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Concourse 2

Lexical relationships


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

Lexical relationships are not simple and this guide is accordingly quite long.
If you are here for the first time, the advice is to work through it sequentially but if you are returning to check something, here's a list of the contents to take you to its various sections.
Clicking on -top- at the end of each section will bring you back to this menu.

Syntagmatic vs. paradigmatic Homonymy Heteronymy Hyponymy Troponymy Meronymy and metonymy
Families, sets and fields Synonymy Antonymy Contranyms Collocation -nym corner


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 (and they must be transitive).

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:


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.

Often as the examples show, the superordinate is a mass noun but the levels below, the hyponyms of each other, are count nouns.  So, for example, the subordinate mass noun equipment will have a set of count-noun hyponyms below it which might include tool, oil, screwdriver, hammer, wrench and so on.

It is possible to trace hyponymy relationships back and back (up and up in trees like the one above) until one arrives at superordinates so large in their coverage that they become unusable for any day-to-day purposes.  So, for example, we can have:

Level Superordinate Hyponyms
1 lubricants oil, grease, fat
2 petroleum products lubricant, petrol, diesel, gasoline, kerosene
3 liquids petroleum products, water, vinegar, blood
4 inanimate substances liquid, solids, gases

and any of the hyponyms above Level 1 can themselves form hypernyms and generate more subcategories virtually ad infinitum.

This relationship is not, of course, confined to nouns.  We can also have:

In the case of adjectives, it is often important to consider their collocational characteristics because, for example, hyponyms of big will collocate differently and be dependent on the noun they modify:
    huge tree, not *great tree
    great problem, not *full-sized problem


and in this case, there is what is known as a relationship of troponymy because all the second-level hyponyms are expressive of the manner of doing something, i.e., they are different ways of cleaning.  Other examples include different ways of eating, walking, sleeping etc. which would include nibble, gorge; saunter, stroll; nap, doze respectively.
Troponymy makes a useful teaching aim, especially at more advanced levels, because there is some evidence that we store and retrieve verb lexemes by conceptual association.

Teaching implications

  1. Hypernyms have greater range (they describe more of reality) so they are important to know.  If learners don't know the exact word for something, it's useful if they have a hypernym to hand.  You may not know what sort of tree you are sitting under but you do know it's a tree.
  2. Unfortunately, many hypernyms sound unnatural when used in informal speech.  Would you prefer
        We need a new goods vehicle
        We need a new truck
  3. There is some evidence that one of the many ways the brain stores lexis is related to hyponymy so it makes sense to teach hyponyms together.
    This is especially true when we consider various levels of hyponymy (as above) because the brain can make sense of this sort of categorisation into subgroups.
    It can be productive as a classroom research exercise to get learners to develop their own hyponym trees as the ones above and see how they can build pictures of the relationships between words and add to their own lexicons in so doing.
  4. Hyponymy is variable across cultures and from individual to individual in many cases, so learners need the data to refine their understanding of what may and may not be included under a particular hypernym or superordinate.  For example, in English, the hypernym furniture will not include wall hangings, carpets or filing cabinets (probably) but some individuals and some cultures will include these lexemes.  For more, see the guide to semantics linked in the list of related guides at the end.



Meronymy and metonymy

Allied to the concept of hyponymy is that of meronymy which relates to the whole and its parts.  For example:

meronymy tricycle

There is some evidence, too, that the brain stores vocabulary in this way (among others) by a process akin to word association so that, for example, it becomes easier to recall words such as wings, beak, feathers, crop, claws etc. when the memory has been primed by the word bird.
There is a teaching implication here, too, of course, which is that words can often be effectively presented and learned in the context of larger wholes.
Meronymy is the phenomenon which leads to a form of synonymy known as synecdoche in which a part is seen as a synonym for the whole, so, for example, we can use head or face to refer to the whole of a person or people as in:
    There are some new faces in the class
    Do a head count

A similar relationship is called metonymy and this refers to the use of a term to mean the greater entity with which it is closely associated.  For example,
    Number 10 has scheduled a vote in the House for next Thursday
where the term Number 10 is simply the first part of address of the British Prime Minister's office (10 Downing Street) and is used to refer to the British government in general in the same way that Washington or The White House are used to refer to the American government and the President's office respectively.



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:

word families etc.

Because the area is replete with conflicting definitions of terms, there's quite a strong argument that the categories are not useful for the purposes of analysing meaning relationships.  However, there is some evidence that storage and recall of words may be partly, at least, based on relationships like these.

It is rather difficult to assign certain types of words to all the possible groupings.
For example, while a term like yellow can easily and obviously be assigned to the lexical set of colour, it is difficult to think of other members of the word family and even more difficult to assign such an adjective to a semantic field.
Abstract concepts such as interesting can often be assigned to a word family along with interest, disinterested, uninterested etc. but the field into which it could be placed is probably too amorphous to be of much help to learners – personal reactions, perhaps?  It also falls into no obvious semantic field.

