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Concourse 2

Unit 3: content (meaning-carrying) lexemes


This Unit is concerned with what most people think of a real words because they carry meanings we can define or check out in a dictionary.
This is quite a long unit because it deals with some very important ideas and terminology.  Without a good understanding of the major word classes analysed here, you will find teaching English an impossible task.

There are 6 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 content lexeme?
The difference between content and function words.
B Nouns
Major classes of nouns.
C Verbs
Major classes of verbs.
D Adjectives
Major classes of adjectives.
E Adverbs
Major classes of adverbs.
F Types of meaning
What does mean mean?
G Types of relationships
How words work together

Section A: identifying content words


A task

In this list there are 5 content words which carry meaning even when they stand alone and 5 function words which do not.
Can you identify them?  Click on eye to show the answer

1 carrying 6 probableish
2 about 7 out
3 much 8 hers
4 chance 9 this
5 happiness 10 cosily

In the list above, we have examples of all the four major word classes which are meaning carrying or content words.  We can also call them content lexemes.
They are:
    1. a verb (carrying)
    4. a noun or a verb (chance)
    5. another noun (happiness)
    6. an adjective (probableish)
    10. an adverb (cosily)
and in what follows, we will discover more about these essential word classes.



We saw in Unit 2 that words like these are open-class items.  That means, of course, that we can never come up with a completely comprehensive list of any of these classes of words because as soon as we think we have a list someone will say goodlookingish or thingummydoobrie and the list is instantly incomplete.


A note about words and phrases

In what follows we will usually be considering single words (because it's easier and more straightforward) so we have, for example:
    house as a noun
    go as a verb
    red as an adjective
    soon as an adverb
but we also need to remember that
    garden tools is a noun phrase
    wind surf is a verb phrase
    red coloured is an adjective phrase
    from time to time is an adverb phrase
so we should really be talking about noun, verb, adjective and adverb phrases, not words because the slot test we saw in Unit 2 for word class will work whether the item is a single word or a phrase acting as a single word.
We won't complicate matters everywhere in this unit but you need to bear that in mind.
(Unit 8 of this course considers phrases in a bit more detail.)

Section B: Nouns


Sorts of nouns

On this site, we use this classification but you may see others, especially in older books.

  1. Common nouns
    are the most frequent and apply to things, feelings and people.  For example:
        church, house, hill, village, tree, sugar, use, table, computer
    and many thousands more.
    All the items in the picture above can be represented by common nouns in English.
    They are of two basic sorts:
    1. count nouns
      take a plural and can come with a singular or plural verb form.  For example:
          There are two cows over there
          She has a new car
          That's the first problem we need to solve
          We have four good neighbours

    2. mass nouns
      refer to things we do not count and come only in the singular (except in some special uses).  For example:
          The furniture is worn out
          Would you like some coffee?
          I enjoy running
          She has no time
          We are taking food with us

      For more about the difference between count and mass nouns, read on.
  2. Proper nouns
    are usually spelled with a capital letter (in English) and refer to people, jobs, times and places.  For example:
        I spoke to Fred
        He is the Chief Executive Officer
        Come on Monday
        I went to Berlin

    There are some special rules for these, explained below.
  3. Collective nouns
    refer to groups of people and things and can be either singular or plural.  For example:
        They have joined a new class
        She keeps a flock of sheep
        The police are coming soon
        The government is about to fall

        She served in three brigades
    For more, see below.


Proper nouns

Albert Einstein  

Proper nouns are the names for people and places.  They usually begin with a Capital letter.  There is a range of types and a number of difficulties for learners and teachers:


Collective nouns

In all languages, some nouns are used for groups of things or people.  In English, these can be both singular and plural but in most languages they are only singular.  For example, in English, we can say:
    The army is very large (thinking about it as a single thing)
    The army are helping (thinking about the army as a lot of individual people)
We can also have:
    The football team are playing on Sunday
    The football team is playing on Sunday
In the first one, we are thinking about all the players separately; in the second one we are thinking of it as a single unit, the team.
Other collective nouns are, e.g., navy, crew, flock, herd, staff, family, committee, government, class, staff etc.
In American English these words are normally used with a singular verb as is the case in most languages.


