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The difference between froth, foam, lather, and suds has recently been dealt with on ELU. They are not exact synonyms. That got me thinking:

  • Why not analyze their collocations to gain some insight?

  • Is there some resource to find and compare the collocations of such word sets — say for example with this particular set of words to start with?

  • Is there an established method to derive a word’s distinctive implications from a study of its collocations in various corpora?

Meta: Though it sounds like too many questions and too much detail, I believe it’s possible that a simple, canonical answer could exist.

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  • I would dispute that these words are not exact synonyms. OED defines the word synonym very clearly – Strictly, a word having the same sense as another (in the same language); but more usually, either or any of two or more words (in the same language) having the same general sense, but possessing each of them meanings which are not shared by the other or others, or having different shades of meaning or implications appropriate to different contexts. So what is your basis for claiming they're not exact synonyms? – spiceyokooko Jan 6 '13 at 12:23
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    @spiceyokooko the OED defines synonym, not exact synonym. It clarifies this within the definition. – Kris Jan 6 '13 at 12:30
  • @Kris OK: if it's not a similar question and it's not what I think, (a) what do I think? (b) why is it not a "What do I use" type of question? It seems to be a "What resource/what method" question to me. Perhaps you could clarify the question. – Andrew Leach Jan 6 '13 at 12:39
  • Would you like to point me to the OED definition of what exact synonyms actually are? Because as far as I'm aware, no such word group or category exists. – spiceyokooko Jan 6 '13 at 12:39
  • @AndrewLeach That's a meta point, right? And not worth either. – Kris Jan 6 '13 at 12:42
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    You’ve asked three questions, but imputed that one single, simple answer could exist. To which question, though? – tchrist Jan 6 '13 at 20:38
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There's a number of ways to go about it, depending on where one is starting from, and where one expects to get to. Also on how hard one is willing to work, whether one is a native speaker or not, and whether one is trained linguistically or not.

I used to teach advanced courses in lexical semantics, which is the area the question falls into. Mostly we looked at English, almost all my students were native speakers of English, and they were trained in basic linguistics, so they could notice what was really there instead of what they'd been taught in third grade was there. That saves a lot of time.

So I can give some examples of how one might go about it, as it happens. Here are two partial dimensional analyses of lexical clusters like this that I developed as examples for my students.

  • How many verbs of cutting does English have? Quite a few. And they're organized.
  • How many verbs of unaided human motion does English have? Likewise, quite a few.

and one for a different audience

Basically, you look for metaphor themes and figure out the frames they require, then note the dimensions in those frames.

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    +1 Precisely how I was thinking of it. I was more focused on one single approach: such as, the word's meaning as derived from the majority of instances in the Corpora -- a more algorithmic approach so to speak. And "Basically, you look for metaphor themes and figure out the frames they require, " tells me a lot. Lexical Semantics in CTF was a very helpful reference, thank you. I'm continuing to work and might, hopefully, add in some updates to the post. – Kris Jan 7 '13 at 8:18
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    Framenet is your friend; you probably already know Wordnet. – John Lawler Jan 7 '13 at 14:50
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    Another great resource, never knew about it, thanks Prof. "Frame Semantics... the meanings of most words can best be understood on the basis of a semantic frame" -- wasn't that quite what I've been looking for?! – Kris Jan 7 '13 at 14:57

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