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The Concourse

TKT Module 1: Describing language and language skills



Why don't we just say words?

There's a good reason.  The only definition of a word which makes much sense in English is:

a group of letters with a space at each end

That's not too helpful.  For us, a lexeme is a better concept.  A lexeme is a unit of meaning.  It can be one word or a group of words.  For example:
this is a lexeme which is a single word but the lexeme includes
    holidays, holidaying, holidayed
it is an abstract concept with the idea of vacation or celebration.
    thunder and lightning
this is a single lexeme which contains three words.  It is a single idea (although we can, of course define the three parts separately).  Note that we say
    thunder and lightning is
    thunder and lightning are.
It is one idea.
Here are some more examples of lexemes:
reference library | computer | mouse-click | the black sheep of the family | loudspeaker | The White House | look after | blue-green | open-ended
All of these represent single ideas and are, therefore, lexemes in English.


Key concepts in this guide

By the end of this guide, you should be able to understand and use these key concepts:

  • meaning: denotation, figurative, connotation
  • word formation and morphemes
    • conversion
    • prefixes
    • suffixes (inflexional and derivational)
    • compounding
  • collocation (strength and types)
  • fixed expressions
    • idioms
    • binomials
    • chunks
  • lexical relationships: synonymy, antonymy, hyponymy, homonymy, homograph, homophone, lexical set, word family, lexical field
  • cognates and false friends
  • what it means to 'know' a word: passive and active vocabulary

Look out for these words like this in the text.
There will be tests at the end of the guide for you to check that you understand the ideas.



When we ask what a lexeme or a word means, we are dealing with semantics.  This is quite a complicated area and if you want to know lots more, see the guide to semantics on this site.
Here we will consider three sorts of meaning.

refers to the basic meaning of a lexeme.  For example:
The word table means something like a flat surface, usually on legs.
The lexeme blue-black refers to a very dark colour.
The lexeme kick refers to a sharp action done with the foot.
The lexeme accident and emergency refers to a department of a hospital
and so on.
Denotational meaning is often what we want when we ask the question
    What does this word mean?
Figurative or metaphorical meaning
refers to what a lexeme means in a particular sense.  We extend the meaning.  For example:
The expression
    to table a motion
    to put an idea forward at a meeting or conference
It comes from the idea of putting something on a table but there may be no table in the room!
The expression
(sometimes spelled kickback) means some kind of
    bribe or commission.
It comes from the sense of the verb kick but is used metaphorically or figuratively.  We can also say, for example:
    This curry has a real kick
    He kicked the idea out
    She got the kick from her job
Metaphor and figurative meaning is very common in all languages and quite difficult for learners.  We need to set lexis in clear contexts or, for example
    They kicked the idea into the long grass
    They didn't want to consider the idea and chose to ignore it
is impossible to understand without some context and co-text.
Connotational meaning
refers to the emotional content of lexemes and is often a matter of culture.  For example:
bitch is the proper word for a female dog and when used by a dog owner or vet, simply carries its denotational meaning.  However, if someone says
    This job is a real bitch
    Her boss is a bitch
    Don't be bitchy

the meaning carries unpleasant connotations.
Connotation can also be pleasant, of course:
The word determined is positive but a synonym like stubborn or pig headed is generally negative.
Other words that carry emotional, positive or negative connotations in many languages are, for example:
pig, owlish, cow, cop, snake, foxy, lackey, quack, revolutionary etc.
It is important to remember that connotation is very often a matter of culture.

It is easy to see that new vocabulary must be set in context for people to be able to understand it and use it accurately.