Plural nouns

One class of nouns appears only in the plural.

This list can be greatly extended


Mass nouns and Count nouns

milk pencils  

The distinction between these two types of nouns either does not exist at all in some languages or is very differently handled.  The problems for learners in this area are extensive.

  1. Most nouns in English are count nouns.  Count nouns have a singular (for one) and plural (for more than one).  This means we can say, for example:
        I have three pencils
        I want that pencil
        The pencil is here
        Those pencils are no good
        Please give me a pencil
        I have several pencils on the desk
    Count nouns cannot usually appear in the singular without an article (a(n) or the) so we do not find:
        *Pencil is needed
        *Person is here

  2. Many nouns in English are mass nouns.  These nouns do not have a plural.  We can say, for example:
        I want that milk
        I have some milk
        The milk is here
        This milk is bad
        Please give me some milk
        I have some milk in the glass
    Mass nouns always use a singular verb and never take a plural.

Most mass nouns are:

Materials: metals, liquids, gases, cloth etc.
For example:
It's made of iron
She needs water
There's no air in here
The chair is covered with blue cloth
Ideas and Feelings
For example:
She has no understanding
You have my sympathy
Love is important for children
His anger was clear
Small objects
For example:
They grow rice here
The sand gets in my shoes
The dust is everywhere
Use milk powder in the pudding
For example:
I need more sleep
Childhood is a good time
You can't buy happiness
For example:
There's a lot of snow this winter
We have a lot of rain in the spring
The sunshine is nice

There are hundreds of mass nouns in English but here is a list of very common ones:


That list is available as a PDF document from this link.

It is possible, of course, to make mass nouns countable by the addition of what is called a partitive or a quantifier as in, e.g.:
    three hours' sleep
    a piece of iron
    a bar of chocolate
    two means of transportation
    pints of milk
    drifts of snow

As you see, however, the choice of quantifier or partitive is not an easy one to make.


Learn more

If you want to discover more now about nouns, go to:
nouns: the essentials
nouns: the in-service guide
mass and count nouns
The second of those links is to a more technical guide and they all open in new tabs.


Take a test

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


Section C: Verbs


Types of verbs

This unit is to do with content lexemes or lexical words, not function words but, unfortunately, verbs happen to occur in both categories.
Here we will focus on what are usually called Main Verbs but you should know now that there are two other basic sorts of verbs.  Unit 6 looks at Primary auxiliary verbs (be, have, do, get) and Unit 9 looks at Modal auxiliary verbs (may, might, can, should etc.).

For our purposes here, there are two forms of verbs that behave rather differently:

  1. Copular or linking verbs
    These verbs act to link a noun to an attribute or a noun to another noun.  The verbs in red in these examples are copular verbs:
        John is happy
        Mary is the manager
        I became very irritated
        She grew old
        That appears perfect
        She seems depressed
  2. Main or lexical verbs proper
    These verbs refer to actions, states and events and the examples in red are all main verbs in the true sense of the expression:
        The water flooded in
        Peter told me a joke
        She arrived late
        I put it in the corner
        We drove slowly

We'll take each category in turn starting with the first because they are the simplest.


Copular verbs

it was attached  

Copular verbs have some quite peculiar characteristics in terms of what they may link together and if you want to know more, there is a guide, linked below, which analyses them more thoroughly than is possible here.
The only verb which can be described as the pure copular verb is be and it is the most flexible and frequently used in this function.  It is sometimes described as the colourless copula because it carries no intrinsic meaning.
The verbs be, become, remain, stay and end up are all quite versatile and can be used:

  1. to link together a noun and an adjective (called the attribute) as in, e.g.:
        She was angry
        He became unhappy
        They remained dissatisfied
        I stayed happy
        She ended up frozen

  2. to link a noun to another noun as in, e.g.:
        The tree was an ash
        Mary became a gardener
        They remained students here
        He stayed a soldier
        She ended up a prisoner
    The important issue here is that the two noun phrases refer to the same thing or person so the tree and ash are the same, as are Mary and a gardener and so on.  The term for this is that they are co-referential.

