The interpretation of adverbial constructions with the suffix "-wise". An empirical study

Term Paper, 2016
12 Pages, Grade: 2,3


Table of Content

1. Introduction

2. An Empirical Study towards the Interpretation of Adverbial Forms with the Suffix - wise
2.1 Introduction to the Suffix - wise
2.2 Outline and Realization of the Empirical Study
2.3 Interpretation of the Results

3. Conclusion and Discussion

4. Sources

5. Appendix

1. Introduction

The usage of - wise as a suffix within adverbial constructions such as in crabwise or weatherwise has clearly increased over the last decades and became progressively more popular in the mid-twentieth century. Although it is mostly used in spoken discourse, its usage is not restricted to speech but expands to the written word as for example in newspapers or scholarly journals. This stems from the fact that this kind of genre quickly picks up new trends. It “[...] made considerable progress toward establishing itself as a generally accepted part of the language” (Houghton 1968:213). However, while - wise has been accepted in the adverbial sense, - wise as a suffix for new words with the meaning 'with regard to' is criticized (cf. Houghton 1968:179).

Furthermore “[...] - wise seems freely combinable with any nominal base” (Sicherl 2009:173) both in adverbial constructions as a suffix and in compound words in which - wise appears as an adjective. Therefore, these constructions seem to be highly versatile given the fact that any noun could be added to the suffix - wise. The question arises whether these newly created words using - wise could be interpreted without prior knowledge of the context or if they have to be contextualized due to their ambiguity.

The main purpose of this paper is to prove that while lexicalized constructions with - wise such as percentage-wise could easily be regarded in isolation and do not need any further context because they have a fixed meaning, these newly created words with - wise have to be contextualized due to their ambiguity. This goal will be achieved by analysing the findings of an empirical study that was created to evaluate the different interpretations of adverbial forms with the suffix - wise. Knowledge about the context is hereby crucial to understand the speaker’s intended meaning of such a neologism. Crabwise will also be included within my study which could either be seen as a so called 'adverb of manner and dimension' or as a 'viewpoint adverb'1. Thus, different meanings are given to the adverb depending on the reader’s individual interpretation.

After a short introduction to the suffix - wise, the main body of my paper will feature an empirical study2, its outline and a detailed analysis of the results with regards to the aforementioned thesis. The conclusion will also include a discussion how lexicalized and newly created constructions with - wise are stored within our mental lexicon and to what extend pragmatics are a part of it.

2. An Empirical Study towards the Interpretation of Adverbial Forms with the Suffix - wise

As mentioned before, the focus of this term paper is set on an empirical study which aims at answering the question how a group of respondents interprets both lexicalized and newly created words using the suffix - wise. Because you can add any nominal base to the suffix - wise, the most important assumption is that the respondents will paraphrase these newly created words differently, eventually leading to different contextualisation. The majority of respondents will probably paraphrase and subsequently contextualize lexicalized expressions with - wise in the same way. This can be explained by the fact that they have a fixed meaning regardless of the context.

2.1 Introduction to the Suffix - wise

Several authors such as Dalton-Puffer and Plag (2000) notice that there has been a remarkable increase in the use of the English suffix - wise in recent decades. Its origin can be traced back to the Old English noun meaning 'manner, mode, fashion, style'. While the independent noun wise is no longer used in modern English, the nominal form has survived in some combinations and phrases such as otherwise, anywise and likewise (cf. Sicherl 2009:169-170).

The use of - wise as a suffix is more recent. It has been attached to nominal bases to form either adverbs of manner as in counterclockwise or adverbs denoting dimension or direction as in lengthwise (cf. Sicherl 2009:170). These forms can be paraphrased as 'in the manner of N, like N'. The most recent addition has been the so-called 'viewpoint' form of wise (cf. Dalton-Puffer and Plag 2000:236). Weatherwise does not show a clear connection to the semantics of the noun wise in the sense of 'manner'. Viewpoint adverbs can be paraphrased as 'with respect to, in regard to, concerning [BASE], in reference to'.

Many of these adverbial forms were lexicalized3 by the mid-twentieth century, especially those of manner, dimension and direction, and are therefore well documented in several English monolingual dictionaries. However, others are freely productive in modern speech and writing (cf. Sicherl 2009:170). A lot of authors such as Quirk et al. consider these lexicalized forms as being factually unproductive (cf. 1985:1557).

