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La Négation

Stéphanie Bonnefille
Sébastien Salbayre

Linguistique : négation, stratégies discursives et processus mentaux

Antonyms and Synonyms: Cognitive Aspects of Negation in Positive Sentences

Nami Arimitsu


This paper investigates the cognitive orientation of the negative meaning in antonyms and synonyms. While the negative meaning in antonyms is a reflection of the cognitive mapping of our mental contiguity, the negative images in synonymous words are more closely associated with aspects of subjective semantics and factors related to politeness

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1.1. Negation and negative meanings

1This paper investigates some of the cognitive aspects of negation in antonyms and synonyms.

2Negation is an elemental factor in our language, and there is a variety of expressions that can convey negative meanings. Classifying concepts related to negation will help us understand the ways in which it is used, and will reveal one of the bases of our cognition. One of the most prominent functions of negation is its appearance as a direct negative marker, such as “not” or “no”, in order to deny an object or actions. Simultaneously, we can also observe several “negative meanings” in various aspects of speech. In this paper, I will focus on the “negative meanings”. A number of the usages are reflections of our perceptions of our world and environment. Antonyms and synonyms are two classical linguistic categories, and their concepts are closely related to negation. However, thus far, their characteristics have not been adequately investigated from the perspective of negation. This paper investigates the negative meaning expressed by antonyms and synonyms.

1.2. Backgrounds: negative meaning in positive sentences

3Topics related to the meanings of negation are my primary interest. Firstly, typical positive-negative sentence pairs are given below. The negative sentence contains a negative word such as “no”, “not”, “nothing”, and “never”.

(1) a. Anna is Japanese.
b. Karen is not Japanese.
(2) a. I don't have any friends in this country at all.
b. I have no friends in this country at all.
* c. I have some friends in this country at all.

4Occasionally, we find examples of non-negative sentences that have negative meanings, such as below:

(3) a. Kate: If it would be any help at all, you could practice on me. [Alf (1986)]
b. Sydney: What, the fact that I saw it or just that it's there at all? [Allas (2001)]
Jack Wilde: [voiceover] While both sides have valid points of view, the producers of “She Spies” wish to state that we take no stand whatsoever on the issue of animal testing, as we lack the moral fiber to take a strong position on anything at all. [She Spies (2002)]
d. Bernard Black: I'm a quitter. I come from a long line of quitters. It's amazing I'm here at all! [Black Books (2000)]​

  • 2 NPIs: Negative Polarity Items are expressions which have certain uses only in contexts containing a (...)

5In the above example, a certain type of factor relates to negative meaning. Usually, “at all”, one of the English NPIs2 is used in sentences that have a direct negative marker, such as “not” or “no”. In (3d), there are no direct negative markers; hence the word “amazing” indicates the speaker's surprise. Unexpectedness is closely related to negative meaning: this is evident from the views of Johnson (1987) and Langacker (1991). Johnson (1987) avers that objects, events, states, properties, relations, etc., are understood in terms of abstract containers via mapping process. He states that negating some category of experience is equivalent to viewing it as being outside the category:

(4) We understand our experience as broken up according to basic categories (of objects, events, states, properties, relations, etc.) We understand these categories as abstract containers, so that whatever is within the category is in the appropriate container. Thus, a negation of some type (or category) of experience is understood as characterizing what is outside the category. It makes perfectly good sense, therefore, that modeltheoretic semantics should analyze the “not” operator as a set complementation, that is, not-X is interpreted as all those falling “outside” the set X”. (The Body in the Mind: 40)

6This view is consistent with that of Langacker (1991), who offers the following comments on the phenomena of negation:

(5) In the terminology of cognitive grammar, ΝΕG is conceptually dependent, for it makes salient (though schematic) internal reference to the situation whose existence it denies. Also relevant is the dictum that existence is always existence in some location, which suggests the corollary that non-existence is always non-existence in some location (Foundations of Cognitive Grammar, Vol. 2,132)

7He states, “If the there-construction introduces some entity into a mental space, perhaps the function of negation is to specify its absence from such a space (e. g. from present reality.)” (ibid. 133) regarding the connection of our mental space and negation. The negative meaning discussed above is primarily related to the container schema and space schema. Moreover, it focuses on the existence of some entity. In the following sections, we shall examine several other types of negative meaning.

