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Concourse 2

Lexical relationships

lexis cloud

You may like to follow the guide to semantics before tackling this but nothing which follows assumes you have.


Relationships between words: two key concepts

  1. He immediately bought a smart hat.

What words (lexemes, if you will) can we use to replace bought, immediately, smart and hat?

hat can be replaced by almost any noun, but it must be a noun or a noun phrase.
immediately can be replaced by any adverb but it must be an adverbial of some kind
smart can be replaced by a wide range of adjectives but they must be adjectives
bought can be replaced by many verbs, but they must be verbs or a verb phrases.

So we can get, e.g.:

  1. He eventually sold a new hat.
  2. He bought a brand-new Daimler car.
  3. He surreptitiously stole a useful gadget.

... and so on and on and on.  We can actually replace all the words in the sentence and providing we exchange word or phrase class on a like-for-like basis we will not affect the basic structure although meaning will change fundamentally.

There are two types of relationship at work here:

Syntagmatic relationship
This describes the relationship between, e.g., He and bought in Sentence 1, sold and a new hat in Sentence 2 and surreptitiously and stole in Sentence 4.
These relationships work horizontally between words.  Subjects use Verbs, Verbs sometimes take Objects, Adjectives modify Nouns, Adverbs modify Verbs and so on.  The relationship is to do with syntax (from the Greek meaning to arrange together).
Paradigmatic relationships
These are exemplified by the changes we have made between the sentences and describe the relationships between:
bought, sold and stole
surreptitiously and eventually
useful, brand-new and new
car, gadget and hat
These relationships work vertically in the sense that Noun phrases can be replaced by other Noun phrases, Verb phrases by other Verb phrases, Adjectives by other Adjectives, Adverbs by other Adverbs and so on.  The relationship is to do with word and phrase class.  The word paradigmatic derives from paradigm (from the Greek meaning to show side by side).
It works like this:

syntagmatic vs. paradigmatic 

Each slot in the sentence can be replaced by words and phrases in the same classes to make new sentences (some of which might make sense) virtually ad infinitum.  The boxes give examples of items in a paradigmatic relationship; the red arrows show the syntagmatic relationships.

Because this guide is to do with lexis, it is paradigmatic relationships between words that concern us most here.  However, when words are combined with grammar to make meaning, syntagmatic relationships become important.


Paradigmatic relationships



The word homonym derives from the Greek meaning same name.
See if you can come up with a definition of the following terms: homograph, homophone, homonym, heteronym.
Click here for a run-down when you have something in mind for all four.



a relationship between words in which the meaning of one word includes the meaning of others which are closely related

The word derives from the Greek meanings of under and name.

The superordinate or hypernym
is the word which includes the meanings of all the others
The hyponyms
are all the second-level words which are related to each other



A: Given these hyponyms, can you think of a suitable hypernym or superordinate?
                car, coach, motorcycle, bus, tram, scooter, moped
B: Given this hypernym or superordinate, can you think of five lower-level hyponyms?
Click when you have 1 hypernym and 5 hyponyms.


Word families, lexical sets and lexical fields

This is a notoriously difficult area because different authorities define these terms differently.  (So if you are writing or talking about them, make sure you say what you mean by the terms.)  On this site, the terms are defined like this because for teaching purposes, it seems the most useful.  It is not intended that this is an original contribution to the science of semantics:

family set field

The term word family can be used either to refer to words with similar roots (as above) or those with similar meanings.  In the technical term, the words fall into a single lemma.
The term lexical set is sometimes used to describe a set of words sharing the same phonological feature, such as hat, bat, cat, sat, mat etc.
The term lexical field can be used in the way that lexical set is used here.
As you can see, a set of hyponyms by this definition, would form a lexical set.  What's the superordinate of the example of a lexical field above?



Loosely, this means words of the same meaning but they don't always mean exactly the same to all people and often aren't interchangeable.  They are affected by a number of factors.  What factors are working in the following pairs to separate meaning?  Click here when you have a list of the factors.

  1. He got in the lift
  2. He got in the elevator
  3. I'm gutted
  4. I'm very disappointed
  5. I'm going to go
  6. I intend to go
  7. Turn right
  8. Turn starboard
  9. Violent demonstrator
  10. Concerned protester

Antonymy refers, as you are no doubt aware, to words which have opposite meanings.  However, there are three types of antonymy.

Here are the three sorts.  Can you describe the differences?  Click when you have an answer.

antonymy 1


There are a few words in English which can be antonyms of themselves.  The words are polysemous in the sense that they carry two meanings (as many words do) but are unusual in carrying two opposite meanings.  The words are often homonyms in Modern English but have different roots in Old English.
Here's a short list:

Word Meaning 1 Example Meaning 2 Example
cleave join or adhere He cleaved to his original ideas split She cleaved the fruit in two
clip attach I clipped the receipt to the bill remove She clipped the corner off the ticket
dust remove dust I dusted the room add dust The police dusted for fingerprints
fast fixed in place I nailed it fast moving quickly He drove fast
lease rent from I leased a flat from them rent to We have leased the flat to him
off activated The bomb went off deactivated I switched the light off
oversight neglect Missing that was a serious oversight control The accountant has oversight of all expenditure
sanction permit I sanctioned his expenses penalise There are sanctions imposed against the country
screen show I screened the picture from view hide The cinema screened the movie
seed add seeds I seeded the lawn remove seeds I seeded the grapes
strike refuse to act The workers struck immediately act decisively The government struck and agreement
temper strengthen Re-heating and cooling will temper iron soften His anger was tempered by my excuse
trim add decoration They trimmed the skirt with ribbon remove excess I trimmed the paper to fit

The words are variously known as contronyms, contranyms, autantonyms or Janus words.  Longer lists are available by searching the internet, of course, but many of the examples are very questionably true contronyms.  Some lists include simple homophones.
There are obvious implications for learner confusion if any of these words have only been met in one sense and are then found in the opposite sense.



This is a large area and the following only scratches the surface.  Essentially, the collocational relationship can be show like this:


Can you think of an example for each category?  Click when you have 4 examples.

Related guides:
idiomaticity which considers levels of transparency, strong collocation, binomials and so on
collocation essentials the simpler guide to the different sorts and strengths of collocation
collocation a more detailed guide
word stress for a little more on heteronyms
polysemy and homonymy which considers how words vary in the level of identity of meaning
synonymy which includes explanations of metonymy, synecdoche, simile, metaphor and hyponymy and teaching ideas
semantics which considers meaning in considerably greater depth
1st guide to lexis which introduces some essential concepts in the area
teaching and remembering lexis this is the next guide in this area and includes some teaching ideas

Click for a test in the area and the concepts covered in the first guide.

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