What Is Grammatical Meaning

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

illness and grammatical meaning
"In a way," says Bob de Jonge, "grammatical meaning is like an illness; you cannot observe it independently, but as speakers, we simply know that it is there" ("Eventuality Classification" in Between Grammar and Lexicon, 2000). (Alan Thornton/Getty Images)

Grammatical meaning is the meaning conveyed in a sentence by word order and other grammatical signals. Also called structural meaningLinguists distinguish grammatical meaning from lexical meaning (or denotation)--that is, the dictionary meaning of an individual word. Walter Hirtle notes that "a word expressing the same idea can fulfill different syntactic functions. The grammatical difference between the throw in to throw a ball and that in a good throw has long been attributed to a difference of meaning not of the lexical type described in dictionaries, but of the more abstract, formal type described in grammars" (Making Sense out of Meaning, 2013).

Grammatical Meaning in English

Grammatical Meaning and Structure

  • "Words grouped together randomly have little meaning on their own, unless it occurs accidentally. For example, each of the following words has lexical meaning at the word level, as is shown in a dictionary, but they convey no grammatical meaning as a group:
    a. [without grammatical meaning]
    Lights the leap him before the down hill purple.
    However when a special order is given to these words, grammatical meaning is created because of the relationships they have to one another.
    a. [with grammatical meaning]
    "The purple lights leap down the hill before him."
    (Bernard O'Dwyer, Modern English Structures: Form, Function and Position. Broadview Press, 2006)

Number and Tense

  • ​"Different forms of the same lexeme will generally, though not necessarily, differ in meaning: they will share the same lexical meaning (or meanings) but differ in respect of their grammatical meaning, in that one is the singular form (of a noun of a particular subclass) and the other is the plural form (of a noun of a particular subclass); and the difference between singular and plural forms, or--to take another example--the difference between the past, present and future forms of verbs, is semantically relevant: it affects sentence-meaning. The meaning of a sentence . . . is determined partly by the meaning of the words (i.e., lexemes) of which it is composed and partly by its grammatical meaning." (John Lyons, Linguistic Semantics: An Introduction. Cambridge University Press, 1996)

    Word Class and Grammatical Meaning

    • ​"Note . . . how word class can make a difference to meaning. Consider the following:
    He brushed his muddy shoes. [verb]
    He gave his muddy shoes a brush. [noun]

    Changing from the construction with a verb to one with a noun involves more than just a change of word class in these sentences.

    There is also a modification of meaning. The verb emphasizes the activity and there is a greater implication that the shoes will end up clean, but the noun suggests that the activity was much shorter, more cursory and performed with little interest, so the shoes were not cleaned properly.

    • "Now compare the following:
    Next summer I am going to Spain for my holidays. [adverb] 
    Next summer will be wonderful. [noun]

    According to traditional grammar, next summer in the first sentence is an adverbial phrase, while in the second it is a noun phrase. Once again, the change of grammatical category also entails some change of meaning. The adverbial phrase is an adjunct, a component bolted on to the rest of the sentence, and merely provides the temporal context for the whole utterance. On the other hand, use of the phrase as a noun in subject position renders it less circumstantial and less abstract; it is now the theme of the utterance and a more sharply delimited period in time." (Brian Mott, Introductory Semantics and Pragmatics for Spanish Learners of English. Edicions Universitat Barcelona, 2009)