logo ELT Concourse: a language analysis course for teachers
Concourse 2

Unit 2: word (lexeme) class


This Unit is concerned with what most people call words.
There are 4 sections to this unit and here's the menu.
Clicking on the yellow arrow at the end of each section will return you to this menu.

Section Looking at:
A What is a word?
How we decide what makes a word and the difference between word and lexeme.
B Word classes
How we classify words.
C Morphemes
How words are formed in English.
D Word formation
How we combine morphemes and other ways to make words.


Section A: What is a 'word'?

This may seem a very simple question but it is difficult to define exactly what a word is.

The first task for you is to decide which of the following are really words.

When you have decided, click on eye to show the answer.

Before we can consider what lexemes mean, we need to take a diversion to see how words are classified in English.


Section B: An introduction to word class


Types of words

In the Second Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary there are entries for 171,476 words.  Obviously, we need some way to make sense of all that information.
Word class categories are one way we do that.  You may have a recollection of being told about parts of speech at school and that is just another, slightly old fashioned, term for word class.

In this table there are two examples of each kind of word in English (ten types in all).  Can you pair them up?
Click on the table when you think you have the answer.
pairing words

Here is what we have:

ability and flower
these are nouns for an abstract idea and an object and nouns can also be people, times, feelings and places
    The child has ability
    The flowers are gorgeous in spring
Other examples:
    We met last week
(a noun phrase for a time containing an adjective, last)
    Mary came home
(a proper noun for a person)
hopeful and blue
these are adjectives telling us about a person, feeling or thing
    He's feeling hopeful (telling us about he)
    The blue vase (telling us about the vase)
Other examples:
    The glass is broken
(making an adjective from a verb)
    He's a great friend
(telling us about the friendship rather than the friend, in fact)
happily and fast
these are adverbs, showing how, where or when something is done or happened in, e.g.:
    He agreed happily (how he agreed)
    Jane drove fast (how she drove)
Other examples:
    She arrived immediately (when she arrived)
    They live there
(where they live)
They can also tell us more about an adjective.  For example:
    That's very beautiful (emphasising the adjective)
they can also tell us about another adverb.  For example:
    He came extremely reluctantly
enjoy and go
these are verbs which tell us about an action, state or event.
    I enjoyed the party (expressing a state of mind)
    I go on Thursday (expressing an action of movement away)
Other examples:
    The train leaves at 6
(expressing an event)
    It's getting cold
(telling us about a change of state)
they and he
these are pronouns.  They function to stand for nouns so instead of
    The man worked in the garden
we can say
    He worked in it
with he standing for the man and it standing for the garden.
Other examples:
    I gave it to him
(with two pronouns as the objects of the verb give)
    Pass me that
    The former is better
an and the
these are articles (and the other one is a).  They give us information about the noun.  For example:
    I saw a car (any car)
    I saw the car (a particular car)
by and out
these are prepositions which tell us (usually) when or where a verb refers to.
    I'll arrive by 6
(expressing the connection between an action and the time)
    They went out the window
(expressing the connection between an action and a direction)
Other examples:
    She put the bags on the floor

(expressing the relationship between the action and the place)
    The car was driven by the child
(expressing the relationship between the action and the person)
but and whereas
these are conjunctions which serve to connect ideas.
    I rang but she was out
(expressing a negative result)
    He lives in London whereas his sister lives in Paris
(expressing a contrast)
Other examples:
    They came at six and left much later
(linking two ideas in time)
    He'll be here if his train's on time
(expressing a conditional event)
this and those
these are demonstratives telling us about the number and position of something (there are only two others: that and these)
    Those shirts are nice
(more than one thing far from the speaker)
    This dress is beautiful
(one thing near to the speaker)
Other examples:
    That dog is hungry
(one thing far from the speaker)
    These apples are getting old
(more than one thing close to the speaker)
Demonstratives can also be pronouns as in, e.g.:
    Pass me those
ah! and ouch!
these are interjections.  They carry little meaning in themselves but they show the speaker's attitude.  For example:
    Ah! I see (showing dawning comprehension)
    Ouch! (expressing pain)
Interjections are a very minor word class and you'll see no more about them in this course.