1.3. Related concepts

  • 3 LDCE: The Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, Fourth Edition, Pearson Education Ltd, 2003

8There are various factors pertaining to negation. As mentioned in 1.1., there appear to be at least two important concepts related to the term “negation”, which deserve considerable attention. According to LDCE3, negation is “(1) when something is made to have no effect or be the opposite of what it should be” and “(2) when someone says no or disagrees”. Definition (1) implies that negation is related to opposition. We observe considerable opposition and contradictions in our daily lives: thus antonyms might be one of the most prominent linguistic phenomena. Definition (2) deals with the aspects of speech acts (e. g., refusal, rejection, denial, disagreement, disproof, disaffirmation, correction, extinction, nonexistence, abolishment, prohibition, contradiction, neutralization, nullification, disbelief, etc.) as discussed by Austin, Searle and Grice, etc. This area will not be addressed in this paper. Both antonyms and synonyms contain these negative meanings. In the following sections, I will explain the differences in the negative meaning expressed by antonyms and synonyms.


2.1. Contrast and antonym

9First, the distinction between the terms “contrast” and “antonym” should be clarified. LDCE (340) defines them as follows:

Contrast: (1) a difference between people, ideas, situations, things etc that are being compared; (2) something that is very different from something else; (3) the degree of difference between the light and dark parts of a television picture; (4) the differences in colour, or between light and dark, that an artist uses in paintings or photographs in order to create a particular effect.
Antonym: a word that means the opposite of another word. (ibid. 55)

10We can assume that contrasts and antonyms are fairly similar, yet different. Antonyms possess a certain contrast: however, the most important aspect of an antonym is that it implies an “opposite” meaning. This relationship is very similar to that between negation and opposition, as was discussed in Arimitsu (2003, 34):

Negation: (a) X is a fine friend./
(b) X is not a fine friend.
Opposition: (a) X is a fine friend /
(b) X is a bad friend.

11When considering negation, references to the set theory and Venn diagrams are inevitable. The basic concept of negation could be stated as the contrast between “X and NOT X”. On the other hand, opposition is a bipolar idea, and occasionally strongly fixed. For example, “in-and out”, “man and woman”, “dead and alive”, “black and white”, “long and short”, “rich and poor”, “heavy and light” etc., are pairs that are strongly fixed. Some of these pairs are frequently used to express the meaning of negation. These pairs can adequately express the meaning of negation without using a direct negative marker such as “not” or “no”.

2.2. Contrary negation

12Contrary negation is a phenomenon that allows a middle word. It can be applied to arguments, to predicate words within a metaphor, or to an entire metaphor or predicate. It is also called “scalar negation” as we can see in (6), but not all the contrary negations are based on the scale as we can see in (7) and (8).

(6) This coffee is not hot. (This coffee can be lukewarm, cold, boiling, etc.)
(7) My umbrella is not black. (Myumbrella can be blue, red, white, yellow, green etc.)
(8) This book is not interesting. (This book can be boring, outstanding, etc.)

13When a word is negated, it need not necessarily have only a single meaning. It could take on several other possible meanings.

2.3. Contradictory negation

14We can classify “contradictory” as a sub-category of contrary. In studies of logic, these two categories, “contrary” and “contradictory”, are treated as equivalents. However, most of the examples in ordinary language are those of contrary negation: contradictory negations, on the other hand, possess unique characteristics.

(9) 2 is not odd. (2 is even.)
(10) This cat is not male. (This cat is female.)
(11) My grandfather is dead.
(My grandfather is not alive.)

15Figure 1 is a Venn diagram. It illustrates the elemental nature of negation. On the other hand, there are several other studies that have tried to reveal the mechanism of opposition-based indirect negative meaning.

16Contradictory words do not include any middle word. There are only two opposite words, and when one word is denied, it automatically indicates the other.


17In this section, we shall examine the type of antonyms that can convey the meaning of negation.

