Means and ends

“All kinds of effective training programmes may be based on simplifying assumptions which turn out to be or are known to be false.”

(Harris, 2000: 186)

The above is part of a footnote by Roy Harris (2000) on the subject of the relation between speech and writing and in particular a critique of phonics training.

Previously on this blog I have reported on studies from cognitive linguistics (or more specifically cognitive semantics as Frank Boers, 2021, puts it) which has shown the effectiveness of using “core” meanings of expressions in improving the learning of polysemous words:
“Verspoor and Lowie (2003) who found that students who were given a core meaning were better able to interpret extended meanings better than students who were given translated meanings of a more peripheral sense. This difference held when students were tested 2 weeks later.” (Funky images)

Geoff Hall (2012) begs to differ and claims that such learning gains are incidental to cognitive linguistic strategies rather than direct results of them. He outlines several problems with the assumptions of cognitive linguistics in this area of which some are:

“presumption of precise semantic meanings for individual vocabulary items” (Hall, 2012: 184) which needs to account for meaning in longer stretches of discourse.

“distinguishing core senses from peripheral senses” (Hall, 2012: 185) – Verspoor & Lowie (2003) define core meaning as literal but not necessarily concrete and not frequent. This last aspect of low frequency recognises that metaphorical meanings dominate in frequency over literal meanings which begs the question why teach less frequent core meanings?

Hall (2012) points out that the literal sentences used in the Verspoor & Lowie (2003) study are artificial e.g. “What is the bulge in your pocket?” (Verspoor & Lowie 2003: 561). Further outside of its context the sentences taken from the New York Times “make minimal sense or seem actually eccentric. A repeated example of a bulge as a basketball score is not comprehensible out of context” (Hall 2012: 185). The sentence being – “A breakaway dunk by Raheed Wallace ended a 12-0 run by the Bullets that gave them their 5-point bulge.” (Verspoor & Lowie 2003: 557)

“metaphor use is sporadic, one-shot rather than systematic and consistent” (Semino, 2008 as cited in Hall, 2012: 183)

“metaphor use in conversation is negotiated, emergent and highly contextualised” (Cameron & Deignan, 2006 as cited in Hall, 2012: 183)

Replications of Verspoor & Lowie (2003) have been done although they have been mixed and other studies looking at explaining links for semantic extensions (as opposed to core sense-based guessing of peripheral senses) have resulted in learning gains (see Lu et al., 2020). Notably Lu et al. (2020) found that cognitive linguistic enhancements to dictionary entries have some short term benefits over and above dictionary entries on their own.

Hall (2012) goes on to distinguish a weak claim and a strong claim from cognitive linguistics’ work. The weak claim is that “organising vocabulary learning in almost any way is better than not organising it at all” (Hall 2012: 189). The strong claim is that “cognitive linguistic approaches work because they are really telling us something about how the mind works” (Hall 2012: 189).

He then draws on Widdowson idea of linguistics applied where “the assumption is that the problem can be reformulated by the direct and unilateral application of concepts and terms deriving from linguistic enquiry itself.” which contrasts with applied linguistics where “recognition that linguistic insights are not self-evident but a matter of interpretation; that ideas and findings from linguistics can only be made relevant in reference to other perceptions and perspectives that define the context of the problem.” (Widdowson 2000: 5). As an aside this charge turns out to be double edged as Hall (2012) himself promotes the findings of corpus linguistics which Widdowson (2000) charged as being linguistics applied.

So what? The temptation to fall into the linguistics applied approach as a teacher when reading research needs to be noted and balanced by the fact as Hall (2012) says

“For everyday teaching, the means can justify the ends, this is not a problem, ‘it works’, so let’s use it where we can.”

(Hall, 2012: 191)

Do you agree?

Thanks for reading.


Boers, F. (2021). Evaluating Second Language Vocabulary and Grammar Instruction: A Synthesis of the Research on Teaching Words, Phrases, and Patterns. Routledge.

Hall, G. (2012). Revenons à nos moutons! Metaphor and idiom in EFL and ESL teaching and learning. In Burke et al. (Eds) Pedagogical stylistics. Current trends in language, literature and ELT. London: Continuum. 179-192.

Harris, R. (2000). Rethinking Writing. London, Athlone.

Lu, H., Zhang, Y., & Hao, X. (2020). The Contribution of Cognitive Linguistics to the Acquisition of Polysemy: A Dictionary Entry-Based Study with Chinese Learners of English. International Journal of Lexicography, 33(3), 306-336.

Verspoor, M. H., & Lowie, W. (2003). Making sense of polysemous words. Language Learning, 53, 547–586.

Widdowson, H. G. (2000). On the limitations of linguistics applied. Applied linguistics, 21(1), 3-25.

See also

Certainty and the threat of scepticism

Funky images

In my last post one of the comments (by nmwhiteport) was skeptical about the notion of core meaning of words as I used it to describe the verbs make and do in Collocations need not be arbitrary. One issue here is how to define core (of which the definitions I used may be debatable) and the other is even if people agree on definitions of core meaning is it more effective than learning words by memorisation?

