and 'un' to objects ('unlock'); cf. 'debar' (e.g., people from a
bar) vs. 'unbar' (e.g., a door) and 'disvalue' (to think of something as having
a low value) vs. 'devalue' (to lower the value of something; p141-2).

Finally, inter-domain construals are argued to be responsible for interpreting
rival prefixes from different domains, as in 'non-human' vs. 'anti-human' (that
relate to a category distinction vs. opposition with respect to humans),
'unfortunate' vs. 'misfortunate' (category distinction vs. treatment),
'displaced' vs. 'misplaced' (reversal vs. treatment), etc.


The main merit of this book lies in the attempt to study a wide range of
negative prefixes comparatively. As argued in section 1.2, one does not find
comprehensive comparisons between negative prefixes in, for example,
dictionaries, reference grammars, and morphology. Furthermore, the author's
basic assumption, namely that the interpretation of a prefix in a given context
of use is affected by the interpretation of other prefixes, is interesting and
plausible. In accordance, the book provides interesting insights regarding the
interpretation of different prefixes. Nonetheless, some of the author's
conclusions are not sufficiently convincing, due to problems with both the
empirical procedure and the manner of presentation of the results.

First, the book contains long and detailed introductory descriptions of
cognitive-linguistic and related theories, general critique of formal theories,
descriptions of structure of the book and its parts, goals, procedures and
summaries. These issues occupy a large part not only of chapters 1 and 2, but
also of each one of the three main chapters (3-5). As a result, the core parts
consisting of the actual study and its results cover less than a half of the
whole book (mainly, pages 60-84 in ch.3, pages 99-120 in ch.4 and pages 130-148
in ch.5). This is a pity given the admirable, ambitious goal of providing a
comprehensive study of a wide range of negative prefixes and the relations
between them. It is a pity also because the 'introductory' sections are
repetitive. For example, chapter 3 has two almost identical descriptions of its
structure, in the first and second page of the chapter; so does chapter 4. Also,
Prototype theory and Domain theory are presented at least 3 times. The sections
criticizing previous formal theories cite theories whose nature and problems are
well known, including the classical theory, rule-based morphology and
referential semantics. Some of the cited theories are from 1930-1960 (p91,
section 4.2.1). These reviews could have been dispensed with (by referring to
any of the existing introductions to cognitive linguistics), leaving space for a
review of contemporary literature about negation and antonymy, whether in
psycholinguistics (such as Giora 2006 and references within), corpus linguistics
(such as Tribushinina 2009 and references within) or formal semantics (such as
Kennedy 2001 and references within).

Second, section 1.4.2 explains the merits of Usage-based semantics, according to
which the linguistic system is shaped by actual data. Collocations and frequency
of tokens and types are said to be the core factors (say, number of occurrences
of 'un', number of occurrences of prefixes sharing a given interpretation with
'un', etc.) In fact the author looks at real examples taken from the BNC and
their collocations. Yet, the book does not present any quantitative measure of
frequency of occurrence or co-occurrence. The book provides lists of possible
interpretations for each affix, illustrated by real examples. Yet, nothing
reveals the extent to which these lists are exhaustive or the extent to which
the generalizations are conclusive (how many of the examples in the BNC do they
exhaust?). The author divides the prefixes into primary and secondary, and
orders the different interpretations of any given prefix by prototypicality, but
he remains silent as to the motivating evidence for each specific claim. The
author disregards non-affixal negation and negative suffixes without justifying
this choice (don't negative prefixes compete also with negative morphemes other
than prefixes?). Finally, the author states for almost any example of a negative
word what it means (e.g., 'mislay' means ''to lose something temporarily by
forgetting where you have put it''; p117), based on dictionary definitions and
personal intuitions, although the author himself states that these are
non-reliable sources. It is certainly possible that the author has done very
good and careful work, based on reliable, representative samples of examples,
dictionaries and informants. However, in the absence of concrete details about
these samples, the validity and generality of his claims remain in doubt.

