What is 'hard' about the 'hard sciences'?
An investigation of the extended meanings of 'hard' and 'soft'

Victoria Muehleisen
Waseda University, Tokyo, Japan

This is an electronic version of a poster presented at the 5th International Cognitive Linguistics Conference at Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam on July 15, 1997.


  1. An anecdote
  2. Starting questions
  3. Sources of data
  4. Basic meanings of hard
  5. Basic meanings of soft
  6. Examples of some basic and extended senses of hard
  7. Examples of some basic and extended senses of soft
  8. A look at some cases in detail
  9. Conclusions

An anecdote

One day, I overheard a fellow graduate student say that he was not interested in studying 'soft linguistics.' Although I'd never heard the phrase soft linguistics before, I could easily understand both what he was referring it and his attitude toward it: by using soft , he expressed his disdain for such topics as historical linguistics, sociolinguistics, and areas of semantics relying on 'folk definitions', and by using this phrase, he also implied a preference for 'harder' areas of linguistics, in particular those involving a high degree of formalism , especially through the use of mathematical or logical models, e.g., phonology and some brands of formal syntax and semantics.

This chance remark started me wondering how hard and soft, adjectives whose basic senses describe the consistency of physical matter, had come to be used to describe sciences. I also wondered how hard had come have such a positive connotation and soft such as negative one.

Starting questions

  1. Besides being used to describe the consistency of matter, (stiff and unyielding in the case of hard and flexible and yielding in the case of soft), hard and soft have acquired a wide range of other meanings. How did these extended meanings develop?

  2. How did the positive and negative connotations of hard and soft arise? Consider the following examples.

    In some phrases, hard is positive but soft is negative:

    hard/soft sciences
    hard currency
    hard facts
    hard body
    hard/soft on crime
    soft money
    soft market

    However, in other contexts, soft is relatively positive but hard is negative:

    hard/soft hearted
    hard/soft words
    hard/soft drugs
    hardened criminal
    soft light

    In still other contexts, hard and soft are both neutral or both negative:

    hard/soft water
    hard/soft radiation
    head headed/soft in the head
    hard/soft sell

  3. How does the antonymy of hard and soft affect their semantic extension? When one adjective develops a new meaning, is it necessary, or just likely, that the other will follow? For example, consider software formed on analogy with hardware.

The answers reveal something about metaphorical extension as well as cultural attitudes.


Sources of data

Basic meanings of hard

The student surveys and the leaner's dictionaries show two basic meanings for hard in modern English.

(of surfaces or materials) firm, unyielding, solid: a hard bench, hard ground
difficult to do, requiring a lot of effort: a hard problem, a hard job
For modern speakers, these senses are distinct, and they have two different antonyms: the antonym of hard1 is usually soft while the antonym of hard2 is usually easy.

At the same time, the senses are clearly related. Just as hard surfaces and hard materials resist physical efforts to deform them, hard problems resist attempts to solve them and so require a lot of effort. Likewise, hard work is work that involves a lot of effort.

Both hard1 and hard2 are listed among the earliest senses of hard in the OED.


Basic meanings of soft

The basic meaning of soft in modern English seems to be the opposite of hard1: "yielding to the touch; not firm." Some examples of this use include soft groundandsoft leather.

However, another important use of soft is describe things which are pleasant to the senses. As one student describes it, something that is soft is "gentle, smooth, relaxing, soothing and quiet." Examples include soft fur, soft breeze, and soft voice.

Many people feel a clear connection between these two senses; as one student wrote, "Soft is squishy; a soft object has a lot of give and is pleasant to the touch."

Examples of some basic and extended senses of hard:

hard1 = firm, solid, unyielding, rigid (used to describe the consistency of materials)

hard ground
hard surface
hard contact lenses
hard top [on car]
hard ball [baseball]
hard shell crab
hard on [erect penis]
hard body [a person with firm, solid muscles]

Many of these phrase have opposites with soft:

soft ground
soft surface

hard2 =difficult; filled with problems, resistant to effort applied to it

hard labor
hard work
hard of hearing
a hard nut to crack
a hard sell [a product that is difficult to sell]
give a hard time (to someone)
be hard put (to do something)
a hard life
hard going
hard to take
(do something) the hard way
hard to get through

Easy is the usual opposite of hard2:

easy work
easy problem
an easy sell
an easy life
easy going
take it easy

a hard blow
a hard push
hit hard
hard handed
hard sell [sales technique]

