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Review of  Conversion in English

Reviewer: Lixia Susan Cheng
Book Title: Conversion in English
Book Author: Sándor Martsa
Publisher: Cambridge Scholars Publishing
Linguistic Field(s): Semantics
Cognitive Science
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 25.2479

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Conversion, also called zero derivation, is a kind of word formation. It is the creation of a word of a new word class from an existing word of a different word class without any change in form; for example, the creation of the verb ‘humble’ from the adjective ‘humble’ or of the noun ‘attempt’ from the verb ‘attempt’. The book under review explores English conversion within the framework of cognitive semantics.

Apart from an introduction and conclusion, the book contains twelve chapters which are evenly divided into four parts. Part I, ‘Previous Interpretations of Conversion’, including the first three chapters, is a review of previous studies of English conversion from different perspectives. There are generally three types of interpretations: conversion as a morphological (non)derivational process, conversion as a syntactic and lexical-semantic process and conversion as a category (under)specification phenomenon. The first two regard conversion as a word-formation process while the third does not.

The most common interpretation is zero derivation or null derivation, i.e., derivation by a zero-morpheme, meaning that instead of adding a derivational suffix to change word class, one adds a phonetically zero morpheme to the base. It can also be understood as “derivation without affixation”, that is, a “zero operation” of derivation instead of “adding a zero affix” (p. 32). Chapter One, ‘Morphological Interpretations’, examines these two approaches to zero derivation and presents not only the advantages but also the danger of this interpretation. It also gives a brief survey of the iconicity and typological adequacy of conversion in the natural morphology framework.

Chapter Two provides an overview of another three interpretations: conversion as inflectional derivation, a lexical rule and semantic extension, and an onomasiological operation - recategorization of the naming units. The author suggests that the nature of conversion should be interpreted by the last two instead of the first one. The reason is that the syntactic/inflectional interpretation confuses the effect of conversion with the cause since paradigmatic shifting is one of the outcomes of conversion, not the motivation, while the other two interpretations treat conversion as a semantic derivation triggered by cognitive processes of conceptual mapping or conceptual recategorization.

As for the non-processual interpretations, Chapter Three lays out three models: Lieber’s relisting, Clark & Clark’s contextuals, and Farrell’s category underspecification. All three have one thing in common - they do not treat conversion as a process of word formation. Relisting is “a redundancy rule in the permanent lexicon” (Lieber 1981: 181), that is, the already listed items in the lexicon enter again as an item of a different word class. The notion of contextuals highlights the situation where innovative denominal verbs, for example, have some possible senses that can be fixed in certain contexts (Clark & Clark 1979: 782). Category underspecification treats words involved in, e.g., N>V conversion as having two potential meanings, either a process (verb) meaning or a thing (noun) meaning, and which of the two is more salient is dependent on the context (Farrell 2001: 113). According to the author of the book, these non-processual interpretations offer a lexical or contextual explanation but they, like the syntactic interpretation, also mistake the consequence for the cause of conversion.

Part II, ‘Conversion in English and Other Languages’, circumscribes English conversion and within the boundaries defined examines different types of conversion. Chapter Four begins with a tentative definition - “conversion is a kind of unmarked change of word class” (p. 61). But the author observes that not all instances with this formal feature indicate conversion, for example, homonymy, reference metonymy, deletion, grammaticalization and category indeterminacy, all of which should be distinguished from true conversion. In order to do that, the author clarifies the notion of word class and pins down the elements determining the change of word class.

Chapter Five summarizes and compares ten kinds of classifications made by ten scholars. They all treat N>V, A>V and V>N as the major types of conversion. They do not agree with each other about some partial and minor types such as A>N, transitive V>intransitive V, and countable N>uncountable N, which are not considered as conversion by some of them.

In order to formulate a justifiable classification of English conversion, Chapter Six discusses conversion in other languages such as Russian and Hungarian. At the end of the chapter, the author offers a revised classification of English conversion. Among the ten types of conversion, N>V, A>V, CLOSED CLASS>V, V>N, PHRASE>N, PHRASE>A are identified as full prototypical derivational conversion and the others such as CLOSED CLASS>N and ADV>N are labeled as partial non-prototypical syntactic conversion in this new classification.

