Conversion in English

Conversion in English: The interaction of generic knowledge, contextual information, and syntactic constructions

General information

Research project supported by the Fritz-Thyssen-Stiftung (Cologne)

Supervisor: Prof. Dr. Gert Webelhuth
Research assistant: Dr. Heike Baeskow

Project duration: May 1st, 2020 – April 30th, 2023


While derivational word-formation is guided by constraints as to the compatibility of affixes and their bases (e.g. word-formation rules, subcategorization frames, stacking restrictions, semantic selection), no such constraints are available for the process traditionally referred to as conversion (e.g. to bicycle, to clean, the ups and downs). This deficit has to be compensated by other processing strategies which may be rather complex and which make products of conversion a particularly interesting field of research. The aim of this project is to develop a usage-based model for English conversion which efficiently describes this highly dynamic yet non-arbitrary process. The focus of the analyses is on (1) the linguistic and extra-linguistic factors which determine the non-overt shift from one (conceptual) category to another, (2) the way non-derived denominal verbs acquire their argument structures, (3) the interaction of context-free and context-dependent interpretations, and (4) the identification of communicative-pragmatic functions of conversion.

Already at an early stage of the project, it became apparent that a metonymic approach to (noun-verb) conversion initiated in Cognitive Linguistics is of particular efficiency. According to this approach, which is referred to as event-schema metonymy, a salient, thematically labelled participant is selected from a schematic event (in which it interacts with other situation-dependent participants) in order to provide mental access to this event as a whole, e.g. to blog Proto-Patient for Action, to pony club Goal for Caused Motion, to butler (the appetizers) Manner of Action for Action. An advantage of event-schema metonymy is that it elegantly accounts for the huge number of converted verbs in English and reduces the technical apparatus to a minimum. Moreover, in view of the fact that numerous converted verbs display figurative meanings (e.g. to concertina, to Sherlock Holmes, to sea-lion), a further advantage is that metonymically created events are readily mapped onto different domains of experience. The main database comprises 507 innovative denominal verbs from the Oxford English Dictionary which are analysed with respect to underlying, fine-grained metonymic relations. These high-level relations allow for a ranking of thematically labelled participants with respect to their relative salience as reference points to the event construal.

A further important task is to “look into” the thematically labelled participants at different levels of abstraction and to analyse their rich conceptual representations from which slices of multi-modally accessible information can be activated and (contextually) foregrounded. A basic insight of the project is that shared encyclopaedic plus cognitively grounded knowledge as to the entities denoted by the base nouns, many of which constitute basic-level objects in the sense of Prototype Theory, facilitates not only the verbalization of nominal concepts, but also the interpretation of denominal verbs in the absence of a base-noun referent. This phenomenon, which manifests itself in sentences like We shelved the books on the windowsill, has been highly problematic for syntax-based approaches to conversion.

From a syntactic point of view, the controversial question how non-derived denominal verbs build their argument structures is addressed. A hypothesis tested in the project is that verbs which evoke similar situations or frames (e.g. to bicycle, to wingsuit, or to segway as representatives of the Operate-Vehicle Frame) display a similar mapping behaviour which renders their compatibility with particular Argument Structure Constructions predictable. The discourse context, which also provides the syntactic context, either meets or models speakers’ expectations as to the context-free readings and the conceptually “predesigned” syntactic configurations. In the latter case, new (metaphorical) readings are contextually created, e.g. John bicycled to town (Intransitive Motion Construction) vs. Mary bicycled her legs (Transitive Construction). However, these configurations are not arbitrary either because the meanings of verbalized nouns should always be (a) in a relation of contiguity to the base-noun concepts and (b) compatible with the semantics of the syntactic constructions. Thus, meaningless configurations will be conceptually ruled out.

From a pragmatic point of view, communicative functions of conversion are discussed in some detail. The functional analyses are systematized on the basis of three interacting metafunctions identified by M.A.K. Halliday for language, namely ‘ideational’, ‘interpersonal’, and ‘textual’. The ideational function is particularly evident in in semantic contrasts between denominal verbs and partially synonymous simplex verbs (e.g. to thieve vs. to steal or to rob). The interpersonal function manifests itself for example in metaphorical extension, connotations (e.g. a very Ritz place), and the pragmatics of delocutive verbs (e.g. to uncle someone, to hello, to ooh-la-la). Textual functions identified and analysed so far comprise economy of expression and conciseness (e.g. Britain has Brexited), the conceptualization of events from the perspective of different participants (e.g. to gun down, to butcher, to widow, to orphan), and the compatibility of denominal verbs with certain syntactic constructions such as the understudied ‘Verb + it Construction’ (e.g. The jolly fellows who ranch it in the West).

The recently granted project continuation is devoted to contrastive analyses English – German with respect to conversion and to the controversially discussed question whether and to what extent metonymy also plays a role in overt derivation.


Baeskow, Heike. 2021. Noun-verb conversion as a metonymic metamorphosis. SKASE Journal of Theoretical Linguistics 18(1). 2–34.

Baeskow, Heike. 2022. Experiencing the conceptual wealth of non-derived denominal verbs: a multi-level, simulation-based approach. Studia Linguistica 76(2): 591–625. (First published online on December 30, 2021). DOI:

Baeskow, Heike (to appear). Noun-verb conversion between the poles of predictability and idiosyncrasy: How do denominal verbs build their argument structures? ZWJW – Zeitschrift für Wortbildung/Journal of Word Formation.

Baeskow, Heike (submitted): Communicative functions of conversion in English.

Baeskow, Heike (in prep.). A cognitive approach to the allegedly left-headed prefix verbs in German: Arguments for the interaction of prefixation and event-schema metonymy.

Information, Links, and more on English and Linguistics