3.1. Classification of contrast

18Two classifications below indicate that our perception of contrast exists in various domains. Many of these contrasts are found in our body based experiences. We can find many contrasts in many domains:

Containment: inside-outside, fall-empty, etc.
Boundedness: here-beyond, etc.
Distance: near-far, center-periphery, etc.
Spatial Cognition: up-down, wide-narrow, long-short, in-out, front-back, deep-shallow,
straight-curved, far-near, left-right, high-low, thick-thin, etc.
Bodily Sensation: heavy-light, tight-slack, etc.
Five Senses: touch: warm-cold, hot-cold, etc.
Sight: bright-dark, black-white-gray, red, blue, yellow, etc. Taste: sweet, spicy, bitter, etc.
Hearing: noisy-silent, etc. Smell: smelling, etc.
Athletic Sensation: moving-stable, fast-slow, etc.
(ibid. 120) (Translation mine)

19Some of these contrasts seem to convey the indirect negative meaning. These contrasts are closely related to the concept of antonyms. Next section is a case study of our “up-down” spatial cognition and negative meaning.

3.2. Negative meaning in antonyms

20First, antonyms are often used to express indirect negative meaning.

(12) a. The possibility is low./b. high/c. not high./ d. There is no possibility.
(13) a He is a shallow person./b. a deep thinker/ c. not a shallow person./d. He does not think much.

21Negative meaning in antonyms is based on our embodied cognition, such as center-periphery (keys: near-far, vertical-horizontal, distance, norm) and container (keys: in-out, amount). Although neither the meanings of (12a), (12c), and (12d) nor those of (13a), (13c), and (13d) are exactly the same, the above pairs express negation without using a direct negative marker such as “not”.

22There are many other examples based on negative meaning in antonyms:

(14) His conduct was {above/beyond} reproach.
(15) The lecture is {above/beyond} my {understanding/comprehension/ head }.
(16) That is {past/beyond} comprehension.
(17) That is far from true.
(18) The case is quite a peripheral matter.
(19) The question is beside the point. (Yamanashi 2001b, 159-163)
(20) The possibility is low.
(21) He is a shallow person.
(22) He is the last person to tell a lie. (All examples are mine)

23Note that not all the oppositions possess the value pair of positivenegative. “Come and go” and “odd and even” are the examples which do not have the evaluative positive-negative meaning.

3.3. Analysis of negative meaning based on antonyms

24There are several studies on this topic. Voßhagen (1999) states that the instances of such figurative speech of this kind are manifestations of a widespread metonymy: A CONCEPT STANDS FOR ITS OPPOSITE. The relation between opposites is one of close mental contiguity, and therefore people think of “black and white”, for example, as an opposite pair.

25Cooper and Ross (1975, 65) suggested the existence of phenomena that can be termed as “freeze”. They defined “freeze” as a conjunction in which “the ordering of the two conjuncts is rigidly fixed in normal speech”, and they observed that in several (although not all) freezes, positive expressions appear to precede the negative elements:

(23) a. all-none /* none-all
b. plus-minus /* minus-plus
c. more-less /* less-more
d. up-down :* down-up
e. in-out /* out-in
f. positive or negative/* negative or positive
g. happy or unhappy/* unhappy or happy
h. like or dislike/* dislike or like
i. participant or non-participant/* non-participant or participant
j. many or few/* few or many
k. assert or deny/* deny or assert
1. win or lose/* lose or win

26They observe that people contrast positive and negative pairs in a certain manner, and this order appears to be backed by some reason. This proposal sheds light on an aspect on the study of negation, wherein people skillfully use this strategy of contrasting opposites in order to express the meaning of negation in daily speech.

27The viewpoints of Cooper and Ross are interesting because they focus on the order of the words, and from the results obtained, they discover the single aspect of negation. However, they do not mention the difference between these polarity pairs and negation. In reality, in the case of polarity pairs, particularly adjective polarity pairs, the latter member of the pair is frequently used to express a negative meaning.

28There are many examples for the pairs of NEAR-FAR and HIGH-LOW. The basic meanings of both “near” and “far” are related to geographical distance (objective), and these words can also assume more subjective meanings.