Other common copular verbs cannot link two nouns and only work to link a noun and an adjective.  The common ones are seem, appear, sound, smell, taste and feel.
This means we do not allow:
    *She seemed a doctor
    *She appeared a doctor
    *It sounded a pop song
    *It smelt fresh air
    *It tasted apples
    *It felt silk
but we allow:
    She seemed content
    She appeared angry
    They sounded awful
    It smelt fresh
    It tasted delicious
    It felt smooth

Here's a list of some common copular verbs with examples divided into those which describe a current state and those which signal a change of state (which is a good way to teach them):

Current condition / state Change of state / result
appear unhappy
be on the table
feel sick
look miserable
remain unhappy
seem excessive
smell revolting
sound awful
stay calm
taste good
turn up dead
become involved
come undone
end up rich
get old
go stale
grow apprehensive
fall ill
turn aggressive


Main verbs

the water flooded the house  

Main verbs are rather more complicated.
They come in three main sorts but some verbs can appear in more than one category.  The first two categories are the really crucial ones.

  1. Intransitive verbs
    Some verbs never take an object and can stand alone.  We can say, for example,
        They arrived at the airport
        I responded
    etc., and the meaning is clear.
    However, for example, we cannot say
        *She arrived the hotel
        *It occurred the rain
    because neither of these verbs can refer to a noun directly, i.e., they cannot take an object.  We can, and frequently do, insert a preposition to get, e.g.,
        She came to the hotel
        It occurred towards the end of December
    but the verb is still not taking an object in these cases.
    Other examples of generally intransitive verbs include
    agree, appear, belong, collapse, die, disappear, exist, fall, go, happen, inquire, laugh, live, look, remain, respond, rise, sit, sleep, stand, stay, vanish, wait.
    Most of these can be followed by a prepositional phrase such as about the weather, at six o'clock, of hunger and so on but these are not objects of the verb.  Technically, they are referred to as complements.
  2. Transitive verbs
    Verbs which are always transitive must have an object complement.
    For example, we cannot have a sentence such as
        *He brought
    and we must insert an object and get:
        He brought some flowers
    because the verb bring must have an object to make any sense.  We need to know both who or what did it and what or who it was done to.
    Other examples of generally transitive verbs include: buy, cost, get, give, make, owe, pass, show, take, tell.
    We can divide transitive verbs into two more categories:
    1. Those transitive verbs which can take only one object.  These are called monotransitive verbs.  For example, we can say
          She drank the coffee
      but not
          *She drank me the coffee.
      Other examples of verbs which only take one object when they are transitive include eat, say, play, expect, remember, suspect.
    2. Those transitive verbs which can take two objects.  These are verbs which are ditransitive.  For example, we can say
          He bought the drinks
      and that's a verb with a single object (the drinks) but we can also say
          He bought us the drinks
      and here we have two objects, the drinks (the direct object) and us (the indirect object).
      Another example is
          They sold me the car
      which has a direct object (the car) and an indirect object (me).
      We can also change the order and put the indirect object at the end but then we have to insert a preposition:
          He bought the drinks for us
          They sold the car to me
      Other examples of verbs which can or even must be ditransitive include:
      allow, appoint, ask, assure, award, bake, bet, bring, buy, call, cause, charge, cook, cost, cut, deal, do, draw, feed, find, get, give, hand, lend, make, offer, order, owe, pass, pay, promise, read, save, sell, send, show, teach, tell, throw, wish, write
      In English, the indirect object comes before the direct object but that is not always the case in other languages.
      There is more about subjects and objects in Unit 5 of this course.
  3. Verbs which can be both transitive and intransitive
    These verbs, and there are lots of them, can be both.  They are called ambivalent verbs.
    For example, we can say
        She eats (intransitive)
        She eats fish (transitive).
    Other examples in this category include
    drink, explain, help, decide, fly, smoke, swim, play, continue.