This sense is an extension from hard2; the focus changes from 'requiring great effort' to to the effort itself. Soft is sometimes an opposite of this sense, e.g, soft sell.

hard x-rays; hard radiation
hard rock (music)
take something hard
hard at it [working intensely]
hard pornography (perhaps also a pun, from hard on)
hard core
take a hard look at something
Hard4is an extension from hard3: things which are intense hit with a strong force. Soft is often used as an opposite, e.g., soft rock.

hard radiation
hard drugs
hard pornography
This sense naturally follows from hard4because some kinds of intense effects are quite dangerous. Soft is used an as opposite to describe a effects of a lesser intensity which are less dangerous, but not necessarily safe.

hard water
hard words
be hard on someone
This sense is similar to hard4 and hard5.

hard7=invariable, fixed; resistant to change (of facts, opinions, mental tendencies)
hard facts
hard headed [stubborn]
hard core (supporter of a cause)
hardened criminal
hard and fast
This is an extension from hard1, but applied to intangible things.

hard8=of enduring value
hard currency
hard goods
hard merchandise
hard cash
This extension is similar to that of hard7, describing values that are resistant to change. Hard currency has has a stable value because it is tied to a stable economy; hard cash is money that is actually available to use, as opposed to money that is available on credit.
It's worth noting that hard currency and hard cash were originally used (in the 18th century) to refer to money in the form of silver or gold as opposed to paper money because the latter was considered unreliable. Now that paper money is reliable, hard cash includes paper money as opposed to credit.

hard9=unsympathetic, unfeeling
hard handed
hard boiled
hard heart(ed)
give a hard time( to someone)
be hard on (someone)
hard-hitting [not sparing the feelings of others]
hard as nails
harden one's heart
hard words
This sense is the opposite of soft as kind, easily moved. A heart-hearted person may have a rigid attitude (similar to hard7 and may treat others harshly (hard6).


Examples of some basic and extended senses of soft:

soft1= easy to press; opposite of hard1
soft pillow
soft ground
soft cheese
soft2=smooth and pleasant to the touch
soft skin
soft fur
There is no clear opposite in hard, although hard6 may be close.
soft3=easy; opposite of hard2
soft option
soft job
soft4=low in intensity, not forceful
soft market [market in which sales are slow]
soft lights
walk with a soft step
soft colors
soft voice
soft music
soft landing [of space craft]
This sense is the opposite of hard3andhard44.

soft5=gentle; opposite of hard6
soft spoken
soft words
soft water
soft6=sympathetic, kind; opposite of hard9
have soft spot for
soft7=using indirect verbal persuasive
soft pedal
soft soap
soft sell
This seems to be an extension of soft4 and an opposite of hard3; soft sales techniques are not forceful (but not necessarily ineffective).
soft8=mentally deficient
soft in the head
soft headed
This is a strongly negative sense with no clear opposite in hard, although it contrasts to some extent withhard7 and hard3.



Hard facts, hard data and soft data

The sense of hard in hard facts is an extension from hard1; hard facts resist efforts to deny them. The OED describes hard facts as those which are "incapable to being explained away, 'stubborn' " and one student described hard facts as "raw truthful facts that are 'hard' to accept."

Although this characterization ('stubborn', 'raw') may sound rather negative, in fact, the phrase has rather positive connotations in most situations. Fact, as opposed to opinion, is something that is true, something that can be believed in, something that can be trusted not to change, and hard facts are the most fact-like of all facts. Hard facts are objective and thus must be accepted as true by anyone who is not soft headed. The positive connotations of hard facts indicate the value placed on objectivity and certainty in Western culture.

The prototypical hard facts reveal something about the nature of 'knowledge' in English speaking societies. The best facts are facts which are discovered through empirical observation, those which can be measured or quantified in some way and which can be verified by other observers. Opinions, which are subjective and based on a single person's experience, are distinguishable in this way from facts (unless, of course, the opinions are measured and quantified in poll, in which case, they might be taken as a kind of fact, although probably only as a 'soft fact').

Hard data are data based on hard facts, that is, data that can be measured and analyzed mathematically. The opposite of hard data is naturally soft data; however, there are many different types of soft data.

