difference in form without difference in meaning

Frederick J Newmeyer fjn at u.washington.edu
Thu Aug 4 21:17:27 UTC 2011

Dear Funknetters,

I am looking for convincing examples of where two syntactically-related sentence-types manifest clearly identical meanings, where 'meaning' is taken in its broadest sense, including discourse-pragmatic aspects. Another way of putting it is to say that I am looking for two sentence types that in early TG would have been related by 'optional rules', but which absolutely do not differ in meaning. It's not so easy to come up with good examples, once differences in topicality and focus are allowed as meaning differences. One possible example that comes to mind are sentences with or without complementizer-deletion, such as 'I knew that he'd be on time', vs. 'I knew he'd be on time'. But even here there have been argued to be meaning differences.

One possibility that has been suggested to me is from Early Modern English, when many speakers could say both 'Saw you the bird?' and 'Did you see the bird?' Does anybody have evidence that there were subtle meaning differences here?

I had always been quite skeptical of Dwight Bolinger's idea that differences in (lexical and syntactic) form always correlate with meaning differences. But I have become less skeptical recently.



Frederick J. Newmeyer
Professor Emeritus, University of Washington
Adjunct Professor, University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University
[for my postal address, please contact me by e-mail]

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