Linguistic Terms

The English language is a complicated system. To understand the complex parts of the language, it is useful to study linguistic terms and concepts. 

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    Linguistics is the systematic study of language. Studying linguistic elements and the types of words in linguistics can help people better understand how words and sentences are formed, thus developing a deeper understanding of their meaning. This can strengthen writing, reading, and speaking skills!

    Linguistic Terms: English Language

    Linguistics is the systematic study of language. Professionals who study linguistics are called linguists. Linguists look at various aspects of language, including the small sounds that make up words and how the meaning of words changes based on context.

    Linguistics is the scientific study of human language systems.

    There is so much to study within linguistics that there are several specialized fields within the field, like the following:

    • Biolinguistics - examines how biological variables shape the evolution of language
    • Ethnolinguistics - examines the relationship between culture and language
    • Neurolinguistics - examines the relationship between the functions of the human brain and language
    • Psycholinguistics - examines the impact of psychological variables on language
    • Sociolinguistics - examines the relationship between society and language

    Linguistic Elements of Language

    Linguistics examines many elements of language, including the following:




    Small sound units


    Small units of words


    Word order


    Literal meanings of words


    Meanings of words in context

    Lexical words

    Words with concrete meaning in sentences

    Functional words

    Words that serve a grammatical function in a sentence

    The section below elaborates on the four main linguistic terms and concepts.

    Linguistic Terms and Concepts

    There are four main areas of linguistics: phonology, grammar, semantics, and pragmatics.


    Phonology is the study of speech sounds in a language. Linguists studying phonology study phonemes, the smallest units of sound in a language.

    Phonemes are the smallest meaningful units of sound in a language.

    For example, car and bar are different because the phonemes "c" and "b" are different. However, phonemes do not always correspond with spelling, especially in English. Regional dialects and social dialects also shape differences in speech.

    Linguistic Terms, Sound, StudySmarter Fig. 1 - Phonology is the study of a language's speech sounds.


    Grammar refers to the structural rules of a language. In linguistics, grammar has two major sub-parts: syntax and morphology.


    Syntax refers to word order within a sentence. The order of words in sentences impacts the meaning of sentences and also shapes the tone and style of writing. For example, consider the following sentences:

    She yells at me sometimes.

    Sometimes she yells at me.

    Putting the adverb "sometimes" at the end of the first sentence emphasizes the frequency of the yelling. It makes it seem like the situation is not that bad because it is only sometimes. However, in the second sentence, the adverb comes first and the information about yelling comes second. This emphasizes the action and makes it seem worse than the first sentence.


    Morphology studies the formation of words and how they relate to one another. Studying morphology requires studying morphemes, the smallest lexical units of a language.

    A morpheme is a unit of language that cannot be divided without changing its meaning.

    Linguistic Terms, Building Blocks, StudySmarter Fig. 2 - Morphemes are the building blocks of words.

    For instance, consider the word pen. This word is a morpheme because it cannot be divided anymore. "Pe" and "n" do not hold any meaning by themselves.

    Morphemes are not always words, though. For example, consider the word unbreakable. This word is made up of three morphemes: "un," "break," and "able." "Un" is not a word but a prefix, which is added to the beginning of a root word and carries its own meaning. "S" is also a morpheme because when it is added to a word, it indicates plurality.


    The study of semantics is the study of words' meanings. Linguists who study semantics look at the interaction between small parts of discourse and how they interact to form larger meanings.

    Linguists who study semantics also examine how people can draw different meanings from words. They take into account connotation and denotation.

    The denotation of a word is its literal definition.

    The connotation of a word is the possible meaning associated with a word that is not its literal definition.

    For example, consider the sentence: The colors on those buildings are very loud. According to the denotation of loud, the word is used to describe something making a lot of noise. However, in this sentence, the connotation is something bright. Semantics takes into account variations in word meanings like this one.

    The two main types of semantics are lexical and phrasal.