The issues:

  1. Word family
    1. the term lexeme differs from what most people understand as word in two ways:
      1. a lexeme may be made of multiple words so, for example
            off the cuff
            hard up
            in spite of
            air conditioning unit
            fly in the ointment

        and so on are all lexemes because they refer to a single concept.
      2. a lexeme also includes the inflected forms of the item so, for example:
            does, do, did, done, doing
        are all just aspects of a single lexeme, do, not separate units of meaning.
        If you look in the dictionary for a definition of, say, spoken, you will be well advised to look under the verb speak because that is the central lexeme form.  It is known, in the trade, as the lemma or heading.
    2. The upshot is that it is hard to define where a lexeme (and its various forms) ends and where we are entering the realm of a word family.  It is clear that:

      are all part of the same lexeme (and will be found under the lemma speak) but less clear whether:

      and so on
      can also be included in the lexeme.
      If they are not and will be found under a separate lemma, then we are dealing with a word family, not a single lexeme.
      A word family is a wider concept and will include all the items derived from the base component.
    3. Unfortunately, the term word family is also used to refer to a completely different relationship to do with common sound-spelling patterns such as:
          ate, crate, date, fate, gate, late, plate, skate, state
      and so on or
          bloom, boom, broom, doom, gloom, groom, loom, room, zoom
      which can be learned as sets by children to help them pronounce and spell words.  That doesn’t seem a helpful definition for English language teaching purposes but may have some utility especially if we recognise that there is some evidence to suggest that sounds patterns are also one way in which lexis is memorised, categorised and recalled.
      It may therefore be of some utility to approach patterns of, say, irregular verbs as families such as:
          ring, rang, rung, sing, sang, sung, begin, began, begun, sink, sank, sunk
          send, sent, sent, bend, bent, bent, lend, lent, lent, pend, spent, spent
      which have similar ablaut forms as a way of helping learners to remember patterns.
      Even more confusingly, some people will refer to that relationship as containing words in the same lexical set.  That way, madness lies.
  2. Lexical set
    This term is sometimes used to mean the same thing as semantic set.  It is, unfortunately, an equally variably defined idea, but the line taken on this site is that it refers to words of the same class defined in one of two ways:
    1. By topic or field (in a narrow sense):
          street, alley, square, place, avenue, road, cul-de-sac, crescent
      etc. all refer to the same topic and are all nouns making a lexical set.
      A set of hyponyms by this definition, would form a lexical set.  So, for example:
          train, bus, coach, tram, ferry, passenger plane, subway, metro
      would be a lexical set derived from the superordinate means of public transport and would exclude many other vehicles.  If we change the superordinate, the lexical set can shrink or grow accordingly so making the superordinate powered vehicle means that the set grows to include car, truck, liner, cargo ship, lorry and more.  Changing it to land-based means of public transport and the lexical set shrinks to exclude some of the items.
      Lexical sets are very useful ways of classifying and presenting lexis in the classroom but a superordinate which includes too many terms under its umbrella will not be very helpful so, for example, the superordinate liquid will include so many possible lexemes in the set that all sense of category is lost whereas, cold drink will result in a manageable and learnable set.
      It is possible to define a lexical set by word class so, for example, we could have a set of similar items which might include
          dig, cultivate, water, fertilise, rotate, sow
      etc. all functioning as verbs and assignable to a parallel lexical set to the one in the diagram above.
      The same can be done for other word classes including adjectives and adverbs.
    2. By syntax:
          frequently, often, usually, never, seldom
      etc. are all adverbs of indefinite frequency sharing certain syntactical characteristics (usually occurring before main verbs and following any auxiliary verbs, for example).  Another example is the verbs:
          give, offer, read, sell, send, tell
      which are all ditransitive verbs and appear in the same kind of syntactical structures.
      A better way to describe relationships like this is to refer to colligation (common structural characteristics).
  3. Semantic or Lexical field
    The problem lies in the way in which ‘field’ is understood.
    1. From a genre perspective, field refers to the topic of a discourse, so some feel justified in referring to a group of any words (whatever their word class) which are typically used in that register as a lexical field.  That is the line taken here because it seems a useful concept for teaching purposes.  If one were talking or writing, for example, about car production, then it is important to be able to use the lexis related to the area: assembly line, design, standardise, model, research, investment, economy, components, version, raw materials, parts suppliers, robots etc.
    2. From a semantic point of view, that is too loose a definition and a lexical field is confined to a group of words which are related in meaning to each other according to a set of defined features.
      For example, when talking about horses, one needs to consider stallion, foal, mare, hunter, carthorse, thoroughbred, racehorse etc. which are all defined by age, sex or intended employment.
      In that definition, a term such as Exmoor Pony or Arabian would lie outside the field because they refer to particular breeds rather than age, sex and intended employment (which are the only three features we are considering).  They can readily be included in the field by widening the range of features one wants to include (and adding ‘breed’).  Other common examples of semantic fields (rather than the loose lexical field) are words for different ages and sexes of sheep, human family members, types of software and so on.
      A semantic field can only be determined by knowing the features which the organiser chooses to include.
      That can be very broad and include words of different classes or very narrow and only include closely defined features.