The author argues that the ten types of conversion are all semantically conditioned. And as mentioned above, the book is built up within a cognitive semantics framework. So Part III, ‘Conversion as Semantic Derivation’, begins with ‘Meaning and Conversion’ (Chapter Seven). Based on Kiparsky (1997) and Lieber (2004), this chapter first examines the interaction between lexical meaning and morphology in conversion, from which the author observes the important role of meaning in word formation and also that of the speakers’ encyclopedic knowledge in processing meaning. The author then points out that conversion is basically a semantic derivation in which metonymic mappings (such as constituents of actions standing for the actions themselves) and metaphoric mappings (such as animal verbs - e.g. ‘wolf’ in ‘to wolf down’ - standing for the typical actions of the animals) motivate the semantic extension of the base word. And it is the semantic extension or derivation that underlies the conversion of this word. At the end of this chapter, the author offers us his definition of conversion.

After setting up the analytic framework for a semantically based interpretation of conversion and defining conversion as “a morphological unmarked category-shifting word-formation process motivated by metonymic and/or metaphoric mappings” (p. 131), the author goes on to examine the ten types of conversion identified earlier in Chapter Six, and clarifies the details of metonymic and metaphoric mappings in conversion verbs (Chapter Eight) and in conversion nouns and adjectives (Chapter Nine). He concludes that among conversion verbs the animal verbs are triggered by metaphoric mappings and the other N>V, A>V and CLOSED CLASS>V are motivated by metonymic mappings. All conversion nouns result from metonymic mappings.

If conversion pairs are semantically related in the sense that a new meaning is developed from the meaning of the base word without change to its lexical form, then this new meaning (the meaning of the converted word) is predictable from the meaning of the base word. If the new meaning is predictable, then conversion must have a predictable direction, i.e., between the conversion pair one is the parent from which the other is formed. This implies that conversion, like other word-formation processes, is productive. This is the main idea of the three claims that Part IV, ‘Polysemy, Directionality, Productivity’, aims to justify. Unlike the traditional opinion that the relationship between the conversion pair is grammatical homonymy, the author’s belief is that it is not homonymy but polysemy. This polysemy is not prototypical in that it presents the related senses of two categorically different but formally identical lexemes, while standard polysemy involves related senses of one lexeme.

This intercategorial view of polysemy between conversion pairs is formed on a close reexamination of the ten types of English conversion. It entails inherent directionality of conversion, as the converted word is derived morpho-semantically from the parent word. After analyzing the arguments for and against directionality in Chapter Eleven, the author makes use of Marchand’s semantic criteria (1964) and claims that the direction of conversion is predictable in synchronic terms. This synchronic directionality also entails regularity of conversion, which is discussed in Chapter Twelve, where the author first examines the notion of morphological productivity and then identifies twenty conversion rules. In view of the fact that conversion is mostly rule-governed, despite a few types resulted from analogy, the author confirms the productivity of conversion.


The author says in the ‘Forward and Acknowledgment’ that the book is inspired by Štekauer (1996) and Twardzisz (1997), and partly responds to Bauer & Valera’s (2005) claim that some theories including cognitive linguistics have not “tested themselves against the data of conversion yet”. His goal is therefore to provide a cognitive semantic analysis of conversion in English and to explore the questions that are left unanswered regarding this special word-formation technique. Within the framework of metonymic and metaphoric mappings, the author argues that conceptual reanalysis (based on encyclopedic knowledge) and metonymic/metaphoric mappings motivate semantic derivation, which leads to the obligatory change of word class. The author also makes an in-depth study of three controversial issues concerning conversion: the directionality issue, the polysemy vs. homonymy issue, and the productivity vs. analogy issue. The first issue is found in quite a number of previous studies but the other two have not been given due attention. So the author analyzes different opinions on the issues first and then reexamines the ten types of English conversion to identify the semantic link between the conversion pairs. What he finds is that the semantic relationship between the base word and the converted one is intercategorial polysemy. This settles the long-standing directionality and productivity controversy because polysemy suggests the direction, and directionality implies productivity. I think the author has achieved his goals with the book, which proves to be another profound contribution to the study of English conversion.