Third, at times, it is not so easy to see the logical relations leading from
data (examples, collocations) to conclusions (claims regarding different
prefixes), in particular in chapters 4 and 5. For example, the author points out
dissimilarities between the collocations characteristic of different words,
e.g., 'decipher' collocates with 'messages' and 'wording', while 'deforest' with
'forest' and 'land' (p115), but what can we conclude here? The author could not
point out a common denominator of the collocations of, e.g., 'de' words versus
'un' words in general, which is disappointing. The prefixes are also
characterized in slightly different ways in different chapters and sections.
Consider, for example, the domain of distinction. In p99-104 it is argued that,
typically, 'in', 'ir' and 'im' are used to express properties of situations (as
in 'inappropriate' and 'irregular'), 'un' is used to express properties of
things ('untidy'), 'dis' - attitudes of people ('dishonest'), 'a' - opposing
features of things ('atonal') and 'non' different plans of action
('non-compliance'). However, the picture drawn in chapter five is a bit
different. For example, on p131, it is argued that 'a' applies to people and
animates (as in 'he was asocial') and 'non' to areas of knowledge (as in
'non-social areas of linguistics'; cf. also to 'unsocial hours'). In p132, it is
argued that 'dis' applies to people and things (as in 'disappearance') and 'non'
to humans (as in 'non-appearance'). On p133, it is argued that 'un' applies to
people's behavior (as in 'unprofessional') and 'non' to people (as in
'non-professional'). On p135 it is argued that 'a' applies to people and their
attitudes while 'in' to their actions (as in 'amoral person' vs. 'immoral
action'), and so on. To the best of my understanding, the different sections
provide different, mutually inconsistent generalizations regarding the
characteristic collocations of e.g. 'non'; likewise for other prefixes.

Also, despite the fact that minimal pairs such as 'non-social' vs. 'asocial'
constitute the most straightforward evidence for differences between rival
prefixes, the main discussion of such minimal pairs is delayed up to the last
chapter and includes only one or two examples for each prefix pair. Again, in
the absence of an exhaustive sample of examples, no generalization can be drawn.
Additional invaluable examples are found in the notes, but the notes do not
allow enough space to establish important arguments, and constant shifts from
the chapter to the notes do not facilitate readability. As a result, the
connections between the examples given in chapter 5 and the general claims
presented in chapters 3-4 often remain loose.

Fourth, some of the terminology used in the book is not sufficiently explained.
For example, what is the distinction between the terms 'thing' and 'object', as
used in chapter 4? And more importantly, what is negation? What is a contrast?
What is an opposition? What creates them? When is it the case that something is
not? In order to provide a satisfying answer to these questions it is not
sufficient to use many near-synonyms of negation (cf. p99). With these loose
ends, certain facts remain unexplained; for example, it is argued that in
'unqualified' vs. 'disqualified', 'un' evokes the privation domain, while 'dis'
- the reversal domain. But nothing explains precisely how and why this happens
to be the case; according to the claims in ch. 3 there are many other possible

At last, some explanations are redundant or suffer from flaws; to take one
example, it is argued that the basic interpretation of 'semi', namely 'half' (as
in 'semi-tone'), can change and extend into another, namely 'twice' (as in
'semi-weekly'). But no reference to extensions is necessary here. The typical
interpretation ('occurs every half a week') already entails 'twice a week'.
Stipulating an additional peripheral sense for 'semi' is unnecessary. To take
another example, Horn (2002) argues that 'un' differs from 'non' with respect to
the creation of contrary vs. contradictory antonym pairs (namely ones that allow
or do not allow for a borderline area, as in e.g., 'tall/short' vs.
'open/closed', respectively). Expanding on this idea, the author claims that
things can be contradictory or contrary to different degrees. However, he does
not explicate precisely how these degrees are characterized and in several
different places he argues that contradictoriness creates non-gradable
properties, which is clearly wrong, e.g., 'open' implies 'not-closed', and yet
things can be somewhat open, very open, too open, not open enough, etc.;
likewise, examples such as 'typical/atypical' are used to illustrate a high
degree of contradictoriness, although these adjectives are clearly gradable (see
Kennedy and McNally 2005 for a lengthy discussion of these matters).

To conclude, this book can be useful and inspiring for readers working on the
topic, but it cannot serve as a basis for firm conclusions regarding the
semantics and usage of negative prefixes.


Giora, Rachel (2006). Is negation unique? On the processes and products of
phrasal negation. Journal of Pragmatics, 38, 979-980.
Horn, L. (2002) Uncovering the un-word: A study in lexical pragmatics. Sophia
Linguistica 49: 1-64.
Kennedy, Christopher. 2001. Polar opposition and the ontology of degrees.
Linguistics and Philosophy 24(1): 33-70.
Kennedy, Christopher and McNally, Louise. 2005. Scale structure and. the
semantic typology of gradable predicates. Language 81: 345-381.
Tribushinina, Elena, 2009, The linguistics of zero: A cognitive reference point
or a phantom? Folia Linguistica 43/2: 417-461.

Galit Weidman Sassoon is a postdoc researcher in the institute of logic, language and computation (ILLC) at the University of Amsterdam (UVA). Her main interests are natural language semantics and pragmatics, and their interface with cognitive psychology. She currently works on problems pertaining to nouns and adjectives, including vagueness, comparison and antonymy.

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