Lexis and Semantics

You may have heard the expression ‘that’s just semantics', but what does semantics actually mean? What is lexis in the English Language? In this article, we will discuss two terms: lexis and semantics, along with examples of other related concepts, such as lexemes and semantic fields.

Lexis and Semantics Lexis and Semantics

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Table of contents

    Lexis in the English language

    Lexis is from the Greek word lexis which means 'word'. Lexis is a term in the English language that refers to the words of a language. A family of other words are related to this base word:

    • Lexicology is the study of lexis (or lexical items).
    • Lexicon is a collection of words, a bit like a dictionary.
    • Lexicalisation is the process of adding or changing words in a lexicon.
    • A lexeme is a basic unit of word meaning, or the “root word”. For example, eats, ate, eaten, and eating come from one lexeme, eat.

    Features of Lexis

    We can categorise lexis in the English language based on several features, such as levels of formality and the user's background (occupational register, sociolect, and dialect).

    Levels of Formality

    Take a look at the examples below and label each sentence with slang, colloquialisms, and formal language.

    • She's always got the latest clothes.
    • She is such a snazzy dresser.
    • She's got them garms on, like!

    If your answers are: 1. formal language, 2. colloquialisms, and 3. slang, you're correct.

    The level of formality is defined by how individuals vary the vocabulary, based in turn on the audience, purpose, and contextual factors. You will (either consciously or unconsciously) adjust the words that you use when you speak with your friends or your teacher, at a job interview, on a romantic date, or write academic essays, or notes for your flatmates.

    Levels of formality can be divided into several groups:

    Informal language:

    Lexis in informal English Language can be divided into two ways:

    Slang: The language of everyday conversation that usually fades away over time. The 'slang definition' is often different from the original definition of a word. For example:

    • Money: cash, dough, green.
    • Drunk: canned, smashed, sloshed.
    • Food: grub, chop, chow.

    Colloquialism: the language of everyday conversation, common within a specific language, time, and location. For example:

    • Reckon: 'She'll live a long life.' 'You reckon?' vs. 'You think?'.
    • Fetch: Can you fetch the post? vs. Can you bring me the post?
    • Dodgy: This business proposal looks dodgy vs. This business proposal looks suspicious.

    Important to note: although slang and colloquialism are informal, they have different characteristics. Slang is typically created by a specific social group in which the slang words decrease in popularity over time. Colloquialism, on the other hand, usually continues to be used, but in a specific geographical region, or era.

    Formal language

    Lexis in formal English language is more common in writing than in speaking. However, this also depends on the audience. Whether you write to your friends or potential employer will influence your word choices and affect the grammar you use.

    In general, formal and informal language can affect contractions, the absence of whom in relative clauses, and ellipsis. Have a look at this comparison:


    • Formal: He has finished packing.
    • Informal: He's finished packing.

    Absence of whom:

    • Formal: The guy whom you met yesterday was my lecturer.
    • Informal: The guy you met yesterday was my lecturer


    • Formal: I left some food for dinner. You don't have to wait up. I will be home late today.
    • Informal: Left some food for dinner. Don't wait up. Will be home late.

    Lexis and the User's Background

    How someone uses lexis in the English language is not only influenced by external factors like setting (eg, the audience and context), but also by the user's background. It may vary based on the user's occupation, sociolect (social dialect), and dialect.

    Occupational register/jargon: the technical language that is related to certain professions. For example:

    • Medical jargon: tracheostomy, vaccine.
    • Military jargon: AWOL (Absent Without Official Leave) and sandbox (desert area).
    • Technical jargon: SEO (Search Engine Optimization) and traffic (total amount of users who visit a website).

    Important to note: Unlike slang and colloquialism, jargon is typically not restricted to a certain location and time but is popular among certain people with the same interests/background.

    Sociolect: a language style associated with a particular social group, commonly affiliated with age, gender, ethnicity, and education, among other factors. For example, the pronunciation of 'n' vs. 'ng' sound at the end of words, such as in working, planning, going and doing. Some studies argue that across the UK:

    • 'n' pronunciation commonly occurs among lower socio-economic groups and is used in informal contexts.
    • 'ng' pronunciation is highly occurring for all social groups in a more formal context - making this the 'prestige' pronunciation.

    Study tip: People who study sociolects are called sociolinguists. Sociolinguistics studies language variation by analysing the relationship between language users and their use of language.

    Dialect: a language style associated with a particular geographical region. Some examples of British regional dialects are:

    • Cockney: thin - / θɪn / is pronounced as [fɪn]
    • Geordie: reading - / ˈriːdɪŋ / is pronounced as [ˈɹiːdən]
    • Yorkshire: owt and nowt can mean 'anything' and 'nothing'
    • Scottish: '-ie' noun ending is used to indicate smallness, eg. laddie and lassie refer to a young boy and young girl, respectively.