The only reservation I have is the classification of the types of English conversion, specifically the first type of A>N conversion, for example, ‘poor’ A>‘(the) poor’ N. Such deadjectival nouns refer either to specific groups of people characterized by the properties denoted by the input adjectives such as ‘poor’ and ‘clever’ or to things with specific properties also designated by input adjectives such as ‘unbelievable’, ‘unexpected’, ‘unknown’ (p. 185). Though it is labeled “partial non-prototypical syntactic conversion” (p. 102), this special construction ‘the+A’ should be distinguished from conversion as a process of word formation. The adjective is just syntactically in a position (head of the noun phrase) characteristic of nouns but it is unable to behave like a noun. For example, it cannot carry various grammatical markers in terms of number and case as in *‘I saw a poor today’ or *‘Those poors really need help’. Not only is there no inflectional evidence of the word’s status as a noun, but there is inflectional evidence of its unchanged status as an adjective like ‘the poorest’ in ‘to help the poorest first’. It seems that any adjective can be used in such a structure. Thus I think it is not as strongly rule-governed as most conversions are.

Although there are nouns in English that do not have plural forms (such as ‘police’, ‘luggage’), in this construction there is always the concomitant definite article ‘the’ that under no circumstances can be replaced by other determiners like number, as in *‘He saw two poors’ or a possessive pronoun in *‘Our poor need help’. And this phenomenon can also be found in Mandarin Chinese. Most adjectives in Chinese can be used as nouns, e.g. ‘hao’ ( ‘good’) in ‘tiao ge hao de’ (‘choose a good one’) or in ‘ji zhe ni de hao’ (‘remember your goodness/kindness’). There is a grammatical marker ‘de’ signaling the functional shift of ‘hao’. When it is after ‘hao’, then ‘hao’ is an adjective and when it is before ‘hao’, then ‘hao’ is a noun. It is concomitant with the functional change of the other word just like ‘the’ in ‘the poor’. If conversion normally involves changing a word’s syntactic category without any concomitant change of form, then the functional shift of ‘poor’ and ‘hao’ cannot be called conversion. Such cases are best treated in syntactic terms either as “adjective functioning as head of noun phrase” (Quirk et al. 1985: 1559) or “adjective functioning as a fused modifier-head” (Huddleston & Pullum 2002: 1642).

The book draws empirical data from major English dictionaries, Newsweek magazine and the British National Corpus, which makes it possible to thoroughly investigate the questions with numerous examples explicated. Despite a couple of typographical errors such as ‘granstand’ (p. 33), ‘weekly infecting’ (p. 36), this book is a valuable contribution to the empirical and cognitive study of English conversion and a must-read for anyone interested in morphology, lexicology and cognitive linguistics.


Bauer, Laurie & Salvador Valera. 2005. Conversion or zero-derivation: An introduction. In Laurie Bauer & Salvador Valera (eds.), Approaches to conversion/zero-derivation, 7-17. Münster: Waxmann.

Clark, Eve V. & Herbert H. Clark. 1979. When nouns surface as verbs. Language 55, 767-811.

Farrell, Patrick. 2001. Functional shift as category underspecification. English Language and Linguistics 5(1), 109-130.

Huddleston, Rodney & Geoffrey K. Pullum. 2002. The Cambridge grammar of the English language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kiparsky, Paul. 1997. Remarks on denominal verbs. In A. Alsina, J. Bresnan & P. Sells (eds.), Argument structure, 473-499.

Lieber, Rochelle. 1981. Morphological conversion within a restrictive theory of the lexicon. In M. H. Moortgat, H. van der Hulst & T. Hoesktra (eds.), The scope of lexical rules, 161-200. Dordrecht: Foris Publications.

Lieber, Rochelle. 2004. Morphology and lexical semantics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Marchand, Hans. 1964. A set of criteria for the establishing of derivational relationship between words unmarked by derivational morphemes. Indogermanische forschungen 69, 10-19.

Quirk, Randolph, Sidney Greenbaum, Geoffrey Leech & Jan Svartvik. 1985. A comprehensive grammar of the English language. London: Longman.

Štekauer, Pavol. 1996. A theory of conversion in English. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang.

Twardzisz, Piotr. 1997. Zero derivation in English: A cognitive grammar approach. Lublin: Maria Curie-Sklodowska University Press.
Lixia Cheng holds a PhD in Linguistics. She is an associate professor at Dalian University of Technology and a postdoctoral fellow at Beijing Foreign Studies University. Her research interests include grammaticalization, historical linguistics and linguistic typology.

Format: Hardback
ISBN: 1443849324
ISBN-13: 9781443849326
Pages: 314
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