LINGUIST List 32.1915

Wed Jun 02 2021

Review: Semantics: Maienborn, von Heusinger, Portner (2019)

Editor for this issue: Jeremy Coburn <>

Date: 05-Dec-2020
From: Bruno Maroneze <>
Subject: Semantics - Lexical Structures and Adjectives
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Book announced at

EDITOR: Claudia Maienborn
EDITOR: Klaus von Heusinger
EDITOR: Paul Portner
TITLE: Semantics - Lexical Structures and Adjectives
SERIES TITLE: Mouton Reader
PUBLISHER: De Gruyter Mouton
YEAR: 2019

REVIEWER: Bruno O. Maroneze, Universidade Federal da Grande Dourados


“Semantics – Lexical structures and adjectives”, edited by Claudia Maienborn, Klaus von Heusinger and Paul Portner, is a reference volume on Semantics that contains 16 contributions from different authors. As one reads on the second page, the volume “is part of a larger set of handbooks to Semantics”, being the second of seven volumes.

Most chapters deal with semantic aspects related to the volume’s title, i.e. lexical semantics and the semantics of the adjective. The theoretical frameworks for most chapters are those of Formal Semantics.

All texts of the volume present large compilations of information on each subject, showing different points-of-view and analyses on the themes. Hence, the chapters have a more encyclopedic than analytic character. Each chapter is preceded by a table of contents and an abstract; the bibliographical references are found after each chapter, instead of at the end of the whole book.

The first four chapters address themes in Formal Semantics and Generative Grammar. Their titles are: “Semantic features and primes” (by Manfred Bierwisch), “Frameworks of lexical decomposition of verbs” (by Stefan Engelberg), “Thematic roles” (by Anthony R. Davis) and “Lexical Conceptual Structure” (by Beth Levin and Malka Rappaport Hovav). All of them present a variety of different perspectives on each subject, since the first thoughts and including the history of the debates.

Chapter 5 deals with the theme of “Idioms and collocations” (by Christiane Fellbaum), a subject of recently growing interest. It addresses problems such as compositionality, degrees of fixedness, and diachronic changes in idioms.

Chapter 6, entitled “Sense relations” (by Ronnie Cann) brings up the traditional subject of the sense relations: hyponymy, synonymy, antonymy, homonymy, and polysemy, as well as theoretical issues like lexical decomposition and meaning postulates.

Chapter 7 (“Dual oppositions in lexical meaning”, by Sebastian Löbner) addresses a subject which is not commonly included in lexical semantic manuals: the meanings of expressions such as “all” and “some”, “must” and “can”, “already” and “still”. The concept of “phase quantification” is used to describe the meaning of the duality group formed by the German words “schon”, “noch”, “noch nicht” and “nicht mehr”.

Chapters 8 and 9 deal with related issues: “Ambiguity and vagueness: an overview” (by Christopher Kennedy) and “Semantic underspecification” (by Markus Egg). Chapter 8 presents the characteristics of these phenomena, while chapter 9 presents semantic underspecification as a technique to represent several readings of an ambiguous expression.

Chapter 10 brings up a subject specific to formal semantics: “Mismatches and coercion” (by Henriëtte de Swart) describes “[c]onflicts between the requirements of a functor and the properties of its arguments” (p. 321), called type mismatches, and presents type coercion as a solution to type mismatches.

Chapter 11 is unusual in this book, as it is one of the few that does not refer to formal semantics. “Metaphors and metonymies” (by Andrea Tyler and Hiroshi Takahashi) presents the traditional approaches to metaphor and metonymy, as well as recent approaches by Cognitive Linguistics.

Chapters 12 and 13 describe the semantics of adjectives. Chapter 12 (“Adjectives”, by Violeta Demonte) “presents basic classifications of adjectives in formal semantics” (p. 381) together with an analysis “in terms of scales, degrees, standards/norms and boundedness” (p. 381). Also dealing with the subject of adjectives, Chapter 13 (“Comparison constructions”, by Sigrid Beck) describes the semantics of comparatives, based on von Stechow’s (1984) theory.