Regularity and irregularity

Although there are lots of irregular verbs in English (around 200), learning them is not particularly difficult because the verbs only have one or two changes at most.
In some languages, such as most European ones, life is much more complicated and it may be necessary to learn more than ten forms for each irregular verbs.
In English there are three forms of all main verbs:

  1. The base form of the verb:
    All verbs, irregular or not have this form.  Examples are:
    arrive, go, be, enjoy, buy, sleep etc.
  2. The past tense form:
    These are either regular, adding -d after a base form ending in e or -ed after any other letter or they are irregular.  Examples are:
    arrived, went, was/were, enjoyed, bought, slept etc.
  3. The past participle form:
    These are again regular or irregular but if they are regular, they always have the same form as the past tense and even when they are irregular, most of the verbs retain the same form as the past tense.  Examples are:
    arrived, gone, been, enjoyed, bought, slept etc.

To make things even easier, there are only a few verbs which are truly irregular and most fall into groups with similar sounds which often rhyme.  So, for example we encounter:

Verbs which never change put, cut, cost, rid etc.
Verbs adding -t smell-smelt, learn-learnt, spill-spilt etc.
Verbs adding -t and changing /i:/ to /e/ dream-dreamt, sweep-swept, weep-wept, mean-meant etc.
Verbs changing /ɪ/ to /ʌ/ cling-clung, dig-dug, win-won etc.

In many course books and other reference materials, you will find an alphabetic list of irregular verbs and that is helpful for reference but not so helpful for learners because it hides the patterns.
Here is a list of the verbs organised into patterns which you can get here in PDF format:

irregular verbs

Learn more

There is more in this course about verbs.  Units 5, 6, 7 and 9 are all concerned with verbs in some way because they are so important.
However, if you want to discover more now about verbs, go to:
verbs: the essentials
lexical or main verb forms
verb types and clause structures
The last of those links is to a more technical guide.


Take a test

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


Section D: Adjectives


Describing and classifying

Adjectives are a major word class in all languages and the in-service guide to them on this site is one of the longest and most detailed.

An adjective is usually defined something like

a word grammatically attached to a noun to modify or describe it

Easy question:
Spot the adjectives in these examples:

  1. The tall trees bent in the fierce winds.
  2. He finally came along half an hour late for the first meeting.
  3. The green-jacketed, first-form students looked nervous.
  4. The audience was fascinated by the short lecture.

Click eye open when you have answers.


Tests for adjectives

There are two simple tests for adjectives:

  1. We can make comparatives either by adding -er or -est or by putting more / most before them
  2. We can modify them with the adverb very

Try these tests with the adjectives we have encountered so far.  What do you notice?
Click eye open when you have done that.

comparing adjectives

Comparing adjectives

Adjectives can be made comparative or superlative.
Comparative structures are, for example:
    Mary is taller than John
    Mary is
more intelligent than me
Superlative structures single out one as the highest form of the adjective, e.g.:
    She is the fittest person for the job
    That is the most ridiculous idea of them all
The rules for how we make the forms apply to both.

English has two ways to compare adjectives:

  1. We can add -er or -est to the end of the adjective (dropping an 'e' or changing 'y' to 'i' where we need to).  This is called inflexion.
  2. We can add more or most before the adjective.  This is called a periphrastic form.

Try modifying the adjectives here and work out what the rules are.  Click on the table when you have the answer.  The following focuses on the comparative form but the superlatives follow the same rules.


There are some irregular ones (as in most languages) including, e.g., far-further/farther-furthest/farthest, good-better-best, bad-worse-worst etc. and there's a bit more to it than that but this is the simplest explanation.