Word formation

English (like all languages) makes new words in a number of different ways.  Here are the main ones:

  1. Conversion
    This means simply changing the word class without changing the form of the word.  For example:
    We can change the adjective dry to the verb, like this:
        If the clothes aren't dry, hang them on the line to dry them
    We can change the noun bank to the verb bank, like this:
        I used to use the bank in the High Street but now I bank nearer to where I work
  2. Prefixation
    In this case, we add a meaning unit (a morpheme) to the beginning of a word.  Usually, prefixes change the meaning of a word, not its word class.  For example:
    We can change the word interested to its opposite by adding un-:
        I am very interested in music but my husband is totally uninterested in it
        He asked me if I was satisfied and I said I was wholly dissatisfied
        It's not a supermarket, more a minimarket, really
  3. Suffixation
    In this case we add a morpheme to the end of the word.  There are two types:
    1. Derivational suffixation
      This means making a new word class without changing the basic meaning.  For example:
      We can change the adjective happy to a noun by adding -ness so happy changes to happiness.
      We can change the noun nation to an adjective by changing it from nation to national and then we can change the adjective to a verb by making it nationalise.
    2. inflexional suffixation
      This means changing a word by changing its grammatical function.  For example:
      The verb enjoy changes to enjoyed in the past tense or to enjoys in the 3rd-person singular or to enjoying in a progressive aspect.
      We can also make a noun plural, usually by adding -s or -es so we get match-matches, dictionary-dictionaries and so on.
      Adjectives, too, can be inflected to show comparative and superlative ideas as in large, larger, largest, small, smaller smallest etc.
  4. Compounding
    Words can be added together to make new meanings.  For example:
    We can add key (noun) to board (noun)to make keyboard
    We can add mouse (noun) to click (verb) to make mouse-click
    We can add white (adjective) to board (noun) to make whiteboard
    and so on.
    We can make compounds by, for example:
    1. combining two nouns: wind + mill = windmill
    2. combining an adjective with a noun: home + sick = homesick
    3. combining a verb with a noun: earth + quake = earthquake
    4. combining an adverb and a verb: back + sliding = backsliding

For more on word formation in English, see the essential guide to word formation and the guide to compounding.



Some words occur together naturally.  This is called collocation and the words that come together are called collocates.
For example, we can have:

and so on.

There are a number of different sorts of collocation and we can analyse them in two ways:

It is quite important to understand that the relationship between words which collocate is not equal.
Some words only collocate with a very few other words so, for example, the lexeme washing up can collocate with a few verbs such as do, hate, avoid, enjoy (!), dislike and synonyms of those verbs but all the verbs can collocate with many thousands of nouns.

To speak naturally in English, it is important to have some understanding of what words collocate with others.
For more, see the essential guide to collocation on this site or the much more detailed in-service guide to collocation.


Fixed expressions

There are some phrases in English which are known as fixed or semi-fixed.  Usually, these are lexemes formed of more than one word but which have a single meaning.

cat bag
He let the cat out of the bag
is an idiom.  We cannot understand it by knowing the meaning of the individual words.  It means reveal a secret and that has nothing to do with cats and bags.  Idioms are common in all languages.
These are pairs of words which often come together and are fixed.  For example,
    above and beyond (= more than)
    alive and kicking (= healthy and active)
    an arm and a leg (= a lot of money)
    back and forth (= in two directions repeatedly)
    bells and whistles (= lots of gadgets and facilities)
    bits and bobs (= miscellaneous things)
    by and large (= on the whole)
For a much longer list of these, see the guide to idiomaticity on this site.
Some phrases are not fixed like idioms but can still be learned and used as if they were single language items.  For example,
    How are you?
    Lend me a hand
    It's time for ...
    In spite of the ...
    lazing in the sunshine
    consulting a doctor / expert / book / dictionary
Some people believe that we learn and produce a lot of language by using these chunks rather than using our knowledge of lexis and grammar.


Lexical relationships

We can analyse lexis by looking at the relationships between words.
This is not a simple area.  For more information, see the guide to lexical relationships on this site.

