Semantic prosody

When we think of words like happen, cause, perfectly, or totally with respect to their contexts of use they seem more or less neutral concerning their associative meaning. Anything could cause something to happen whether perfectly or totally whatsoever. To sum it up: everything seems possible to occur, words obviously combine without restrictions.

Yet when you look closely at corpus data for each of those examples especially in the KWIC (Key Word In Context) mode you will see that the words used in combination with e. g. cause “group in interesting ways” as Hoey (2005) puts it (p. 22):

From Hunston (2007, 251)
From Hunston (2007, 251)

We see concern (14, 15), problems (13), anger (4), damage (8), misery (11) and several seemingly unpleasant diseases including dizziness and vomiting (9), a kidney stone (6) or even inflammation of the liver (10). Now you could claim that the respective data may not be valid enough as it shows such obvious biases. Stubbs (1995) and several others however found out that an amount of over 90% of the occurrences of cause in the British National Corpus – a rather representative sample of the English language – is associated with negative meaning. Hunston  (2002: 142) even writes that this “can be observed only by looking at a large number of instances of a word or phrase, because it relies on the typical use of a word of phrase.” The whole concept therefore seems rather to be more corpus driven than just a corpus based theory.  So altogether it isn’t a marginal phenomenon at all and many further examples can be encountered by having a closer look at corpus data.

Sinclair (1991) sums it up as the following:  “[M]any uses of words and phrases show a tendency to occur in a certain semantic environment, for example the word happen is associated with unpleasant things – accidents and the like” (Sinclair 1991: 112) or as Vincent Vega in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction states…

This phenomenon is called semantic prosody or discourse prosody: a “consistent aura of meaning” (Louw 1993: 157) emerging around words as they are frequently used in certain environments as shown above. The expression was first introduced by Louw (1993) following John Rupert Firth’s description of prosody in phonological terms: “Firth (1957) argued that when we pronounce a word such as /ʃɪp/ our mouth is already shaping the [ɪ] sound even as it makes the [ʃ] sound.” (Hoey 2005: 22). On that account as the sounds in words interact while we pronounce them, meaning seems to do the same as it emerges from usage.

So now we know for sure when we ask ourselves, what could possibly happen

For further reading explore the literature below.

Jonas Schreiber (FAU Erlangen-Nürnberg)
Intern at Brill’s Linguistic Bibliography


Begagić, Mirna: Semantic preference and semantic prosody of the collocation make sense. – Jezikoslovlje 14/2-3, 2013, 403-416.

Hoey, Michael: Lexical priming : a new theory of words and language. – London : Routledge, 2005.

Hunston, Susan: Corpora in applied linguistics. – Cambridge : Cambridge UP, 2002.

Hunston, Susan: Semantic prosody revisited. – International journal of corpus linguistics 12/2, 2007, 249-268.

Louw, Bill: Irony in the text or insinceriy in the writer : the diagnostic potential of semantic prosodies. – In: Text and technology : in honour of John Sinclair / Ed. by Mona Baker ; Gill Francis ; Elena Tognini-Bonelli. – Amsterdam : Benjamins, 1993, 157-176.

Morley, John; Partington, Alan Scott: A few frequently asked questions about semantic – or evaluative – prosody. – International journal of corpus linguistics 14/2, 2009, 139-158.

Partington, Alan Scott: “Utterly content in each other’s company” : semantic prosody and semantic preference. – International journal of corpus linguistics 9/1, 2004, 131-156.

Sinclair, John McH.: Corpus, concordance, collocation. – Oxford : Oxford UP, 1991.

Stubbs, Michael W.: Collocations and semantic profiles : on the cause of the trouble with quantitative studies. – Functions of languge 2/1, 1995, 23-55.

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