GEOGRAPHICAL DISTANCE (24) Have you driven far?
TIME (25) We talked far into the night. PROGRESS/ACHIEVEMENT (only with regard to FAR) (26) He started to explain, but he didn't get far. (= He did not succeed in saying very much.)

QUANTITY (only with regard to FAR) (27) The new system is far better than the old one.
EVALUATION (only with regard to FAR) (28) He bought it for a price that was far beyond (= much more than) its real value.
SIMILAR (only with regard to FAR) (29) His story was near enough the truth for people to believe it.
DIFFERENCE (only with FAR) (30) Conditions are still far from ideal.
ALMOST (only with regard to NEAR) (31) The work is now near completion. (32) a. Conditions are still far from ideal. b. Conditions are not yet ideal. (33) a. The work is now near completion b. The work is now almost complete, however is not yet completed.
(All examples are from LDCE)

29“Far from something” is used in spoken language to convey that the opposite of what has been previously said is true.

30The “Near-Far” pair presents examples of indirect negatives, and their meaning appears to be originally derived from a metaphorical mapping from the experience of spatial cognition. The indirect negative meaning of the language can be observed in the domains of DIFFERENCE with regard to FAR. The sentences in the domains of DIFFERENCE with regard to FAR can be paraphrased into direct negative sentences.

31For the first time, attention has been drawn to the fact that in the NEAR-FAR pair, an indirect negative meaning is possessed, not only by the latter word “FAR” but also the former word “NEAR”.

32These examples show that “NEAR” indicates incompleteness, and that the sentences assume an indirect negative meaning. In these examples, we can observe the manner in which a metaphorical mapping from “objective and geographical distance” to “subjective and psychological evaluation” is taken place.

33In Akimoto (2002), the phrase “far from” is discussed from the viewpoint of grammaticalization and idiomatization. It states that “far from” has a long history in the English language, and that the historical study of this expression shows the change in meaning from the concrete and objective meaning of distance to its abstract and psychological meaning. In order to fully understand the negative meaning of “far”, it is helpful to study its contrast with “near”. I have not conducted historical research into the word “near”; however, it may provide an insight into understanding one of the examples of our cognitive-based negation. As a similar example, the pair of HIGH-LOW is provided below. The basic meaning of both “high” and “low” imply an up-down scale, as explored in Johnson (1987):

DISTANCE FROM BOTTOM TO TOP (34) The camp was surrounded by a high fence.
SOUND (35) I always had difficulty reaching the high notes (= when singing).
QUANTITY (with regard to both HIGH and LOW) (36) Temperatures remained high for the rest of the week.
TIME (37) It's high time you went to a job.
QUALITIES: GOOD STANDARD (38) Our aim is to provide the highest quality service to all our customers.
QUALITIES: BAD STANDARD (39) Of low class EMOTION: HAPPY/EXCITED (40) I was still high from the applause they'd given me.
(All examples are from LDCE)

34In this paper, I would like to focus not on the semantic change, but on the negative meaning of the “HIGH-LOW” pair. Here too, we observe several metaphorical mappings from objective vertical distance to subjective good-bad evaluation.

35Unlike the “NEAR-FAR” pair, the “HIGH-LOW”pahappears to have mappings in the domains of evaluation and emotion, and these facts are consistent with Lakoff and Johnson (1980): “MORE IS UP: LESS IS DOWN. GOOD IS UP: BAD IS DOWN. HAPPY IS UP: SAD IS DOWN”, and so on.

36The “NEAR-FAR” pair does not possess the meaning of a subjective good-bad evaluation. It merely conveys a meaning that is based on spatial cognition and central-peripheral matter. Although the former word “NEAR” in the “NEAR-FAR” pair has a certain negative meaning (ALMOST), the former word “HIGH” in the other pair does not appear to have any negative connotation.


37The term “synonym” is defined as “a word with the same meaning as another word in the same language” in LDCE For example, the word “shut” can be a synonym for “close”, yet the characteristics of these two words are different. Synonyms do not always have identical meaning. Some differences do exist, and occasionally, these hold the key to their negative meaning. I will focus on the negative nature of synonyms.