Very few words mean exactly the same as other words but some are very close in meaning.  When two or more words mean almost the same thing, they are called synonyms.  For example:
    hard = difficult (although hard is more informal)
    fire = blaze (although blaze is bigger and less commonly used)
    postpone = put off (although put off is not so formal)
    doctor = quack (although quack is very negative in meaning [see connotation, above])
    hugely = greatly (although the adverbs collocate differently)
and so on.
When we tell our students that two words 'mean the same' we need to be careful to add 'in this case'!
When two words are opposite in meaning, they are called antonyms.  Again, the relationship is not always exactly the opposite but it can help learners to tell them that one word is the opposite of another.  For example:
    hard = not easy or not soft
    open = not shut
    up = not down (or any other direction)
There are three sorts of antonyms:
antonymy 1
Gradable antonyms:
big is the antonym of small but we can say, for example
    A rhinoceros is smaller than an elephant but it is still a very big animal.
In this case, big is not the same as not small.
Converse antonyms:
uncle and niece are a kind of antonym pair because you can't have one without the other and father / son / daughter have the same relationship as do student and teacher, nurse and patient and so on.
Complementary antonyms:
in these, putting the word not in front of the word make its opposite.  For example, accompanied means not alone.
Some words can include the meaning of other words.  For example:
The word vehicle can be used to mean car, bus, tram, train, motorcycle, coach etc.
The word vehicle is the superordinate or hypernym and the words car, bus, tram, train, motorcycle, coach etc. are the hyponyms.
Here's another set of examples:
Homonyms, homographs and homophones
These are words which look the same, are spelled the same or pronounced the same but have different meanings.  For example:
left (the opposite of right) and left (the past tense of leave) look and sound exactly the same but have different meanings.
right and write sound exactly the same but are spelled differently and have different meanings.
the verb lead is pronounced /liːd/ to rhyme with speed but can also be a noun for a heavy metal when it is pronounced /led/ to rhyme with fed.  The words look the same but sound different.
Word families, lexical sets and lexical fields
A word family describes the relationship between different forms of the same lexeme so we have, for example:
nation, national, nationalise, international, nationality etc. which are all forms of the same lexeme.
A lexical set describes the relationship between words of the same kind and type.  They are often hyponyms.  For example, lion, tiger, jaguar, lynx, panther are all types of big cat and form a lexical set.
A lexical field describes the words that commonly come together in a text.  For example, if we are talking or writing about health, we may find words like ill, doctor, painful, life-threatening, hospital, treat, nurse, ambulance etc. all in the same text or conversation.  This is related to textual collocation (see above).
Here's a set of examples:
family set field


Cognates and false friends

When languages are related (such as German and English, French and Italian, English and Spanish etc.) some words look and sound almost the same in both languages.  For example, the word operation in English is similar to many other languages which are connected to Latin.  Like this:
English Spanish Italian French Portuguese Romanian
operation operación operazione opération operação operație
paper papel papier papier papel papier
These are cognate words and make learning and understanding vocabulary much easier for some students, of course.
Germanic languages, such as English, German, Dutch, Swedish and more, also share cognate words so we get, for example:
English German Dutch Swedish Danish Icelandic
land Land land land land land
white weiss wit vit hvid hvítt
So, it is not a problem for speakers of those languages to understand the English words in the first row but a little more difficult for the words in the second row.
But there is a problem ...
False friends
These are cognate words or words borrowed between languages which look the same and sound similar but mean something different.  For example:
The Spanish word embarazada looks and sounds like the English word embarrassed but the English word means something like ashamed and the Spanish word translates into English as pregnant!
It's easy to see that we have to be careful with false friends.
For some exercises for learners in this area, go to the exercises on false friends on this site (new tab).

There is a guide to cognates and false friends on this site.


What it means to 'know' a word

You know the word Sit! and so does the dog.  But you know more about the word than the dog knows.  What more do you know about the word than the dog?
Think for a moment and then click here.

Of course, our learners can't be expected to learn all this every time they discover a new word.  That's one reason that vocabulary has to be presented in lots of different contexts and many times before it can be learned.

We may recognise what a word means but not be able to pronounce it or use it accurately and naturally.  That's the difference between passive and active vocabulary.
Passive vocabulary knowledge is to do with the ability to understand what we read and hear and active vocabulary knowledge is to do with what we can actually produce in writing and speaking.

There are lots of guides on this site which you can follow to learn more about the lexis of English.  A good place to start is the initial plus section.

self test

Self-test questions

Before you go on, make sure you can answer these questions.  If you can't, go back to the sections which give you trouble.

If you are happy with your progress, go on.


Tests and practice for TKT

Test 1 A simple matching task of 7 items
Test 2 A 10-item, gap-fill test
Test 3 A 10-item, gap-fill test
Test 4 A 10-item, gap-fill test

Return to the Module 1 index: back
or go on to the next guide which is to phonology.