Ordering adjectives

Many books for students delight in giving complex and elaborate rules for why we say, for example:

But actually the general rule is quite simple.  Any ideas?  Click when eye you have some.


Learn more

If you want to discover more now about adjectives, go to:
adjectives: the essentials
adjectives: the in-service guide
The second of those links is to a more technical guide.


Take a test

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


Section E: Adverbs



Adjectives describe and classify but adverbs modify.

An adverb is usually defined as something like

a word which modifies a verb, an adjective or another adverb

Can you identify the adverbs in these examples?

  1. He came to the door quickly and I was soon enthusiastically welcomed.
  2. She frequently complains at length about things she thinks are really stupid.
  3. Please arrive early and put the food there.
  4. Wait outside until you are called.
  5. I can't go now but I'll go soon.

Click eye open when you have answers.


Recognising adverbs

There are literally thousands of adverbs which end in -ly and very often that is what students are told is the defining characteristic but it can be misleading.  If you see a word which ends in -ly, you may be tempted to classify it as an adverb.  That is the way to bet but be careful of adjectives like friendly or wrinkly, verbs like sully and so on.  If you want a long list of adjectives that look like adverbs, there is one here.

This works both ways.  Not all words which are adverbs end in -ly.
All of the following can be adverbs and not one ends in -ly.
now, yesterday, next week, here, often, seldom, crabwise, afterwards, beforehand

If you want to identify an adverb, the only safe way is to look at what it is doing.


What adverbs modify

It's fairly clear (the clue's in the name) that adverbs modify verbs.  What are they doing in these examples?

  1. He opened the box carefully.
  2. He is completely against the idea.
  3. That's a wonderfully simple solution.
  4. She speaks extremely intelligently.

Click eye open when you have an answer.


Adverb position

One of the most vexing phenomena for learners of English is that adverbs are placed in sentences in a rather complicated manner.  Look at the example sentences in this table and see if you can figure out some rules.  Sentences which are considered wrong are marked with '*'.  Then click on the table for some suggestions.


Look again at the examples.  There is one position where adverbs can never appear in English.  What is it?
Click eye open when you have the answer.


Adverbs of frequency

He frequently smokes a pipe  

This category, a sub-category of time adverbs, gets its own section because it is troublesome for learners.
There are two sorts of these adverbs:

  1. Adverbs of definite frequency:
    These refer to measurable amounts of time and include, for example:
        I get the newspaper daily
        She travels to London weekly
        We meet annually

    The normal position for these adverbs is at the end of a clause, after the verb, its object or any prepositional phrase.
    Placing the adverbs anywhere else usually results in non-English or special emphasis.
    Apart from annually and seasonally, these adverbs also functions as adjectives:
        a monthly meeting
        a yearly trip
        a daily news broadcast

  2. Adverbs of indefinite frequency:
    These refer to how often something happens but not in measurable terms.  For example:
        I seldom go to see her
        I often go to see her
    are comparably different but tell us nothing more than a rough idea of frequency.  We do not know if the speaker means daily, monthly, annually or seasonally.
    There are three issues with these adverbs:
    1. Strength:
      It is a traditional classroom practice to place these on a cline, like this:
      but that's only a guide because native speakers will often disagree about where on the cline the adverbs occur.
    2. Sentence type:
      1. Two of the adverbs do not usually occur in negative sentences:
        We accept:
            I sometimes see my sister
            Do you occasionally meet your brother in London?

        but not:
            *I don't sometimes see her
            *She does not occasionally meet her brother
      2. Four of these adverbs do not occur in questions or negative sentences:
        We accept
            I hardly ever go to London
            She scarcely ever asks for help
            We seldom eat before seven
            She rarely wants to eat out

        but not, usually:
            *Do you hardly ever go to London?
            *I don't scarcely see her
            *She didn't seldom eat out
            *Does she rarely eat out?