Given this confusion, it is understandable that the terms have fallen out of favour but, providing you define your terms, there is no reasons not to include concepts like these in teaching programmes.




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. Angry demonstrator
  10. Angry 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 on the table when you have an answer.



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
*chuffed very pleased She was chuffed to pass displeased She was chuffed to fail
†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 The cinema screened the movie hide I screened the picture from view
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 an 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 adjective chuffed is recorded from the first third of the 19th century and originally used in meaning 2 (displeased) but by the end of that century and since, the word is usually used in meaning 1 (very pleased).  Meaning 2 is not standard British English but is common in Australian and Canadian varieties.
† The word cleave is actually a homonym because the meaning of stick together is derived from the Old English clifian and the meaning of separate from the Old English cleofan.  The meanings are not connected.

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 mistakenly 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.  See the dedicated guides, linked below, for more.
Essentially, collocational relationships can be show like this:

collocation strength

Can you think of an example for each category?  Click when you have 6 examples.  Work from right to left.


-nym corner

Any investigation of lexis will reveal a goodly number of words ending in -nmy or -onymy.  Here's a crib sheet:

A word made of the initial letters of a phrase which are pronounced as one word.
For example, NATO.
See the guide to word formation for more.
A word carrying an opposite meaning (see above).
For example, good is an antonym of bad.
Autoantonym / Contranym / Contronym
A word which has two opposite meanings (see above).
For example, cleave can mean split or stick together with.
A word used by a group of people to describe themselves.
For example, Brit is often used by British and other people to describe people from Britain.
Compare exonym.
An adjective which refers to the people of a country or place.
For example, Dutch refers to people from The Netherlands, Berliner refers to people from Berlin and Liverpudlian refers to people from Liverpool.
See the guide to adjectives for more.
These refer to objects closely associated with a person or character or the nature of the person.
For example, wellington boot is a term associated with its wearer, The Duke of Wellington.
A name by which one group of people refers to another describe a group of people but which is not used by that group to describe themselves.
For example, gringo is sometimes used by Latin Americans to describe citizens of the USA.  Notoriously, the adjective English is used by non-English people to refer to anyone from Britain and Northern Ireland but no resident of the United Kingdom uses the term that way.
a) words which have the same spelling but a different pronunciation and different meanings.
For example, lead (go before) vs. lead (a metal).
b) words which refer to the same thing but are used in different dialect or speech communities.
For example lift (British English vs. elevator (American English).
A word which is the same in spelling and pronunciation but which is differently derived and has a different meaning (see above).
For example, bear (carry) and bear (animal).
The overarching word which contains the meanings of second-level word (hyponyms).
For example, flower is a hypernym of dahlia, buttercup, daffodil etc.
These are the second-level word below a hypernym (see above).
The part of a whole.
For example, flat, lift, entrance hall, lobby etc. are parts of the whole apartment block.
A word closely associated with something and which can be used to refer to it.
For example, Athens may be used to refer to the Greek government.
See the guide to synonymy for more.
A cognate word in another language.
For example, the words paper, papel, papír and papier are cognates in English, Spanish, Hungarian and French respectively.
There is a guide to cognates on this site.
A word which has been coined to describe something obsolete.
For example, the lexeme rotary telephone describes what would have been referred to simply as telephone before the advent of touch-button dialling.
See the guide to word formation for more.
A word which has an identical or nearly identical meaning (see above).
For example, large and big.
See the guide to synonymy for more.
A word derived from the name of a place.
For example, the word marathon is derived from the name of a place in Greece.
See the guide to word formation for more.
A word which more narrowly defines another concept.
For example, the word stroll is a troponym of walk because its meaning contains the idea of walking slowly in a relaxed manner.
See the guide to synonymy and above for more.


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
cognates for more on relationships across languages
adjectives for more on a particular word class and the relationships
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 guide includes some teaching ideas
word formation to see how lexemes are formed

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: Oxford University Press
Gairns, R & Redman, S, 1986, Working with Words: A Guide to Teaching and Learning Vocabulary, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Hoey, M, 2006, Lexical Priming: A New Theory of Words and Language, London: Routledge
Lewis, M, 1997, Implementing the Lexical Approach, Brighton, UK: 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: Oxford University Press
Morgan, J & Rinvolucri, M, 1986, Vocabulary, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Schmitt, N, 2000, Vocabulary in Language Teaching, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Schmitt, N & McCarthy, M, 1997, Vocabulary: Description, Acquisition and Pedagogy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Thornbury, S, 2002, How to Teach Vocabulary, Harlow: Longman