Defining is never “difficult” – the practical problem is the polysemy of terms

Linguists often begin their papers by noting that the technical terms they use are not immediately clear to everyone, but why is this so? Why don’t we all use our terms with the same meanings, so that we can talk about the substantive issues right away, without clarifying the terminology first?

Is this because providing clear definitions is inherently difficult? I don’t think so (see below), but I keep finding passages in the literature where linguists mention the difficulty of providing definitions, e.g.

Nevis (2000: 389): “Because definitions of clitics are so varied and because the phenomenon itself appears to lack uniformity and cohesion, it may be difficult to provide clear, unambiguous, and theory-neutral definitions.”

Joseph (2002): “the task of defining what a word is in any language is a challenge”

van der Auwera & van Alsenoy (2016: 473): „the difficulty of defining negative concord…“

Gibson et al. (2019): „As a category, copulas are not easily defined. Traditional definitions tend to consider copulas to be semantically empty elements…“

Nazzi & Cutler (2019: 26): “The contrast between consonants and vowels … is not an easy contrast to define.”

Roberts (2019: 24): “It is difficult to provide a straightforward definition of subject clitics

Spike (2020: 22): “the intractability of nicely-defined linguistic categories…” (see also this post on Spike’s paper)

Evans (2020: 417): “Do we mean the same thing by adjective, noun phrase, complement clause, VSO order, prepositional, definiteness, object, subject, oral stop, nasal stop, senary numeral system? None of these ontological questions are trivial…” (see also this post on Evans’s paper)

Now clearly, finding one’s way around the linguistics literature is often challenging because it is not fully clear what a term means, but I want to argue that this is not due to a “difficulty of definition”. (See also my earlier blogpost on the supposed “difficulties of typological classification” – like defining terms, classifying languages is not difficult; the practical difficulty is to get the cross-linguistic data.)

Linguists often note that a term is used in a variety of different ways, and in such cases, it is impossible (not just difficult) to provide a definition that covers all the usages in the earlier literature – this is a problem that handbook articles often face. For example, Nevins’s (2000) task of surveying the literature on clitics is made difficult by the variety of ways in which the term clitic has been used. (In fact, to the extent that different works on “clitics” do not use the term in the same sense, it makes no real sense to survey this literature, because it is not necessarily united by a common theme.)

Polysemy of terminology is a real problem that will not easily go away, as we cannot expect that linguists will form terminological committees and standardize their terms the way it has happened in other disciplines (e.g. in chemistry, where there have been terminological standards since the 1892 Geneva Rules). So all we can do is raise awareness, as I am trying to do in this blogpost.

Anyone can easily provide a definition of a concept, but it will often be impossible to use a term in a way that is compatible with most (let alone all) of the earlier literature. So the practical problem typically consists in using a term in a way that is not fully in line with one’s colleagues’ practice.

For example, my use of the term existential construction (in my survey paper on nonverbal clause constructions) is not in line with Creissels (2019), who provides one of the richest discussions of existential constructions in the literature, but who uses the term existential construction much more narrowly (as also discussed in this earlier post). So the term existential clause construction is polysemous (the “Creissels sense” and the “Haspelmath sense”), and this is a problem – because of my great respect for Creissels’ excellent work on this topic, I hesitated to define existential construction in a way different from him (but the definition used in my survey chapter is in line with a 50-year tradition, which should not be abandoned without strong reasons). So all I was able to do is to raise awareness of the polysemy of this term and to discuss the reasons for different scholars’s choices (e.g. in note 4 of my survey paper).

Another example is my use of the term adjective (e.g. in my paper on word class universals), which many linguists want to restrict to words which are distinct from verbs and from nouns in a given language. However, “distinct” is too vague for general cross-linguistic application, so I use “adjective” in a semantic sense, as in Dryer’s work on the order of adjective and noun (e.g. the relevant WALS chapter, and also Dryer 2018). Here “adjective” is basically equivalent to “property concept word”, which may be puzzling to some linguists, because we keep highlighting to our students that word classes are NOT defined semantically. However, this is true only for language-particular word classes – cross-linguistically, “adjective”, “noun” and “verb” are best defined semantically (as I point out in §5 of my paper on word class universals). But when I say “best defined”, this is of course a personal choice, and one can always make alternative choices – terminology is not about finding the truth, but about methodological convenience.


Creissels, Denis. 2019. Inverse-locational predication in typological perspective. Italian Journal of Linguistics 31(2). 37–106.

Dryer, Matthew S. 2018. On the order of demonstrative, numeral, adjective, and noun. Language 94(4). 798–833. (doi:10.1353/lan.2018.0054)

Evans, Nicholas. 2020. Introduction: Why the comparability problem is central in typology. Linguistic Typology 417–425. (doi:10.1515/lingty-2020-2055)

Gibson, Hannah & Guérois, Rozenn & Marten, Lutz. 2019. Variation in Bantu copula constructions. In Arche, María J. & Fábregas, Antonio & Marín, Rafael (eds.), The grammar of copulas across languages, 213–242. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Joseph, Brian D. 2002. Defining “word” in Modern Greek: A response to Philippaki-Warburton & Spyropoulos 1999. In Booij, Geert & van Marle, Jaap (eds.), Yearbook of Morphology 2001 (Yearbook of Morphology), 87–114. Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands. (doi:10.1007/978-94-017-3726-5_3)

Nazzi, Thierry & Cutler, Anne. 2019. How consonants and vowels shape spoken-language recognition. Annual Review of Linguistics 5. 25–47.

Nevis, Joel A. 2000. Clitics. In Booij, Geert E. & Lehmann, Christian & Mugdan, Joachim (eds.), Morphology: An international handbook on inflection and word-formation (Volume 1), 388–404. Berlin: de Gruyter. (

Roberts, Ian. 2019. Parameter hierarchies and universal grammar. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Spike, Matthew. 2020. Fifty shades of grue: Indeterminate categories and induction in and out of the language sciences. Linguistic Typology 24(3). 465–488. (doi:10.1515/lingty-2020-2061)

van der Auwera, Johan & Van Alsenoy, Lauren. 2016. On the typology of negative concord. Studies in Language 40(3). 473–512. (doi:10.1075/sl.40.3.01van)

Cite this blog post
Martin Haspelmath (2022, July 7). Defining is never “difficult” – the practical problem is the polysemy of terms. Diversity Linguistics Comment. Retrieved June 13, 2024, from

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