Via Dave Wilton at, an interesting project, VerbCorner:

Dictionaries have existed for centuries, but scientists still haven’t worked out the exact meanings for most words. At VerbCorner, we are trying to work out what verbs mean. Rather than try to work out the definition of a word all at once, we have broken the problem into a series of tasks. Each task has a fanciful backstory — which we hope you enjoy! — but at its heart, each task is asking about a specific component of meaning that scientists suspect makes up one of the building blocks of verb meaning.
Ultimately, we hope to probe dozens of aspects of the meaning of thousands of verbs. This is a massive project, which is why we need your help! We will be sharing the results of this project freely with scientists and the public alike, and we expect it to make a valuable contribution to linguistics, psychology, and computer science.

Give it a try!

Update (Dec. 2013): The results are now in; a brief summary:

As predicted, there is a great deal of systematicity in the relationship between meaning and grammar …. These results suggest that the relationship between grammar and meaning may indeed be very systematic, helping to explain how language is learnable at all. It also gives us some confidence in the broad project of using language as a window into how the brain thinks and reasons about the world.

See the link for further details.


  1. dearieme says

    “scientists still haven’t worked out the exact meanings for most words”: does one therefore write a dictionary using only the words whose meanings have been exactly pinned down? Deep waters. I dare say that a Language Hat Task Force should be despatched on Operation Enforce Clarity.

  2. scientists still haven’t worked out the exact meanings for most words
    That doesn’t make much sense. How many words have an exact meaning ? Can a given word have only one exact meaning ? How can you tell when you’ve identified an exact meaning ? What is an “exact meaning” anyway, exactly ?

  3. dearieme says

    What is an “exact meaning” anyway, exactly ?
    A notion invented for teasing with?

  4. marie-lucie says

    The wording “exact meaning” implies that each word has a single meaning, perhaps underlying the varied actual and historical meanings currently recorded for many words (eg in the Oxford English Dictionary). But meanings as well as sounds change over time: they may expand, shrink, shift, be used metaphorically, and undergo a variety of other processes. The people involved in this project want to be useful to linguistics and other disciplines, but they don’t seem to realize that many linguists have been studying semantics, in and across languages and their history.

  5. marie-lucie says

    Perhaps they expect that “scientists” will give them new ideas and tools, as they apparently do in historical linguistics! (see earlier posts)

  6. marie-lucie says

    Actually, there is more explanation in the WordOrigins site. Some semanticists have been analyzing words according to semantic ‘features’, indicated by visual symbols rather than by other words. It does sound interesting. I guess the current project is to use those kinds of features in order to pinpoint the meanings of words. Still, I doubt that this will fix “true meanings” in stone.

  7. The wording “exact meaning” implies that each word has a single meaning, perhaps underlying the varied actual and historical meanings currently recorded for many words (eg in the Oxford English Dictionary).
    I’m not sure what you mean by “implies” here. I would say that the notion of “exact meaning” is being used to define what the word “word” means – not by implication, but fiat.
    In one widespread sense of “word”, a word can “have several meanings in different contexts”. To say that a word is “something with a single meaning” is to introduce a different, less widespread sense of “word”. Each former “meaning” now becomes associated with its own “word”.
    It’s OK to change the rules, but it’s not OK to pretend that you’re still playing the same ballgame.

  8. The investigators appear to be interested not so much in words, but in what Hume (for instance) called “simple ideas”. But is the notion of “single meaning” any clearer, any less contentious, than the notion of “single word” ? I don’t believe so.

  9. Especially in view of the fact that the meanings of words are formulated in words. That might explain why the investigators are said to be looking at “semantic ‘features’ indicated by visual symbols”. On this account, they must believe that what visual symbols “mean” can help to clear up what words “mean”.
    The linked articles do not mention the small matter of what “means” means. The enterprise appears to be just one more conceptual free-for-all in the guise of “research”, now with new improved crowd-sourcing.

  10. Really interesting Dave, thanks !
    ​Given your interest, I think that you (and the other readers here) would be really interested in some recent research that I have come across that theorizes about crowds and such similar phenomena.​ ​
    It’s called “The Theory of Crowd Capital” and you can download it here if you’re interested:
    In my view it provides a powerful, yet simple model, getting to the heart of the matter. Enjoy!

  11. As I said over at Wordorigins, there are problems with the “tasks” is that the options given do not always fit he scenario. For example:
    “The ferf ripped. Is anyone or anything exerting force?”
    The options given are: The ferf; No force applied; Can’t tell because in this context ‘rip’ has more than one meaning; Can’t tell because the sentence is ungrammatical; Can’t tell because I don’t know that verb.
    But while something must have applied force to have ripped the ferf, there’s no option given that allows you to say “something else”.

  12. Excellent point.

  13. I was briefly puzzled by the option “The ferf” as a possible answer to “The ferf ripped. Is anyone or anything exerting force?” Then it occurred to me the ferf may have ripped under its own weight, as might a heavy tarpaulin tent soaked in rain.
    It’s not very surprising that “something else” is not listed among the options for this task. Whether I understand what a speaker says, i.e. what he means, cannot be a matter of my choosing from a set of possible meanings predetermined by that speaker. To assume that I already know his possible meanings is to beg the question of how I can know what he means.
    What I take the speaker to mean depends on what possible meanings I can find in what he says. After I have suggested one in reply, he can then confirm or deny that that was his meaning. He may try again, then I may try again. And so the discussion will go on, until it stops.
    Words don’t “mean” anything independently of how they are used in dialog. One question, and one answer from multiple choices, does not make a dialog. Such a model of communication cannot possibly account for meaning.

  14. To do something does not imply that someone else understands what one is doing. To mean something does not imply that someone else understands that meaning. To intend something does not imply that someone else understands the intention.
    zythophile’s reaction to that one “task” question illustrates those banal claims nicely. I suspect that what the researchers intended is that people should play along with their game, pick one from each set of options, but without being so picky as zythophile. What they have done is set up a taskionnaire. What it all means is up for grabs – as zythophile found out by trying to take it seriously.
    A little reflection on zythophile’s experience with the taskionnaire throws more light on what “meanings” are than does the taskionnaire itself.

  15. Stu, every ferf that I have ever used has ripped under its own weight. The same thing happens to many verbs.

  16. What do you mean by “the same thing happens to many verbs” ? That they rip under their own weight ? I hadn’t noticed that, since I generally use lightweight waterproof verbs instead of those made of tarpaulin.
    Wait … maybe you mean that verbs with a transitive sense often over time acquire an intransitive sense. That figures – the older you get, the less active.

  17. Something along those lines would explain why Latin died out, or rather scattered its seed to produce different languages, as it lay daying. (“Shot its wad from the deathbed.”) The convoluted, bureaucratic style of Cicero etc. was not sustainable, the whole thing just ripped under its own weight. By convoluted and bureaucratic I mean that I am unable to read it with the aid of a pocket dictionary.

  18. marie-lucie says

    Grumbly, Cicero did not normally speak in the “convoluted, bureaucratic style” in which he composed his speeches: his letters are written in a much simpler colloquial style. The Romance languages are based on the colloquial, even slangy speech which ordinary people (soldiers, traders, slaves) spread throughout the Roman empire, where it was learned by local speakers of other languages. Even the Latin that remained limited to Italy did not remain unchanged but developed there over the centuries, into the current Italian dialects (the official language being, in linguistic terms, one of the dialects).

  19. Grumbly, I did mean that many verbs rip under their own weight. But I don’t know what I meant by that. And in any case I didn’t really mean it.

  20. Adding a comment to bring the update to the attention of readers.

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