      3. Because never is a true negator, it cannot occur in a negative sentence so we do not allow:
            *We don't never arrive on time
        but is does occur in questions as in, e.g.:
            Do you never have breakfast?
    3. Position:
      1. All these frequency adverbs usually appear before the main verb and after any auxiliary verb so, we accept, e.g.:
            I have seldom been to his house
            We can scarcely ever take the early train
            They sometimes work late

        but not
            *I have been seldom to his house
            *We scarcely ever can take the early train
            *They work sometimes late
      2. They occur, however, before semi-modal auxiliary verbs
            She often has to come in early
            She is often able to help me
            They seldom used to entertain guests
            They seldom dare to go
      3. They always follow the verb be:
            I am always late
            She is never on time
            They are scarcely ever helpful
      4. The adverbs often, usually, sometimes and occasionally can occur at the end of clauses:
            They work late in the office sometimes
            She comes to the house occasionally
            He complains about having no money often

        Others in this category can occur at the end of clauses but only with some special emphasis.

Two adverbs of frequency are not in the lists above because they have special characteristics:

As you can see, these adverbs have special characteristics which are not parallelled in other languages and cause, in particular, word-ordering problems for learners.  Handle with care.


Fronting adverbs

Most adverbs can be placed at the beginning of clauses but doing so marks them for special emphasis in English.  In other languages, this is one of the normal positions for adverbs and does not signify a special meaning.
When learners mistakenly place adverbs at the front of clauses, therefore, they can give the wrong impression and a native speaker of English may be puzzled about the emphasis which that position implies.
Here are some examples of the four types of adverbs which can be placed in the initial position:
    Frequently, she works very late at the office
    Daily, the rubbish is collected
    Carefully, she climbed the ladder
    Outside, they sat in the sunshine

and all these examples, mark the adverb as particularly important.
They are also, as you see, separated from the rest of the clause with a comma.
Adverbs of place, used this way often imply a whole clause so the last example may be equivalent to:
    When they got outside, they sat in the sunshine

However, we do not allow:
    *Greatly, I liked the exhibition
    *Slightly, she enjoyed the film


Adverbs of degree can never be fronted.

It is not usually a very good idea to present fronted adverbs to learners at lower levels because the special emphasis which is implied may not be apparent to them.


Comparing adverbs

Adjectives, as you know, can usually be modified two ways to show comparison or superlatives.

  1. By adding -er and -est:
        I'm older than her
        She's the youngest in the family
  2. By using more and most:
        The hotel was more expensive than I expected
        That's the most beautiful painting

Adverbs are a little different because they are almost always compared using more and most so we do not say, for example:
     *He drive slowlier than me
    *She came quicklier than her brother
but say:
    He drove more slowly than me
    She came more quickly than her brother

However, there are two issues:

  1. Some short adverbs which do not end in -ly can be used with -er and -est:
        He worked harder than anyone else
        She drove faster than I did.

    The other common adverbs that take this form are: near, soon, late, early.
    The adverb often can be used both ways informally but some people do not approve of oftener.
  2. In colloquial speech, we often hear short adverbs being modified like adjectives (but it is considered wrong by most people):
        The rain fell heavier
        The sun shone brighter and brighter

In the classroom, the safest rule is that, apart from fast, soon, near, late, early and hard, adverbs should not be modified with -er and -est.

There are some irregular forms:
    far > farther > farthest
    ill > worse > worst
    badly > worse > worst
    well > better > best
    little > less > least
    much > more > most


Learn more

If you want to discover more now about adverbs, go to:
adverbs: the essentials
adverbs: the in-service guide
The second of those links is to a more technical guide.


Take a test

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

A summary of content words

This diagram is taken from the in-service guide to word and phrase class.  You will see that pronouns, because they act very much like nouns are included as a subcategory of them.  That is not an analysis accepted by everyone.
You can learn more about the various subcategories of the items by following the links above.
content words


Section F: What does mean mean?