    Important to note: Be careful when you use the terms dialect and accent. They are not the same. Accents are a part of dialect. Accent refers to pronunciation, whereas dialect encompasses pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary.

    What does semantics mean?

    Semantics is the study of meaning at the levels of words, phrases, sentences, and discourse. This term is used in linguistics, and also in other disciplines, such as philosophy and computer science.

    Semantics is one of the seven levels of language. Look at the diagram below. The size of the circle reflects the area that the sub-field covers. Phonetics has the smallest area and pragmatics has the largest area. Lexis and Semantics Semantics Diagram StudySmarterFig. 1 - Consider how semantics relates to other topics in the English language.

    Field of StudyDescription
    PragmaticsThe study of language in discourse (conversation level).
    SemanticsThe study of meaning ( for example, words, phrases, sentence level).
    SyntaxThe study of sentence structure (phrases and sentences level).
    MorphologyThe study of word structure (word level).
    PhonologyThe study of sound arrangement (phoneme level).
    PhoneticsThe study of sound production (speech sound level).

    What is an example of a semantic field?

    A semantic field refers to a group of words that are associated with each other. For example, the semantic field of 'school' would be 'students', 'teachers', 'exams', and 'textbooks'; and the semantic field of 'animals' would be 'duck', 'wild', and 'hunt'.

    The lexical items in a semantic field aren't restricted to a certain word class (just verbs or nouns) but can be of any word class related to the semantic field.

    Types of semantics

    Scholars divide semantics into two groups: structural semantics and cognitive semantics.

    Structural semantics is the study of relationships between words in a sentence. Basically, we look at how meaning can be composed of smaller units.

    Cognitive semantics is the study of linguistic meaning.

    Both structural and cognitive semantics have their subtypes. You can see the classification in the table below. This is not the full list.

    Lexis and Semantics Structural and Cognitive Semantics StudySmarterFig. 2 - Structural and cognitive semantics.

    In the following sections, we'll dive deeper into each subtype. We won't go into too much detail here, but it'll be enough to give you an overview of each main idea. If you want to get a full explanation, feel free to click on the link on each term.

    Lexis and semantics: structural semantics examples

    As explained above, structural semantics is about the relationship between lexical items. This includes the meaning of the word and its position in a phrase or sentence. Take a look at some structural semantic examples below!

    Denotative and Connotative meaning

    Denotative meaning describes the literal meaning of a word. There is no additional value attached to the word. The word is as it is presented. This is also known as the dictionary definition.

    • Eg, The name of the new student is Erik.

    This sentence has no hidden meaning; it just tells us the name of the new student.

    Connotative meaning, on the other hand, is about the extra, associated, meaning. Because of this, the connotative meaning can vary based on the speaker or hearer's background and personal experience.

    • Eg, 'The glitz and glam of Hollywood'.

    This means the place, Hollywood, but it also means the American film industry, which is about glamour, superficiality, and fame.

    Paradigmatic and Syntagmatic relations

    Paradigmatic relation has to do with the vertical relationship between words that can be substituted by words of the same word class. There are some methods for substituting words, such as synonymy (similar meaning), antonymy (opposite meaning), and hyponymy (a kind of meaning).

    Syntagmatic relation describes the horizontal relationship between words that co-occur in the same sentence. The linear relation between words can also explain collocation (frequently occurring word combinations) and idioms (fixed expressions).

    For example, The handsome man ate some chicken.

    • Paradigmatic relation: substitute 'the handsome man' with 'the pretty woman' → The pretty woman ate some chicken.
    • Syntagmatic relation: re-ordering the word will change the sentence's meaning → Some chicken ate the handsome man.

    Lexical Ambiguities

    Lexical ambiguity occurs when the multiple meanings of a word cause more than one interpretation. This can happen when the speaker/author doesn't have the same background information as the listener/reader.

    Polysemy and homonymy often generate lexical ambiguity as they refer to a single word with multiple meanings. The former illustrates 'a word with many related meanings', and the latter describes 'words that are pronounced the same or spelt the same or both, but with unrelated meanings'.

    For example: Give me the bat!

    Lexis and Semantics a bat StudySmarterFig. 3 - 'Bat' can refer to an animal.Lexis and Semantics a baseball bat StudySmarterFig. 4 - 'Bat' can refer to a baseball bat.

    The bat can be interpreted in two ways:

    • A piece of wood with a handle used for hitting a ball in games (a baseball bat).
    • A flying, nocturnal animal.