  1. Qualitative data is often called soft, in contrast to quantitive hard data. An Internet article on writing successful grant proposals, for example, contrasts hard data such as statistics with soft, anecdotal data such as quotations. (Hard Data/Soft Data: How they help you build strong proposals by Norton J. Kiritz, available at http://www.tgci.com/publications/97winter/hardsoft.htm) This sense of soft data is not necessarily negative, and in fact, the author of this article suggests that soft data could be as quite useful in writing grant proposals.

  2. Soft data is also used to describe quantitative data which cannot be trusted because it has been collected incorrectly, analyzed incorrectly, or because it can not be independently verified. In this usage, soft has a strongly negative connotation.
    Lyn Richard and Tom Richards discuss some of these connotations of hard and soft data in an unpublished paper, 'Hard' results from 'Soft' Data? Computing and Qualitative Analysis available at http://qsr.latrobe.edu.au/ftp/papers/hardsoft.txt. For an interesting analysis of these terms from a feminist viewpoint see Soft Data for Hard Transitions: Feminist Method and Qualitative Research about Midlife by Carmel Siebold, Dawn Simon, and Lyn Richards, available at http://qsr.latrobe.edu.au/ftp/papers/soft-data.txt.

(For yet another sense of soft data, see the section on "hard and soft in the computer age").


Hard sciences and soft sciences

The hard sciences are the sciences that rely on prototypical hard data, data that can be quantified and used as the input for mathematical models and data that can be independently verified. Prototypical hard sciences include physics, astronomy, and mathematics.

The soft sciences, in contrast, take as their subject matter things that are not easily studied through controlled experimentation or mathematical models. For example, history describes events in the past which cannot be repeated at will, and often historical data is not easily subject to mathematical modeling either because it is too vast or incomplete or both.

As another example, psychology is considered a relatively soft science because it is often impossible to do controlled experiments on human subjects, and because much the subject matter involves the mental processes which cannot be directly observed and which are often qualitative rather than quantitative in nature. (Imagine, for instance, a study of depression among college students. Depression is hard to define or measure in quantitatively). Subfields such as cognitive psychology, which can use controlled experiments and which often deals with quantifiable data (e.g., reaction time, number of correct responses) are considered 'harder'.

Within linguistics too, some subfields are felt to be harder than others. From certain perspectives at least, theories of syntax which rely on judgments of grammaticality, (which ideally involve a simple yes/no choice that can be independently verified) , are considered 'harder' than sociolinguistic theories which deal with topics such as speakers attitudes toward other people. (From other points of view, however, grammaticality judgments seem quite 'soft' in that they are subjective and, in fact, often are not verified by other native speakers. In such as view, corpus data is 'harder.')


Soft money and hard money

The phrase soft money has at least two distinct uses.

First, it is used in the Amercian news media to describe a kind of political contribution. I first heard it used during the two years leading up to the 1996 U.S. presidential election. Under U.S. law, there is a restriction on the amount of money any one person, company, or PAC ('political action committee') can contribute to a political candidate in one year; however, there is no such limit an the amount that can be contributed to a political party. Soft money is money that is contributed to a political party allegedly for general party activities, but which is actually is intended to be used and is used to pay the campaigning costs of a particular candidate. In other words, soft money is 'sneaky' money contributed to candidates indirectly via a a legal loophole.

Political soft money is 'soft' in the same ways that soft data is soft. Soft money is hard to quantify: since there is no limit to the amount that can be contributed to a party, no record need to be kept on such general donations, making it difficult to confirm how much was received from a particular source. It is also hard to pin down the exact uses to which the money is being put; the distinction between promoting the general interests of a political party and promoting the interests of a candidate of that party is a qualitative distinction that cannot always be clearly made.

Second, the phrase soft money is also used in the academic world to describe money from received as part of research grants (in contrast to money received as salary). A researcher at a university or research institute whose position is funded mainly or entirrely through grants is said to be 'on soft money.' This kind of funding is 'soft' in that it is short-term (not enduring) and often not dependable.

The phrase hard money is an older than soft money, originally with the same meaning as hard cash (see hard8 above). Now, however, it is apparently acquiring new meaning parallel to the two meanings of soft money, being used to refer to political donations that are actually used for the purpose they were supposedly raised for or to money that is received as salary rather than through research grants.