Types of meaning

This Unit concerns itself with lexical words and they are defined here as words which, when they stand alone, carry a meaning that we can define.
That's true but before we leave the area, we should be a little clearer about what we mean when we say something like:
    This word means ...

There are some issues in this area:


Synonyms and antonyms

In a classroom, it is often tempting, because it is quick and sometimes effective, to explain what a word means by saying something like:
    It means the same as ... (a synonym)
    It means the opposite of ... (an antonym)

A short task:
Try to match the words in this table by pairing them with synonyms and antonyms

Click when eye you have some ideas.

happy stupid outside mother
hide inside little dim
tiny conceal sad mummy
small father vast clever

We have to be careful to know how a word is used, what it means to the speaker and what context it is used in.

There is a good argument that no pairs of words can be absolute synonyms because shades of meaning, grammatical forms or dialect use will always distinguish them.  For example:

There are three types of antonymy which we considered above in the task:

antonymy 1

Multiple meanings

Almost half of the words in English have more than one meaning.
We saw in Unit 2, that a word such as clean can be both a verb and an adjective but the word retains its basic meaning in both word classes.
That is not the case for thousands of other words.

Another small task:
What do these words mean?

Click the eye when you have some ideas.

eye open
eye open
eye open
eye open
eye open

Two things are happening here:

  1. Homonymy
    When a word has two unconnected meanings such as bank, which can mean the side of a river or a business which looks after people's money, then the words can be described as homonyms.
    (The word homonym comes from the Greek for same name incidentally.)
    The meanings are unconnected and probably derive from different sources (which is the case with the two meanings of bank).
    When we convert the noun to verb as in the second two examples, we are simply converting the word class with no effect on meaning.
    We also have a case of homonymy with two of the meanings of blue (the colour and the feeling of depression).
  2. Polysemy
    When a word has two meanings which are different but obviously connected in some way, they can be referred to as polysemes.
    This is the case with glasses in this list.  Clearly, in all three cases, the word refers to something made of glass but in the first case it means spectacles, in the second case it means containers made of glass and in the third case it means the contents of a glass.
    The word doubtfully is also a case of polysemy because its meaning is altered in the two examples.  In the first example it is modifying the adjective correct, toning it down and making it far less certain so it means something like only just possibly and in the second case it is modifying the verb and telling us how she looked and means something akin to sceptically.  The uses cannot be reversed so we can't allow either:
        *That is sceptically correct
        *She looked at me only just possibly

The word go in this task is somewhere in the middle.
When it is a verb, it usually means something like move away from a place but we can also use it to mean work or function and we can convert it to a noun to mean try or attempt.
Whether this is a case of the word having three homonyms or whether you think the words are closely enough connected in meaning to be considered polysemes is a debatable matter.


Three types of meaning

When we try to answer the question, What does 'mean' mean?, we discover that we need to think about three types of meaning.

  1. Sense
    This refers to a word's general significance.
    For example, we can probably agree on the sense of the word coin.  The word, as a noun, means a small metal unit of currency.  This is the word's sense or its denotation.
  2. Reference
    This refers to the actual thing I mean (or the action etc. but for simplicity's sake, we'll focus on nouns).  In other words, it is this instance of the word's use.
    For example, if I say
        The coin on the book
    I know (and so do you) that I am referring not to coins in a general sense but to a particular one I have in mind.
  3. Connotation
    This refers to a second level of meaning above denotation and is often personally or culturally determined.  For example, the lexemes earn and coin it in and the words quack and doctor carry the same senses (making money and a medical practitioner, respectively) but mean very different things.  The same can be said of a whole range of lexemes such as youth-teen, child-brat, newspaper-rag, speech-sermon, dirt-filth, police officer-copper-cop and so on.
    We saw this above with the uses of small (denoting only size) and little (denoting size and connoting attractiveness).