There are three different variations for the spelling of an adverbial construction including the suffix - wise. The first one uses a hyphen between the nominal base and the suffix - wise (like in percentage-wise). Additionally, it can be spelled as a cohesive word (crabwise). In the last variation the suffix is separated from the nominal base (population wise).

A lot of these forms such as crabwise 4 offer a wide range of variability which make an interpretation of the speaker’s intended meaning increasingly difficult without a fixed context. Although forms that are lexicalized mostly do not need any further context and could therefore easily be interpreted in isolation, those forms that are not lexicalized (or creatively made up of any noun and the suffix - wise) have to be contextualized due to the multitude of possible interpretations.

Both the form of - wise constructions and the relation between the constituents are significant factors which influence its interpretation. A classification as an adverb of manner and dimension or as a viewpoint adverb determines how the word is paraphrased and its interpretation varies due to its form. As already mentioned, while adverbs of manner and dimension are paraphrased as 'in the manner of N, like N', viewpoint adverbs are paraphrased as 'with respect to, in regard to, concerning [BASE], in reference to'. Wise could even be an adjective within a compound word consisting of a noun and the adjective wise (instead of - wise as a suffix) and thus could be paraphrased as 'knowledgeable, knowing about N'. Thus, the interpretation is influenced by its form. While interpreting those forms, one should keep in mind that the suffix - wise must not be confused with the adjective wise which appears in compound words such as streetwise.

2.2 Outline and Realization of the Empirical Study

In the empirical study which included an online survey, a group of respondents are asked to paraphrase and then contextualize both lexicalized and newly created constructions with the suffix -wise. The focus group composed of non-native, English as a second language learners. Some aspects that I took into consideration while creating the study was the fact that their speech comprehension differs from the one of a native speaker’s which could in turn influence their way of paraphrasing and contextualizing the different constructions with -wise. Additionally, some non-native speakers might have problems understanding a certain construction with -wise and might try to look it up in a dictionary. Sicherl explains:

Unfortunately, since most formations with the suffix -wise are nonce-forms, coined by authors for a particular text, dictionaries do not include them. However, dictionary users might consider checking the meaning of the suffix itself, which, combined with the meaning of the base, should give them a fairly precise idea of the meaning of a new coinage (2009:174).

Although it was not possible to extensively analyse the aspects of age, gender and education of the respondents due to the limited space of this term paper, it could be useful for further studies on that topic and was therefore included in the online survey. Even though the expression womanlike is a part of the online survey, it is not a part of the empirical study and will thus not be evaluated. It was included in order to make sure that the respondents will not develop a certain trained ability to paraphrase, contextualize and interpret constructions exclusively with the suffix - wise.

One of the most important aspects that had to be considered while planning the online survey was to actually include different forms of -wise constructions, namely lexicalized ones and newly created forms, to get transparent results in order to prove my preassigned thesis.


1 For a closer definition of the terms 'adverb of manner and dimension' and 'viewpoint adverb' see chapter 2.1. Within this chapter the variability of crabwise will also be explained.

2 The empirical study is featured in the appendix.

3 Lexicalization could be defined as the process of adding a word or a certain expression to a language's lexicon. It then has a fixed meaning and can easily be interpreted without being contextualized.

4 On the one hand crabwise could mean 'manner in which an action is carried out' for example as in 'As he recently had an operation on the leg, he still walks a little bit crabwise' and could therefore be classified as an adverb of manner or dimension. On the other hand, crabwise could be classified as a viewpoint adverb such as in 'The fishermen have a good year, crabwise' giving it a different meaning than the first sentence.

Excerpt out of 12 pages


The interpretation of adverbial constructions with the suffix "-wise". An empirical study
Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz  (Fachbereich 05 Department of English and Linguistics)
English Linguistics (Master): Adjectives and Adverbs
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Adjectives, Adverbs, Empirical Study, Adverbial Constructions, Wise
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M.Ed. Christopher Domke (Author), 2016, The interpretation of adverbial constructions with the suffix "-wise". An empirical study, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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