Taking the first issue, Verspoor & Lowie (2003) give one definition of core (taken from a dictionary) as :

“The core meaning is the one that represents the most literal sense that the word has in modern usage. This is not necessarily the same as the oldest meaning, because word meanings change over time. Nor is it necessarily the most frequent meaning, because figurative senses are sometimes the most frequent. It is the meaning accepted by native speakers as the one that is most established as literal and central.”

Verspoor & Lowie, 2003: 555

Note that Tyler & Evans (2003) give a more rigorous approach in identifying what they refer to as primary sense.

Using the Verspoor & Lowie (2003) definition one can say the literal meaning of make is to create something new from nothing and that of do is to execute an activity. A diagram could be presented to illustrate this over time:

(Tsai, 2014: 94)
(Tsai, 2014: 94)

Perhaps nmwhiteport’s puzzle loving student would be less likely to produce ‘make a crossword’ having seen the above diagrams and noted how make involves “a nothing to a something” compared to do which has a “something to a samething”?

One clue to the second issue of the efficacy of core meaning is seen in Verspoor and Lowie (2003) who found that students who were given a core meaning were better able to interpret extended meanings better than students who were given translated meanings of a more peripheral sense. This difference held when students were tested 2 weeks later.

Similarly when lexical items overlap as described in the last post with the example of high and tall, Beréndi, Csábi & Kövesces (2008), provided central senses of hold and keep to one group of students (key idea of hand in hold and control in keep) and asked another group of students to translate various hold and keep sentences from English into Hungarian. The first group of students who got the core meanings did better than the second group in both immediate and delayed post-tests.

A core meaning approach has been used with prepositions (Tyler & Evans, 2004), phrasal verbs (Condon & Kelly, 2002, as cited in Tyler, 2012) and article use (Thu, H. N., & Huong, N. T., 2005).

One interesting thing to note is that the addition of images in cognitive linguistics studies seem to be very helpful in learning performance. Hence I have started a database of images that could be useful in language teaching, mainly for English but other languages can be added. So please do let me know or do share link with people who may be interested.


Beréndi, M., Csábi, S., & Kövecses, Z. (2008). Using conceptual metaphors and metonymies in vocabulary teaching. In F. Boers & S. Lindstromberg (Eds.), Cognitive linguistic approaches to teaching vocabulary and phraseology (pp. 65–100). Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Thu, H. N., & Huong, N. T. (2005). Vietnamese learners mastering English articles (Published doctoral dissertation).

Tsai, M. H. (2014). Usage-based cognitive semantics in L2 collocation: A microgenetic analysis of EFL students’ collocational knowledge (Unpublished doctoral dissertation).

Tyler, A. (2012). Cognitive linguistics and second language learning: Theoretical basics and experimental evidence. Routledge.

Tyler, A., & Evans, V. (2003). The semantics of English prepositions: Spatial scenes, embodied meaning and cognition. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Verspoor, M. H., & Lowie, W. (2003). Making sense of polysemous words. Language Learning, 53, 547–586.

Why the pineapple?

This post can be considered a follow on from the post Collocations need not be arbitrary.

One response that proponents of the lexical approach in language teaching could make to the issue of looking at meanings and collocations is simply to define collocation as one level of meaning. John Firth, as cited by Joseph (2003), put it thus:

“The statement of meaning by collocation and various collocabilities does not involve the definition of word meaning by means of further sentences in shifted terms. Meaning by collocation is an abstraction at the syntagmatic level and is not directly concerned with the conceptual or idea approach to the meaning of words. One of the meanings of night is its collocability with dark, and of dark, of course, collocation with night.”

Joseph, 2003: 130

Defining collocations as one level of meaning is reasonable but it does not provide an explanation that may be pedagogically useful. Cognitive linguistics claims to provide such a use.

Let’s take the question of the difference between choosing highest mountain and tallest mountain that arose in a class recently. One explanation is based on the distribution of what collocates with tall – that is living things (tall man, tall tree) and man made objects (tall building, tall pole). Tall tends not to collocate with natural objects such as mountains.

That is where a Firthian (and by consequence a lexical) approach stops. A cognitive analysis by Dirven and Taylor (1988) showed that general cognition (in the form of concepts) can explain further.

Highest mountain is preferred as the concept HIGH includes both a meaning of vertical position (positional meaning) as well as vertical length (extensional meaning) whereas the concept TALL only includes the meaning of vertical length. So although you can find tallest mountain people often think of being at the top of a mountain hence the vertical position is emphasised rather than vertical length (see figure below):

Figure 1. after Dirven & Taylor, 1988: 386

Thanks for reading. And do have a read of a less favourable view of cognitive linguistics at a recent Geoff Jordan blog Anybody seen a pineapple?


Marc Jones writes about cueing as a way to learn chunks Pinneapples?


Dirven, R., & Taylor, J. R. (1988). The conceptualisation of vertical space in English: The case of tall. In Topics in cognitive linguistics, B. Rudzka-Ostyn (ed), 379. John Benjamins.

Joseph, J. (2003). Rethinking linguistic creativity. In Rethinking Linguistics, H. Davis & T.J. Taylor (eds), 121–150. London: Routledge.