Idioms and fixed expressions

a needle in a haystack  

The issue here is called idiomaticity and the example is of an idiom.
Idioms are frequently impossible to understand by knowing all the words that make them up, a phenomenon known as non-compositionality.
Here are some examples of idioms in English (on the left) and some equivalents in other languages.  Can you make them match?
Click on the image when you have an answer.

idiom translation

There are two important issues to describe concerning idioms in any language:

  1. Transparency:
    It is sometimes possible to guess at the meaning, of course, and there is a range of idiomatic language from the completely obvious to the fully impenetrable.
    For example:
    1. she has missed the boat (meaning lost an opportunity) is just about comprehensible given some context
    2. they threw in the towel (meaning gave up or surrendered) is possible to understand if one has some knowledge of boxing conventions
    3. he kicked the bucket (meaning died) is wholly incomprehensible and must be learned and used as a complete unit
  2. Fixedness:
    Some idioms cannot be altered at all (or only very slightly in terms of changing the tense or pronouns), but others can have multiple variants.
    For example:
    1. through thick and thin cannot be altered to through fat and thin or through thick and narrow and retain its meaning and is at the fixed end of the spectrum
    2. we're having a hoot can be expressed alternatively as we're having a whale of a time, and hit the sack can be replaced with hit the hay and so on.  These are idioms with limited flexibility.
    3. Other expressions, which are really just strong associations between words or collocations, are very much more flexible (and don't count as idioms at all in some analyses).
      For example, we can make the beds, haste, friends and so on and on but not *make the homework, or *make damage (for which the verb do is preferred).
      Similarly, we pay attention, a compliment and our respects but take an interest, offence, place etc. and give explanations, thanks and promises etc.


Learn more

polysemy and homonymy

All these links are to the technical guides in the in-service section.


Take a test

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


Section G: relationships between words

If we need to talk about the relationships between lexemes, we need to have some terms to talk about the ideas.  Here they are:


Idea 1: Homophones and homographs

We have already met words which have more than one meaning, homonyms and polysemes, so now we need to look at words which look the same or sound the same but have different meanings.
Clearly, in our example above, the word bank meaning a financial business and the side of the river both look the same (are spelled in the same way) and also sound the same (are pronounced in the same way), but that is not always the case.
Many other words are homonyms of others so, for example, we may find homonym pairs such as:
    bat (hitting tool) and bat (flying animal)
    down (lower) and down (feathers)

dear and deer
These words are written differently but pronounced the same and have different meanings.  They are homophones.  Other examples are:
lead weight and lead an army
These words are written the same but pronounced differently and have different meanings.  They are homographs.  Other examples are:
    read (present tense) and read (past tense)
    invalid (not usable) and invalid (sick person)
    bass (a deep voice) and bass (a fish)
    desert (leave one's duty) and desert (arid area)
    export (the noun, stressed on the first syllable) and export (the verb, stressed on the second syllable)
    tear (rip) and tear (drop of eye water)

Idea 2: Hyponymy

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

Like this:


Idea 3: Word families, lexical sets and lexical fields

On this site, the terms are defined like this because for teaching purposes, it seems the most useful.
A word family refers to words with the same root.
A lexical set refers to words for objects (or verbs etc.) found in the same conceptual area.
A lexical field refers to words of all kinds which occur in the same topic.
Like this:

family set field
Lexical sets are usually defined as being words of the same class so we could also have, e.g.
    treat, care for, tend, operate, nurse, examine, cure etc.
as verbs in a lexical set to do with health care.


Idea 4: Collocation

Some words, as we saw above, go together, hand-in-hand, with other words, some don't.

So we have, for example:
   torrential + rain
   bright + sunshine
   bitterly + cold

and so on.
Some words do not collocate so we can have:
   strong winds and heavy snow
but not
   *strong snow and heavy winds
   tall people and high mountains
but not
   *high people and tall mountains

Collocations can be analysed by:


Learn more

This link takes you to the in-service technical guide to word relationships and more.

word relationships


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Use the 'Back' button to return when you have done that.