In a similar vein, chapters 14 and 15 describe the semantics of adverbs and adverbials. Chapter 14 (“Adverbs and adverbials”, by Claudia Maienborn and Martin Schäfer) defines and classifies adverbs and adverbial expressions, as well as presents theoretical approaches to describe their semantic properties. Chapter 15 (“Adverbial clauses”, by Kjell Johan Sæbø) describes and classifies adverbial clauses, understood as “subordinate clauses that modify their superordinate clauses” (p. 515).

The last contribution to the book is chapter 16, “Secondary predicates” (by Susan Rothstein), which presents theoretical formal approaches to analyse “secondary predication structures within a compositional semantic theory” (p. 543). An index of subjects (pages 569-571) closes the book.


The book has a highly encyclopedic character. Most chapters focus on describing different theoretical approaches to the subjects, as well as a brief history of how the problems were analyzed under older approaches. In this regard, the book is valuable to scholars who need to find different approaches to a subject in a single text.

The work is very useful to linguists interested in formal approaches to semantics, who will find deep analyses of important subjects. It is of less use for those interested in functional approaches or in lexical semantics for lexicography, for example.

Some minor problems with the book must be pointed out. Firstly, a major lapse of this work is that there is not any foreword or introduction of any kind. This would have helped the reader to understand the main goals of the book as a whole. Before reading each chapter, one cannot learn, for instance, that most chapters focus on Formal Semantic approaches. Nor is there any mention of the fact that the book is part of a larger collection of handbooks to Semantics (other than in the frontispiece, which lists all volumes in the set). There are many references in the chapters to other volumes in the set i, but an introductory text explaining the whole collection would be desirable.

One could also argue that, even though the title is “Semantics: lexical structures and adjectives”, some chapters do not fall exactly into this subject. Chapters 15, “Adverbial clauses”, and Chapter 16, “Secondary predicates”, deal with subjects more properly classified as syntactic, not lexical, and Chapter 7, “Dual oppositions in lexical meaning”, describes the meaning of grammatical particles, not lexical ones (although the difference between lexical and grammatical particles may be subject to debate). Again, one feels the lack of a foreword that could have explained the decision to include these chapters in the book.

Lastly, some minor typos were detected:

p. 15: “Morpho-syntactic features are binary conditions of the computational system that accounts [instead of “account”] for the combinatorial matching of PF and SF”

p. 62: “In Jackendoff (1983: 188), he states that in any semantic field in the domain of events and states ‘the principle event-, state-, path-, and place-functions are a subset […]’” – the words “and states” are probably a mistake

p. 106: “Moreover, there are arguments against the possibility of broad rules even for situations that seemingly [instead of “seem”] semantically quite close, in cases where two predicators would appear to denote the same situation type.”

p. 161: “Yet the corpus shows numerous uses of this idiom where the noun is relativied [instead of “relativized”], topicalized, quantified, and modified.”

p. 195: “Without going into detail, Pustejovskys [instead of “Pustejovsky’s] fundamental hypothesis […]”

p. 274: “These criteria will classify ambiguity in four classes […], which only partially coincides [instead of “coincide”] with the taxonomy in Bunt (2007).”

p. 364: “[…] ‘He’s standing tall now’ does have the interpretation of a feeling of confidence and well being [it seems to lack a period here] for Conceptual Metaphor Theorists, the asymmetry of mappings represents a key, universal constraint on the vast majority metaphors [instead of “majority of metaphors”].”

p. 371: “Its adherents also argue that the processes occurring in non-literal language and a variety of other phenomenon [instead of “phenomena”], such as conditionals […]”.

These problems are presented here as suggestions, not major flaws; those interested in formal approaches to lexical semantics will find in the book “Semantics: lexical structures and adjectives” an excellent encyclopedic reference work.


von Stechow, Arnim 1984. Comparing semantic theories of comparison. Journal of Semantics 3, 1-77.


Bruno Maroneze completed his Ph.D. in the University of Sao Paulo in 2011. His Ph.D. thesis focuses on Brazilian Portuguese neologisms formed by suffixation. His main research interests are on Lexicology, specifically word formation, neologisms and diachronic studies of the lexicon. He is currently teaching in the School of Communication, Arts and Letters of the Universidade Federal da Grande Dourados, MS,Brazil.

Page Updated: 02-Jun-2021