    Semantic change

    Lexis and the English language are constantly changing. Semantic meaning is no different. A good example of semantic change is you and thou. In the 13th century, people began using one singular pronoun 'you' instead of distinguishing between thou (for second person singular) and you (for second person plural). The two variations of 'you' have now merged into one, and convey equal politeness and formality nowadays.

    The transformation can take several forms, and some are listed below:

    Narrowing: specification of meaning.

    • Eg, Old English mete means 'food' → Modern English meat means 'animal flesh as food'.

    Broadening: generalization of meaning.

    • Eg, Old English Bryd means 'young bird' → Modern English bird means 'any bird'.

    Amelioration: improvement in the meaning of a word.

    • Eg, Old English cniht means 'young man' → Modern English knight means 'special honour title (UK)'.

    Pejoration: deterioration in the meaning of a word.

    • Eg, Old English cnafa means' a youth or child '→ Modern English knave means scoundrels.


    A language can create new words in a variety of ways. Neologism refers to words or expressions that are created from an existing word. You can combine and/or shorten two or more words, or change the morphology (word construction) of words.

    Here are some of the ways new words can be created:

    • Blending: put together two or more words in order to have one with a specific meaning. Eg, smoke + fog = smog, breakfast + lunch = brunch, documentary + drama = docudrama.
    • Clipping: parts of words are deleted without a change in meaning. Eg, bicycle → bike, examination → exam, refrigerator → fridge.
    • Acronym: shortened form retaining the initial letters of compounds or other fixed sequences of words; pronounced as words. Eg, NATO, laser, AIDS.
    • Initialism: shortened form retaining the initial letters of compounds or other fixed sequences of words; pronounced as sequences of letters. Eg, CNN, OED, USA.
    • Eponymous: giving a name after a particular person or group. Eg, America is named after Amerigo Vespucci, Fahrenheit is named after Gabriel Fahrenheit.
    • Derivation: forming new words by adding prefixes or suffixes. Eg, in- + correct = incorrect, dis- + agree = disagree, beauty + -ful = beautiful, agree + -ment = agreement.
    • Zero-derivation: changing a word class without adding prefixes or suffixes. Eg, clean (adjective) - to clean (verb), to cook (verb) - a cook (noun).

    Lexis and semantics: cognitive semantics examples

    Cognitive semantics defines how human cognition perceives and processes lexical items. It challenges the idea that word meaning always corresponds to plain meaning. Cognitive semantics argues that lexical meaning is conceptual and that individual experience can affect meaning.

    Because of this, cognitive semantics is closely related to figurative language, such as metaphor, metonymy, hyperbole, and oxymoron, among others.

    Metaphor is when one thing refers to another to help us see the similarity between them.

    • Eg, 'life is a race' and 'she is a night owl'.

    Metonymy replaces one thing by the name of something closely associated with it

    • Eg, suits = businessmen, heart = emotion / love, Washington = the US government.

    Hyperbole exaggerates to make a point.

    • Eg, 'I'm so hungry I could eat a horse', 'My feet are killing me'.

    Oxymoron combines two contradictory meanings.

    • Eg, 'freezer burn', 'keep moving', and 'escaped prisoners'.

    Lexis and Semantics - Key takeaways

    • Lexis refers to the words of a language.
    • Lexical items can be divided based on levels of formality (informal language: slang and colloquialism, and formal language) and the user's background (occupational register, sociolect, and dialect).
    • Semantics is about the study of meaning. A 'semantic field' is a group of words that are associated with each other.
    • There are two major groups of semantic classification: structural semantics which analyses the relationship between the lexical unit at word, phrase, clause, and sentence levels (language-internal perspective), and cognitive semantics which examines how an individual perceives and groups lexical items into conceptual categories (language-external perspective).
    • One popular concept that adopts cognitive semantics is figurative language: metaphor, metonymy, oxymoron, hyperbole, etc.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Lexis and Semantics

    What does lexis mean?

    Lexis refers to the words of a language.

    What is an example of lexis?

    Since the literal meaning of lexis is 'word', any word is technically lexis, eg, computer, doctor, go, blue, and always.

    What is semantics?

    Semantics refers to the study of meaning in language.

    What is the difference between lexis and semantics?

    Lexis and semantics are different but related. Lexis is the words of a language. Semantics is about the study of meaning.

    What is an example of semantics?

    Semantics concerns the meaning of language. For example, if someone were analysing lexis, they would consider the denotative (literal) meaning and the connotative (cultural and contextual) meaning.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What is an example of an oxymoron from everyday life?

    What types of literature can include oxymorons?

    What is the definition of a paradox?


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