LEXICOLOGY is the study of words and, whereas many readers will be new to the study of sounds or word segments, most of us feel that we are very familiar with words, when we think of language we tend to think about words. Indeed, when we think of language we tend to think about words. We often ask: ‘What’s the word for a stamp-collector?’ or say: ‘I just can’t think of the right word.’ As we have already seen, words are only one of the strands in language, a strand that has, in the past, been given too much attention and a strand that, because of our familiarity with it, we have often failed to study as rigorously and as objectively as other aspects of language. In this chapter, we shall try, first of all, to say what a word is. We shall then consider word-formation and word classes. Other questions relating to words – their meaning and organization – will be dealt with in chapter 7 when we discussed semantics.


In spite of our familiarity with ‘words’, it is not always easy to say what  a word is. Certain scholars have suggested that a word can occur in isolation. This claim have some validity, but would ‘a’ or ‘my’ or ‘if’ normally occur in isolation? They would not and yet we would like to think of such items as words. Others have suggested that a word contains one unit of meaning. This is perhaps true if we think of words like ‘car’ or ‘snow’, but  when we think of sets of words like ‘cow’, ‘bull’ and ‘calf’ or ‘ewe’, ‘ram’ and ‘lamb’, we become aware that the first set might be regarded as follows:

   cow   + noun                        bull      + noun                        calf      + noun

            + bovine                      + bovine                      + bovine

            + female                      + male                         + unmarked sex

and we could establish similar patterns for the second set. It would be hard to say, looking at our patterns, that the word ‘cow’ contains only one unit of meaning.

A better approach to defining words is to acknowledge that there is no one totally satisfactory definition, but that we can isolate four of the most frequently implied meanings of ‘word’: the orthographic word, the morphological word, the lexical word and the semantic word.

(1) An orthographic word is one which has a space on either side of it: Thus, in the previous sentence, we have fourteen orthographic words. This definition applies only to the written medium, however, because in normal speech it is possible to isolate words by pausing between them.

(2) A morphological word is a unique form. In considers form only and not meaning. ‘Ball’, for example, is one morphological word, even though it can refer to both a bouncing object and a dance. ‘Ball’ and ‘balls’ would be two morphological words because they are not identical in form.

(3) A lexical word comprehends the various forms of items which are closely related by meaning. Thus, ‘chair’ and ‘chairs’ are two morphological words, but one lexical word. Similarly, ‘take’, ‘takes’, taking’, taken’ and ‘’took’ are five morphological words but only one lexical word. Often in linguistics, when capital letters are used for a word, for example TAKE, it implies that we are dealing with a lexical word and so TAKE comprehends all the various forms, that is, ‘take’, ‘takes’, ‘taking’, ‘taken’ and ‘took’.

(4) A semantic word involves distinguishing between items which may be morphologically identical but differ in meaning. We have seen above that ‘ball’ can gave two distinct meanings. This phenomenon of ‘polysemy’ is common in English. Thus, ‘table’ can refer to a piece of furniture or to a diagram. The diagram and the piece of furniture are the same morphological word but they are two semantic words because they are not closely related in meaning.


We have already looked at some of the methods of word-formation in English. These can be summarized as follows:

            Suffixation:                  man + ly   >   manly

            Prefixation:                  un + true   >   untrue

            Affixation                    dis + taste + ful   >   distasteful

As well as the above techniques of derivation, the commonest type of  word-formation in English is called ‘compounding’, that is, joining two words together to form a third. Compounding frequently involves two nouns:

            book + case                                         >   bookcase

            sea + man                                            >   seaman

            wall + paper                                        > wallpaper

occasionally, the possessive form of the first noun is used although apostrophes are not found in the compound:

            bull’s + eye                                          >   bullseye

            lamb’s + wool                                     >   lambswool

other parts of speech can, of course, combine to form new words and we provide selective examples of these below:

            noun + verb

            hair + do                                             >   hairdo

            blood + shed                                       >   bloodshed

            adjective + noun

            blue + bell                                           >   bluebell

            hot + house                                         >   hothouse

            adjective + verb

            easy + going                                        >   easygoing

            wide + spread                                      >   widespread

            verb + noun                              

            lock + jaw                                           >   lockjaw

            scare + crow                                        >   scarecrow

            verb + adverb

            come + back                                       >   comeback

            take + away                                         >   takeaway

            adverb + verb

            down + fall                                          >   downfall

            out + cry                                             >   outcry

often, when the compound is new, whether it involves a prefix and a word or two words, a hyphen is used between the parts:



but, as the compound becomes more familiar, the hyphen is dropped. The main exception to this rule is that the hyphen is often retained when two vowels come together:




New words are formed in English by four other processes: coinages, backformations, blends and acronyms. Words can be coined from existing material to represent a new invention or development:




Often, when the coinages refer to trade-names, untraditional spellings are used:

            kleenex (tissues)

            sqezy (washing-up liquid)

Backformations involve the use of analogy to create forms that are similar to ones already in existence in the language. Thus, recently we have derived:

            gatecrash         from gatecrasher

            globetrot          from globetrotter

            pop                  from popular

Blends involve joining two words together by taking parts of both words and welding the parts into a new whole:

            breakfast   +   lunch    >   brunch

            chuckle     +   snort     >   chortle

            motor         +   hotel    >   motel

The fourth technique involves creating words out of the initial letters  of well-known organizations:

     Unesco       from United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization

     Quango       from Quasi-Autonomous Non-Governmental Organization


We have looked at the form of some English words and we shall now sort these words into classes according to the way they function. One crucial generalization has to be made first, however. Words in English can function in many different ways. Thus ‘round’ can be a noun in:

            He won the first round.

an adjective in:

            She bought a round table for the dining room.

 verb in:

            They rounded the corner at eighty miles an hour.

an adverb in:

            The doctor will come round this evening.

and a preposition in:

            He went round the track in four minutes.

In English, it is always essential to see how a word functions in a particular example before assigning it to a word class.

In spite of the flexibility of English words, we can use test frames to distinguish a number of word classes which we shall list and then describe:










A noun has often been defined as the name of a person, animal, place, concept or thing. Thus Michael, tiger, Leeds, grace and grass are nouns. If you wish to test an item  to see if it is a noun, you can use such test frames as:

            (The) ….. seemed nice.

            (This/these) ….. is/are good.

            little ….. …. …..

            lovely …..

            ancient …..

   A DETERMINER is an adjective like word which precedes both adjectives and nouns and can fit into such frames as the following:

            Have you ….. wool?

            I don’t want ….. cheese.

            ….. cat sat on ….. woolen gloves.

There are five kinds of determiners: articles such as a/an and the; demonstratives this, that, these, those; possessives my, your, his, her, its, our, their; numbers when they precede nouns as in ‘one girl’, ‘first degree’, ‘seven hills’; indefinite determiners such as some, any, all, enough, no, both, each, every, few, much, more, most, fewer, less, either, neither.

Determiners always indicate that a noun follows. Many indefinite determiners can function as other parts of speech. The words in italic below are used  as determiners in column A and as pronouns in column B:

                        A                                                         B

            I ate some bread                                    Give me some .

            I haven’t any money.               I don’t want any.

            Both parents were late.             I saw both.

A PRONOUN is, as its name suggests, similar to a noun in that it can take the place of a noun or a noun phrase:

            John met his future wife on a train.

            He met her on it/one

Pronouns can fit into such test frames as:

            ….. don’t know your name.