    Lexical Semantics

    Lexical semantics is all about analyzing the meaning of words and their relationships. Linguists who study lexical semantics examine how to articulate the meaning of words and how to deal with variability in word meaning. For example, consider the word sign. People assign different types of meanings to this word. For example, a stop sign on the road is a type of sign, but when someone puts their finger to their lips, it is a sign to stop speaking.

    Phrasal Semantics

    Phrasal semantics is all about examining how words and phrases come together to form the meaning of the larger expressions. In contrast to lexical semantics, it looks at more than one word. For example, consider the sentence John wrote the song. This sentence is grammatically different than the sentence The song was written by John. John is only the subject in the first sentence. However, semantically, the sentences have the same meaning because the individual words come together to convey the same idea.

    Linguistic Terms, Dictionary, StudySmarter Fig. 3 - Readers can look up a word's denotation in a dictionary.


    The study of pragmatics is the study of how the context of language contributes to its meaning. Context is a broad term that refers to something's surroundings, including the culture, society, and places in which it occurs.

    For example, consider how you would ask a teacher in your school for something compared to your best friend at your house. When speaking to your teacher, you are likely more polite and formal because the context of the situation necessitates demonstrating professionalism and respect. When talking to your friend at home, the context is informal, and you can be more relaxed. This is evident in the following two sentences.

    May I please have a pen?

    Yo, pass me a pen!

    These two sentences ask for the same thing, but they do so differently. The language used to request the pen changed because of the context!

    To better understand pragmatics, it is useful to compare it to semantics. For instance, consider the idiom, "It's raining cats and dogs," When examining semantics, or the meaning here, you would observe that this sentence means that cats and dogs are literally falling from the sky. However, from the perspective of pragmatics, you would look at the context. Why is this person saying this? Where are they saying it? Is it raining really hard outside? Why would they say this, then? After consideration of the context, you would likely find that the speaker said this as an exaggeration to emphasize that it is raining extremely hard.

    Types of Words in Linguistics

    There are two main types of words in linguistics: lexical words and functional words.

    A lexical word is a word with a clear definition. Lexical words are essential to the meaning of a sentence.

    A functional word is a word that serves a grammatical function in a sentence.

    For instance, take a look at the following sentence:

    Eric went to the fanciest hotel in Rome for a week with his best friend to celebrate a holiday.

    The words "to," "the," and "a" do not indicate any unique meaning of the sentence on their own. They are therefore functional words. They make the sentence grammatically correct, but they do not have clear definitions that make or break the sentence. On the other hand, words like "hotel," "Rome," and "holiday" give readers an indication of what the meaning of the sentence is on their own. Even if the readers only read these words, they can understand what the sentence is about. These words are thus lexical words.

    Linguistic Terms Examples

    Linguistic Term



    The word car has three phonemes: "c," "a," and "r."


    The sentence "John only writes songs" has a different meaning than "Only John writes songs" because of the word order.


    The word "walks" has two morphemes: "walk" and "s."


    The word "roll" has several meanings. One could say that "the ball rolls down the street," "he was on a roll," or "I just ate turkey on a roll."


    A teenager asks their grandmother, "How are you?" but says, "Sup?" to their best friend.

    Linguistic Terms - Key takeaways

    • Linguistics is the study of language. Professionals who study linguistics are called linguists.
    • Phonology is the study of speech sounds in a language.
    • Syntax dictates the rules of word order.
    • Morphology is the study of the formation of words and how they relate to one another.
    • Semantics is the study of words' literal meanings, while pragmatics is the study of the meaning of words in their context.

    Linguistic Terms Linguistic Terms
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    Frequently Asked Questions about Linguistic Terms

    What are linguistic terms?

    Linguistic terms are subjects in linguistics such as phonology, grammar, semantics, and pragmatics. 

    What are the linguistic elements of language?

    Phonology, syntax, morphology, semantics, and pragmatics. 

    What are the 4 areas of linguistics?

    Phonology, Grammar, Semantics, and Pragmatics 

    What are examples of linguistics?

    The word "walks" has two morphemes: “walk” and “s."

    What are the key figures of linguistics?

    The key figures of linguistics are phonology, syntax, grammar, and pragmatics. 

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