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Concourse 2

Lexis: words and meaning


Without grammar, very little can be conveyed.  Without vocabulary, nothing can be conveyed.
Wilkins (1972: 111)

So we shouldn't underestimate its importance.

This is a short guide to lexis and meaning and much more detail s available by following the links at the end.


Two types of words

The following focuses on what are usually known as content or lexical words.  These are the words which carry meaning in the language rather than grammatical information.  Content words lie in open class systems.  I.e., we can create new content words to describe new objects actions or qualities.
Non-content words (or function words) belong in closed classes.  We do not easily (or ever) make new prepositions, pronouns or conjunctions, for example.  There is a guide to function words on this site.

Which one of these are real words in English?  Click for some comments when you have a list.

  1. scissel
  2. scropplededuk
  3. urgent-ish
  1. wallaroo
  2. jhgkplkrtsdmnb
  3. picked up
  1. the
  2. washing machine
  3. absobleedinlutely
  1. gimme
  2. The Labour Party
  3. it's


Tests for words

Here are some traditional tests for words but they all have objections.  Look at the list and decide what the objections to the rules could be.  Think, Yes, I see, but what about ...?
Click on the eye open when you have thought of some objections.

Testing for a word Yes, but ...
Say a sentence aloud and ask someone to repeat it slowly – the pauses will fall between not within words.
eye open
Say a sentence aloud and ask someone to add extra words to it. The extra items will be added between not within words.
eye open
Words are the smallest units of speech that can meaningfully stand on their own.
eye open
It is possible to tell where a word finishes from the stress pattern of the sentence.
eye open
Words represent 'units of meaning' as in Dog bites vicar.
eye open

For all of these reasons, linguists have chosen virtually to abandon the term 'word' and use the term lexeme or lexical item instead.
The advantage is that these terms will cover tricky examples like The European Union, the black sheep of the family, care for, thunder and lightning etc. as well as 'normal' words because all of them act as single concepts.  For the purposes of what follows, word = lexeme.



A morpheme can be defined as the smallest meaningful unit of meaning.  All of the following are morphemes but they are of two sorts.  Can you identify what the categories are?
Click here when you have an answer.

boy dis- -ing full / -ful
done un- berry ham
field house keep over

When we think about what words mean, we are usually considering denotation, i.e., what the words signify.  For example,
ship = floating transport
table = flat surface on legs

What do these words mean?  Click here when you have an answer.

ceiling, pig, demonstrator, partisan, queer, fascist, tight-fisted, thrifty

Now finish this sentence in your head and click to reveal.
At the end of the street was a bank …


Translation ...

... used to be much frowned upon in ELT but is making something of a comeback.  When it comes to teaching lexis, rather than whole utterances and using translation techniques, however, there are some things to be aware of.

Translate ‘head’ into another language you know and then click here.

The above is based on Crystal, 1987, p 106

Related guides
lexical relationships for the next guide in this area
polysemy and homonymy for a guide dedicated to these two key concepts
using translation for a guide to how a much-maligned teaching approach can be constructively used
semantics for consideration of the meaning of mean
word formation for the guide dedicated to considerations of morphemes in English
morphology for the theoretical background which covers some of the above and extends it a little
function words for a guide to the essentials of these word classes
the lexis index for links to a range of guides in this area

Crystal, D, 1987, The Encyclopaedia of Language, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Wilkins, DA, 1972, Linguistics and Language Teaching. London: Edward Arnold
Other references for lexis and vocabulary:
French Allen, V, 1983, Techniques in Teaching Vocabulary, Oxford University Press
Gairns, R & Redman, S, 1986, Working with Words: A Guide to Teaching and Learning Vocabulary, Cambridge University Press
Hoey, M, 2006, Lexical Priming: A New Theory of Words and Language, Routledge
Lewis, M, 1997, Implementing the Lexical Approach, Language Teaching Publications
Lewis, M, 2002, The Lexical Approach, Thomson ELT
Lindstromberg, S & Boers, F, 2008, Teaching Chunks of Language: From Noticing to Remembering, Helbling Languages
McCarthy, M, 1990, Vocabulary, Oxford University Press
Morgan, J & Rinvolucri, M, 1986, Vocabulary, Oxford University Press
Schmitt, N, 2000, Vocabulary in Language Teaching, Cambridge University Press
Schmitt, N & McCarthy, M, 1997, Vocabulary: Description, Acquisition and Pedagogy, Cambridge University Press
Thornbury, S, 2002, How to Teach Vocabulary, Harlow: Longman