            Give ….. to …..

but the simplest test for a pronoun is to check if it can replace a noun or a noun phrase.    Pronouns in English can reflect number, case and person:

As well as reflecting nominative and accusative cases with all personal pronouns except you and it, English also has a set of seven possessive pronouns:

As is clear from the two tables, natural gender is marked in the third person singular:

            He lost his wallet. (that is, the man)

            She lost her purse. (that is, the woman)

It lost its railway link. (that is, the city)

English has six other types of pronoun: reflexives such as myself, themselves; demonstratives this, that, these, those; interrogatives what?, which?, who?, whom?, whose?; relatives that, which, who, whom, whose; distributive pronouns which are often followed by ‘of you’: all (of you), both (of you), either (of you), neither (of you); and a set of indefinite pronouns such as some, any and occasionally so and such in sentences like:

            Who said so?

            Such is the way of the world.

An ADJECTIVE is a descriptive word that qualities and describes nouns as in:

            a cold day

            a heavy shower

Adjectives occur in two main positions in a sentence, before nouns as in the above examples and after verbs like BE, BECOME, GROW, SEEM:

            He is tall.

            He became angry.

            He grew fiercer.

            He seems content.

Adjectives can thus fill such frames as:

            (The) …. Men seemed very …..

            (The) ….. bread is not very …..

A VERB is often defined as a ‘doing’ word, a word that expresses an action:

            John climbed a tree.

a process:

            John turned green.

or a state:

            John resembles his mother.

Verbs fit into such frames as:

            They ……….

            Did he ….. that?

            We might …..

            She is …… ing.

There are two main types of verbs in English, headverbs and auxiliaries. A few examples will illustrate this. In sentences such as:

            He hasn’t seen me.

            He was seen.

            He didn’t see me.

            He might see me tomorrow.

the various forms of SEE are known as the headverb whereas has, was, did and might are called auxiliary verbs because they help to make more precise the information carried by the headverb. In English it is possible to have a maximum of four auxiliaries in the one verb phrase:

            He may have been being followed.

Verbs that can replace ‘may’ are called ‘modals’; HAVE, in this context, is the ‘perfective auxiliary’; the first BE is used to form ‘passive’. There is one other auxiliary in English, often called the ‘dummy auxiliary’ because it has little meaning but a great deal of structural significance. In the absence of other auxiliaries, DO is used to turn positive statements into negatives or to create questions:

            I like him.

            I do not (don’t) like him.

            Do you like him?

            Do you not (Don’t you) like him?

An ADVERB is used to modify a verb, an adjective, a sentence or another adverb:

            John talked strangely

            He is dangerously ill.

            He was, however, the best person for the job.

            He talked very strangely.

Adverbs fit into such test frames as:

            He ran very ……

            He is …… intelligent.

A PREPOSITION is a function word, such as at, by, for, from, to and with. Prepositions are always followed by a noun, a noun phrase or a pronoun.

            He talked to John.

            He arrived with another man.

            He did it for me.

Prepositions fir into such test frames as:

            Who went …… John.

            Do it ……. me.

A CONJUCNTION is, as its name suggests, a ‘joining’ word. There are two types of conjunctions: co-ordinating conjunctions such as and, but, so, which join units of equal significance in a sentence:

            John and Mary ran upstairs.

            Give the parcel to John but give the money to Mary.

and subordinating conjunctions which join subordinate clauses to a main clause:

            He wouldn’t tell me why he did it.

            He said that he was tired.

An EXCLAMATION may be described as an involuntary utterance expressing fear, pain, surprise:

            Good lord!

            Heavens above!

            Oh dear!

The term ‘interjection’ is often reserved for monosyllabic utterances such as: Oh! Wow! Ouch!

   In the written medium, both exclamations and interjections are marked by exclamation marks.


The foregoing survey is a superficial account of how words function in English. It will guide the student in making decisions about word classes as long as it is remembered that each word must be judged in a specific context. Only context tells that any is a determiner in the first sentence and a pronoun in the second:

            Have you any wool?

            Have you any?

That up is a preposition in the first sentence below, an adverb in the second and a verb in the third:

            It ran up the clock.

            I can’t get up.

            He has decided to up his prices.