Polysemy occurs when a single linguistic form has two or more related senses. The relatedness of the senses is determined by the intuition of native speakers and the historical development of the senses in question (Saeed 64). Kearns gives a good example of polysemy, “the verb groom has the distinct but related senses ‘make (a person or animal) physically clean and neat’ and ‘prepare a person mentally for a career or position’” (568). The two senses of groom are clearly related, however, they are have a distinct meaning.
Polysemy is based on the relatedness of the multiple senses of the word. Because this can only be determined by native speakers intuition and historical evidence, there are many conflicts. In situations where it is not clear whether a word is polysemous or monosemous a few tests have been proposed.
The first test is an ambiguous sentence. If a word in a sentence makes it ambiguous, then it is a case of polysemy. But if the sentence is merely vague it can be considered to be monosemous. For example, Kearns’s sentence “There’s a pig in the house” (104), the word pig can mean either a glutton or a farm animal. The sentence is ambiguous and therefore pig can be considered polysemous. In the sentence “There’s a bird in the garden” (104), the word bird is vague because it does not tell the reader the type of bird and is therefore a case of monosemy (103-104).
A second test is the use of zeugma. Zeugma is a figure of speech that uses two distinct senses of a word together in a single sentence. If the resulting sentence sounds odd it is because of the polysemous word. IF the sentence seems normal, then the word can be considered monosemous. Kearns’s example is “Arthur and his driving licence expired last Thursday.” (105). The unusual nature of the sentence suggests that there are two distinct senses of the word expire (104-105).
These tests are not always useful though. In many cases they only serve to create more confusion because there are many gray areas where the words can either be polysemous or monosemous. These tests are based on fine judgements and may vary from one speaker to another (Kearns 105). The problem is even more difficult to solve when one attempts to distinguish between homonymy and polysemy. The two terms are very closely related and again are based primarily on the intuition of speakers.