One more class

There is another category of words not considered above because it subsumes some of the traditional categories: determiners.
Determiners are words which modify nouns to tell us what we are referring to.  Determiners include:

There's a full list of determiners here.


Putting words into classes

Deciding which word belongs in which class is often quite simple because most of us can recognise the meaning, for example, of:

so we can work from the meaning to the word class.  Verbs refer to actions or states, nouns refer to things, adverbs refer to how, when or where a verb is done and adjectives describe nouns.
Unfortunately, this doesn't always work because we may encounter:
    His third jump was better than his first
    The dog treed the cat
in which the words have mysteriously slipped between classes.

At other times, we can look at a word and make a reasonable guess at its class so, for example:

are all identifiable as, respectively, an adverb, a noun, an adjective and a verb because the final parts of the words (ly, ion, less and ing) tell us that.
Unfortunately this doesn't always work, either, because some words do not have the helpful forms that these examples have:
    furnishings is a noun but it looks like a verb
    soon is an adverb but doesn't end in -ly
    function can be a verb but it looks like a noun
    handful looks like an adjective (compare helpful) but is a noun.


The slot test

A better way of deciding in what class to categorise a word is the slot test.
For example, what sorts of words can go into the empty slots in these sentences?
    I hit the __________ with a __________
    I __________ my head on the door
    She has bought a __________ car
    They came very __________

and if you try the test, you'll see that we need nouns (such as nail and hammer), a verb (such as hit), an adjective (such as new) and an adverb of some kind (such as slowly, late or happily) to fill all the slots successfully.
What you have done is use your knowledge of English syntax to figure out word class.  Cool.


Two varieties of words

This is not the place to explain in any detail the characteristics of each type of word class (for that, see Units 3 and 4 of this course) but there is one division that is very important.

We can also use the slot test to work out what class a function word is acting in so, for example, we know that filling the slots in these sentences will tell us the word class of the lexeme we need:
    I dropped the glass and __________ broke
    I came home __________ fed the cat
    I hit the nail __________ the hammer
    She has bought __________ car
    They gave __________ children some money
If you try to fill those gaps you will find that we need a pronoun (such as it), a conjunction (such as and), a preposition (such as with), a determiner (such as a, the or that) and another determiner (such as the, both, some or a few).

The first type (content words) are the subject of Unit 3 of this course and the second type (function words) are the subject of Unit 4.


One more distinction

A second division follows on from the first:


Learn more

The next two parts of this course (Unit 3 and Unit 4) are concerned with guides to the word classes.

If you want to discover more now about types of words, go to:
the essential guide to word class


Take a test

To make sure you have understood so far, try a test of your knowledge of word class.
Use the 'Back' button to return when you have done that.


Section C: Morphemes


The building blocks of meaning and grammar

A morpheme is usually defined as the smallest meaningful unit of language.  Morphemes are the building blocks from which we make words and some of the grammar.

Here are some examples of the first two main types.  Type 1 morphemes are underlined in red, Type 2 morphemes are in bold green.  Can you see the difference?
Click eye open when you have an answer.

boy houses smallish keeper window
cruiser computer glasses washing bombardment
unfortunate disappearing toasted villainous exceptional

Some morphemes can be both free and bound depending on their function.  For example, In the clause
    I was able to go
the morpheme able is functioning as a word in its own right but in
the morpheme able is bound and makes the word believe into an adjective.

In this section, we will be dealing with bound morphemes.  Free morphemes will be considered when we come to analysing words.


Two sorts of bound morphemes

Here are some examples of the two kinds of bound morphemes to consider.  Type 1 bound morphemes are underlined in red, Type 2 bound morphemes are in bold green.  Can you see the difference?
Click eye open when you have an answer.

undo doable washing decided pleasure
requires buses opening unpleasant denationalisation

Notice here, too, that when we are talking about morphemes, spelling is not important.  Change happy to happiness and you have to make a small adjustment to the spelling by changing the y to an i but that makes no difference to the analysis.  We still have the base word, happy (a free morpheme), and the addition, ness (a bound morpheme).  It also doesn't matter that ness can be a free morpheme (i.e., a word) meaning a headland this is not what it means here.