Hard/soft drugs and hard/soft pornography

In these phrases, hard has the meanings of hard4 and hard5 above, and it has strongly negative connotation. Hard drugs are drugs which have intense effects and which are for that reason considered dangerous: the prototypical drugs are also highly addictive, probably because long term drug use can result in damage to the health and because the craving for drugs may lead the user to commit crimes for drug money

The use of soft with drugs seems to result from a parallel with hard. Soft drugs, such as marijuana, are the 'opposite' of hard drugs in that they usually considered much less intense and much less dangerous. For this reason, the connotation of soft drugs is only slightly negative if at all. Some people, of course, consider soft drugs are marijuana to be totally harmless or even helpful, and for such people, the phrase may even have positive connotations.

The use of hard and soft to describe drugs is probably at least partially motivated by the use of hard to describe alcoholic drinks (hard cider, hard liquor, hard drink). Hard drink is intoxicating and sometimes addicting and harmful just as hard drugs are. This use also has an opposite in soft, namely soft drinks (non-alcoholic drinks).

The use of hard and soft to describe pornography seems to be an extension by analogy from the uses with drink and drugs. Hard pornography is more intense than soft pornography in that it is more explicit and/or violent; hard pornography is also believed by many be dangerous, by producing anti-social behavior in those who view it. Punning is probably also involved; as one student wrote, in the more explicit hard porn, you are more likely to see hard penises. Soft pornography is less explicit and less violent, and thus is felt to have weaker effects. As with soft drugs, the connotation of soft pornography is not especially positive, but it is much less negative than hard pornography.


Hard and soft in the computer age

The computer terms hardware and software are currently leading to new extensions of hard and soft. So far, hard and soft do not have seem to have either especially positive or negative connotations, although they may acquire them in time.

Hardware itself, referring to the machinery of a computer, is an extension from an earlier meaning of 'machinery or equipment for a specific job' (e.g., military hardware). Probably because the hardware of a computer is useless without programs to tell it what to do, software was coined to refer to the other essential "part" of the computer. (Software seems like a better choice than the term which could be coined from the other opposite of hard, namely 'easyware.' 'Easyware' would not sound appropriate because computer programs are designed to solve hard problems. It might be appropriate, however, for a product that was especially easy to use.)

Another spinoff from hardware is in the phrases hard wired and hard-wiring. If a particular operating instruction is hard-wired into the computer, it is built into the mechanism (the hard wiring) of the computer itself and cannot be altered by the instructions of software.

Hard wired and hard-wiring have been extended to the fields of biology and psychology, where they are used to refer to instincts which are believed to be built into the structure of the brain rather than being learned through experience. This extension, of course, is made possible by the metaphor of the human brain as a computer, one that has become so commonplace that talk of the brain's hard-wiring is no longer felt to be an obvious analogy. In fact, I have found examples of soft-wiring used analgously to this sense of hard wiring , referring (I think) to systems of the nervous system which develop after birth. (Here's an example from an article in the Chicago Tribune on aging and paralysis:"Reversing such paralysis has always been thought to be impossible. But not anymore asscientists figure out ways to fix the brain's plumbing and soft-wiring, hoping to keep it operating at top efficiency." )

Finally, because computer software in a sense exists "inside" computers in electronic form, soft and terms containing soft are now often used to refer to things which have a 'virtual' existence. For example, a soft copy of a document is one that exists only in electronic form, as a web page or a word processing document saved on a disk. The opposite of a soft copy is naturally a hard copy, a copy of the document which is printed out on paper. This is quite an interesting use, since paper is not itself considered hard; a paper copy of a document is only hard in comparison to the electronic copy; because it is tangible, it seems to have a more enduring existence than the electronic version which appears to vanish when the computer is switched off.

Sometimes this sense of soft is found in phrases which already have other meanings. For example, although the main use of soft data seems to be that described above, I have found at least one example, a report on a fishery managment project, in which soft data seems to simply mean 'data stored in electornic form.' The data in this case is clearly 'hard' in that it is quantitative data whose accuracy is not in doubt. Another example involves the term soft-wiring used to describe a lighting system in which the lights can controlled by a computer. The soft apparently refers to the software whch runs the computer that controls the system.


Antonymy plays an interesting role in semantic extension; as one member of an antonym pair takes on a new meaning, the other member of the pair often does too. For example, once hardware took on the specialized meaning of computer hardware, software was created, and with the spread of the term soft money, the term hard money is taking on a parallel contrasting meaning.

The connotations of hard and soft, whether positive or negative, reveal a lot about social attitudes toward particular topics. The strongly positive connotations of hard science and hard data, for example, reveal the high value placed on objectivity in Western society.

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