38A classification of meaning suggested by Leech (1974) is extremely helpful in understanding the semantic aspects of antonyms and synonyms. Leech's view also has great relevance in the area of synonyms. Leech (9-23) classifies meanings into seven types:

Conceptual meaning or sense (e.g. “woman”→ + HUMAN,-MALE, + ADULT) 2 ~ 6. Associative meaning 2. Connotative meaning (e.g. “woman”→ having a womb, etc.) 3. Stylistic meaning (formal, literary, colloquial, familiar, slang) 4. Affective meaning (attitudes toward partner, personal feelings: Could you...?/Do this!) 5. Reflected meaning (one word having both good and bad (or taboo) meanings: e. g. intercourse) 6. Collocative meaning (pretty girl, handsome boy, pretty boy? handsome girl?) 7. Thematic meaning (ordering, focus, emphasis: e. g. sentences using the active and passive voice sentences)

39From the viewpoint of negation, conceptual meaning or sense, affective and reflected meanings are important aspects in the study of synonyms.

40Arimitsu (2004) points out the necessity of categorizing the oppositions into two subparts. One is evaluative negative meaning while the other is object-related negative meaning. “Good and bad” has an evaluative negative meaning, while “high and low” has an object-related negative meaning.

4.1. How Synonyms convey negative meaning

41In the previous section, we have examined examples of the phenomenon of antonyms. In this section, we shall observe synonyms from the viewpoint of appropriateness and politeness. Synonyms also have certain negative aspects. There appears to be several types of synonyms which convey negative meaning. Some examples indicate that there are some differences in degree or scale (primarily in adjectives and adverbs) and some in manner (primarily in verbs).

(41) Degree or scale
Rich: wealthy/well-to-do/affluent [and the wealth is increasing]/opulent [spends a lot].
Poor: needy/penniless [only at this moment]/impecunious [always]/impoverished [transformed from rich to poor]/indigent/destitute [very poor].
Beautiful: lovely/pretty/good-looking [less than beautiful ].
Big: large/great/huge [very big]/enormous [very big].
Angry: mad/offended/furious [very angry].
Lonely: lonesome [very lonely].
Good: excellent/outstanding/superior/ exceptional.
Wonderful: excellent/splendid/great/marvelous [truly splendid].
Small: little [often with emotion]/tiny [very small]/trifling [very small]/trivial [very small]. Bad: terrible [very bad]/awful [very bad], (42) Manner
Break: destroy [with a great power]/demolish [large constructions ].
Hear: listen [on purpose].
Strike: smite/hit/slap/swat, punch, etc.
(Words in brackets are my interpretations. All examples are from The Latest Dictionary of English Synonyms)

42In this paper, I will focus on the semantic differences in the example of the synonyms such as “rare [+ neutral]/uncommon/unusual/infrequent/novel/unique/strange/odd/queer [+ negative]”. It will be helpful to consider synonyms in comparison with antonyms. This comparison will reveal that occasionally, synonymous words possess a certain degree of negative meaning. By applying Fillmore's Case Grammar (Fillmore: 1968, 1977, 1978) we notice the negative evaluations of the words. Semantic features can show their negative values. These examples are my own compositions:

(43) Negation: (a) He is fat./(b) not fat. Antonym :
(a) He is fat./(b) thin [+ sick, + negative]/lean, slender, slim [+ positive]. Synonym: (a) He is fat./
(b) stout [+ male, + positive]/plump, chubby , round [+ positive]/* buxom [+ female, + positive]/corpulent [+ negative]/fleshy [+ negative ] obese [+ negative], etc.

43Politeness requires that the direct use of the word “fat” be avoided since it is sometimes considered to be derogatory.