Here's a graphical summary of all this:
summary of morphemes


Learn more

The link here takes you away from the course to the in-service guide which has more detail than you probably need (yet).



Take a test

To make sure you have understood so far, try a test of your knowledge of morphemes.
Use the 'Back' button to return when you have done that.


Section D: Word formation


Making new words

Now that you know a little about morphemes, it's time to see how we can use them to make new meanings in English.  Note, the in English there: languages around the world make new words in a bewildering number of ways.  We focus here only on how English does this.


Root and branch

The first thing to do is distinguish between the root or base word and the derivations that branch from it.  Here's an example of deriving words from the root word nation:
word formation

You can of course now recognise the morphemes in these words.
The root or base is also sometimes referred to as the stem.


The three main ways to make new words

Although there are other ways to make new words in English, we'll look only at the most important three.



This is the simplest way to make a new word but it is not always obvious because there are no changes to the morphemes.  The most common way to do this is from nouns to verbs but there are other ways.
Here are some examples:

The word ... as in ... can be converted to ... by ...
clean (adjective) It's a clean house clean (verb) by using it as a verb as in, e.g.
Please clean it carefully.
bottle (noun) It's a blue bottle bottle (verb) by using it as a verb as in, e.g.
The vineyard bottles its own wine.
pocket (noun) He put it in his pocket pocket (verb) by using it as a verb as in, e.g.
He pocketed the money.
drive (verb) He drove to my house drive (noun) by using it as a noun as in, e.g.:
He walked up the drive
running (verb) She is running running (noun) by using it as the object of a verb as in, e.g.:
She enjoys running
worn (verb) I have worn this coat a lot worn (adjective) by using it to describe a noun as in, e.g.:
The carpet is very worn



To affix simply means to stick on and, as we saw with the example using the root nation, above, English has a variety of ways to do this with a variety of effects.
There are two primary terms:

  1. Prefixation refers to adding a morpheme to the beginning of a word.  For example:
    Adding the prefix un- to many words results in the opposite or reversed meaning: unpleasant, unable, unforgiving, undo, unbutton etc.
  2. Suffixation refers to adding a morpheme to the end of a word.  For example:
    Adding the suffix -ment to the end of a word changes it into a noun: achievement, discernment, disappointment.

So what is the effect of prefixes usually and what is the effect of suffixes usually?
Click eye open when you have an answer.

That is not always the case.

Here's a brief task.  Fill in the last column in your head and then click on the table for an answer.




The final way to consider word building is to look at compounding.  This means adding words together to make new meanings.  For example:
Add house to keeper and you get housekeeper
Add play to mate and you get playmate
and so on.
Sometimes the words are joined together (dishwasher), sometimes they are hyphenated (notice-board) and sometimes they remain separate (cigarette lighter) but they are all treated as single ideas.  That means they are compound lexemes.

Here's another task.  What sorts of words are being joined here?
Fill in the last column in your head and then click on the table for an answer.


There are two important things to know about compounds:

  1. True compounds usually take the stress on the first syllable.  For example, compare:
        She lives in the green HOUSE on the corner
        She is working with the plants in the GREENhouse
  2. The meaning and the word class are usually determined by the second part of the compound so, for example:
        a doorman is a type of man, not a type of door
        sky blue is a shade of blue, not a type of sky
        windsurf is a type of surfing, not a type of wind
    This means that English is right headed (or head final) but some languages are left headed (or head initial) and the system works the other way around.


A revision task

As a bit of revision, look at this table and see if you can:

  1. Identify the affixes
  2. Say what they do

The first row is done as an example.
When you have made a few notes, click on the table for the answers.

affixation task

By the way, the word multinational can be used as a noun but that is not the function of the -al morpheme.  It makes an adjective and then the adjective is used as a noun (by a process we saw above called conversion).


Learn more

Both these links are to guides in the in-service section.

word formation


Take a test

To make sure you have understood so far, try a test of your knowledge of word formation.
Use the 'Back' button to return when you have done that.