(44) Negation: (a) He is famous, (b) not famous. Antonym: (a) He is famous, (b) obscure/unknown, etc. Synonym: (a) He is famous. /(b) well-known, widely known/infamous [+ negative] / notorious [+ negative ].
(45) Bachelor [+ human, + male,-married]; Spinster [+ human,-male,-married,-young ]; Unmarried [+ human,-married, applicable to both male and female, of any age for the grown-up ]
(46) Negation: (a) Her story is long. (b) not long. Antonym: (a) Her story is long. (b) short/brief [+ positive], etc. Synonym: (a) Her story is long / (b) lengthy [+ negative]/longwinded [+ negative], etc.
(47) Negation: (a) He is bright (b) not bright. Antonym: (a) He is bright, (b) dim/dark/slow/slow-witted/dull/stupid, etc. Synonym: (a) He is bright/(b) intelligent, brilliant, smart, clever, sharp, keen, shrewd [+ positive/+ negative], etc. (All examples are from The Latest Dictionary of English Synonyms)

44There are other ways of discovering the negative meanings of synonyms. Examples (48) and (49) show that the verb itself sometimes has the negative meaning by default. The verb “smell” can be used with both the positive adjective “nice” and the negative adjective “bad”, but when it is used without any adjectives, it conveys a negative evaluation. The noun “smell” has both positive and negative evaluations.

(48) a. I can smell cooking.
b. It smells like lilacs.
c. It smells nice.
d. It smells bad.
e. He smells. [+ negative ]...
(49) a. Smell: (can be both positive/negative depending on the adjective used): smell, scent, odor.
b. Smell: good smell: fragrance, perfume, aroma.
c. Smell: bad smell: stench, stink.
(50) a It smells sweet.
? b. It stinks sweet
(All examples are from LDCE)

45On the other hand, example (50) shows that the verb “stink” has a strong negative meaning as its default sense, which precludes it from being used with positive adjectives.

4.2. Verbal abuse

46We can find several instances of verbal abuses in our language.

(51) a You are an idiot!
b. You are a fool!
c. You are a donkey!
d. You are not a wise man!
(All examples are mine)

47(51d) is inappropriate as a verbal abuse expression. It conveys a less rude and offensive meaning than (51a), (51b) and (51c). Despite the existence of synonymous words, people tend to use words having negative images when they fight or quarrel. From the viewpoint of negation, we can also understand the phenomenon of irony. Although superficially positive expressions are used in irony, the intended meaning is negative. We observe this phenomenon in the expressions of oaths, curses, insults, sexual slang, racial slurs, drug talk, and related matters.

48Both sections 4.2. and 4.3. are clearly related to the subject of politeness. Although politeness does not appear to have a close relationship with the negative meaning of language, impoliteness is largely concerned with negative meaning, since it often conveys a negative attitude, feeling, and word choice.


49In this paper, I investigated the cognitive orientation of the negative meaning in antonyms and synonyms. I primarily focused on indirect negative sentences, which do not have direct negative markers such as “not” or “no”. We can observe indirect negatives, meaning the polar-opposition type antonyms. We can also notice positive/negative images in synonymous words. Moreover, while the former negative meaning in polar-opposition type antonyms is a reflection of the special cognitive mapping of our mental contiguity, the latter negative meaning is more closely associated with aspects of subjective semantics and with factors related to politeness.

50I tried to reconstruct antonyms and synonyms in the field of negation study. The principal reason of this is that I have been working on topics related to indirect negative meaning, and antonyms and synonyms are interesting targets from the viewpoint of indirect negative meaning. I hope this research will contribute to both the knowledge of theoretical linguistics and to the teaching of English.



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1 This paper is part of my research project, conducted with the aid of a grant from the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science in 2004.

2 NPIs: Negative Polarity Items are expressions which have certain uses only in contexts containing a negative expression, such as “no”, “not”, and “never”, “any”, “a red cent”, “a damn thing”, “a bit”, “a single bit”,“ bat an eyelash”, “budge”, “budge an inch”, “care a hoot”, “drink a drop”, “lift a finger”, etc.

3 LDCE: The Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, Fourth Edition, Pearson Education Ltd, 2003


Is a lecturer at Toyo University, Tokyo, Japan. She specializes in semantics and pragmatics in theoretical linguistics. Her main interest is negation, especially indirect negative expressions which do not have direct negative markers such as “not” or “no”. Along these lines, she is interested in the phenomena of opposition, contrast, scale and negative value

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2006

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