Word-meaning in the English language

by Nguyen Thi Van Lam, TIL (Tun Institute of Learning, Yangon, Myanmar), July 2004

Semantically, English words are interesting, but complicated, to study. This article discusses word-meaning in English including grammatical and lexical meaning of the word (lexeme). Categorial meaning of a lexeme is part of its grammatical meaning while its lexical meaning is made up of denotation and sense as descriptive meaning, connotation as non-descriptive meaning. The author also deals with polysemy of English words in the article.


Word-meaning in the English Language
  Grammatical Meaning
  Lexical Meaning
    Denotation and Sense


1. Introduction

As the world’s global language, English has played a very important role in bringing people from different countries closer and closer, thus yielding great mutual understanding. The author argues that the mastering of the grammatical features of English words together with that of their semantic structures helps to make the communication in English successful. The study on English words in terms of grammar and semantics is, therefore, hoped to be of great value to teachers and learners of English as well as translators into and out of English. In this article, English words are discussed in terms of their meaning, which poses several problems for the teachers, learners and translators.


2. Word-meaning in the English Language

There have been many discussions about the meanings of ‘meaning’, the theories of meaning and its kinds found in the literature (Leech 1974, Lyons 1977, 1995, Palmer 1981, Crystal 1995). Word-meaning in this article is treated as the meaning of a lexeme – any unit of the vocabulary of a language, listed, defined in a dictionary and realized by their word-forms. There are two types of meaning: grammatical and lexical meaning. These two types also lie in English lexemes. The lexemes belonging to the open-classes of the major parts of speech such as nouns, adjectives, verbs and adverbs have full word-forms with both grammatical and lexical meaning. As those belonging to the closed-classes of articles, conjunctions, interjections, prepositions and certain pronouns and adverbs have empty word-forms, they are not dealt with here.


2.1 Grammatical Meaning

According to Lyons (1995: 52) a lexeme may have different word-forms and these word-forms will generally differ in meaning: their grammatical meaning – the meaning in terms of grammar. For example, the forms of student and students differ in respect of their grammatical meaning, in that one is the singular form (of a noun of a particular class) and the other is plural form (of a noun of a particular class); and the difference between singular forms and plural forms is semantically relevant: it affects sentence-meaning. The meaning of a sentence is determined partly by the meaning of the words (i.e. lexemes) of which it consists and partly by its grammatical meaning.

Lyons introduces the term “categorial meaning” which is part of grammatical meaning: it is that part of the meaning of lexemes which derives from their being members of one category of major parts of speech rather than another (nouns rather than verbs, verbs rather than adjectives, and so on). Thus, all lexemes with full word-forms have a grammatical, more particularly, a categorical, meaning.

For example, the lexemes ‘easy’ and ‘difficult’ have the same categorial meaning: they are both adjectives. Each lexemes, however, has certain semantically relevant grammatical properties. The two word-forms easy and easier of the lexeme ‘easy’, though sharing some part of their categorical meaning, differ grammatically in that: one is the absolute form and the other the comparative form. This difference does not occur to the lexeme ‘difficult’ for this lexeme has only one form difficult, which does not accept any inflection.

Though ‘easy’ and ‘difficult’ belong to the same category of adjectives, having the same categorial meaning, they do not share all the grammatical features each has in terms of morphology and syntax. Likewise, all the lexemes sharing categorial meaning do not have all the grammatical meanings in common.


2.2 Lexical Meaning

As is stated by Zgusta (1971:61, quoted in Baker 1992:12), it is just the lexical meaning which is “the most outstanding individual of the word that makes it different from any other word”. The lexical meaning of a word may be thought of as the specific value it has in a particular language system, and the ‘personality’ it acquires through usage within that system. It is not homogenous since it involves the three kinds of meaning signaled by language: descriptive, social and expressive. The lexical meaning of a lexeme, therefore, may be analyzed into descriptive and non-descriptive meaning.

The descriptive meaning of a lexeme (sometimes called conceptual, cognitive or propositional meaning) is widely assumed to be the central factor in linguistic communication. The non-descriptive meaning of a lexeme (sometimes called connotation, affective, associative or expressive meaning), by contrast, provides additional effects to its central meaning. The following sections are dealing with denotation and sense as descriptive meaning, and connotation as non-descriptive meaning.


2.2.1 Denotation and Sense

According to Lyons (1977: 207), by the denotation of a lexeme is meant “the relationship that holds between that lexeme and persons, things, places, properties, processes and activities external to the language-system.” A lexeme, in general, denoted a class of entities in the world. For example, the lexeme ‘shirt’ denotes a class of pieces of clothing worn on the upper part of the body; the lexeme ‘student’ denotes all the students in the world; and the lexeme ‘happy’ denotes the property of being happy. Denotation, thus, is invariant and context-independent.

Lyons makes a distinction between denotation and reference. He defines reference as the relationship that holds between a language expression such as this shirt or that student and what that expression refers to on particular occasions of its utterance. The expression this shirt may refer to one shirt or another depending on who utters the expression. Reference is, consequently, utterance-dependent. Lexemes do not have reference, but may be used as components of referring expressions in particular contexts of utterance. Some authors, however, do not distinguish denotation and reference. They consider the denotation and reference of a language expression are the same. Allan (quoted in Bright 1995: 410) argues that “the denotation of a language expression is what a speaker or writer uses it to mean on the world evoked by a text in which the word appears”. The denotation or reference of ‘my car’ and ‘yesterday’ in the sentence:

   (10) I totaled my car yesterday

depends on who makes the utterance (which distinguishes his or her car) and when (which dates yesterday).

Lyons also makes a distinction between denotation and sense.  Unlike denotation, sense is defined to “hold between the words and expressions of a single language” (1977: 206). The sense of a lexeme is a set or a network of the relations between that lexeme and other lexemes or expressions of the same language. Such relations are called sense-relations, which is wholly internal to the language-system. Denotation and sense are related to each other: we would not know the one without having some knowledge of the other. 

Denotation and sense can be applied to a lexeme or a larger expression. The denotation and sense of a composite expression is “a compositional function of the denotation and sense of its component parts” (Lyons 1995: 81). For example, the lexeme ‘shirt’, apart from its denotation, is also related, in various ways, to other lexemes: ‘clothing’, ‘clothes’, ‘blouse’, etc.; and the composite expression ‘a yellow shirt’ has its denotation and sense, which combines the denotation and sense of ‘yellow’ and ‘shirt’.

To put it in a nutshell, denotation, reference and sense are closely related to one another. The denotation and sense of a lexeme are of important value in making up of its descriptive meaning. Meaning is not only descriptive, but expressive and social as well. The following section will be about the expressive and social meaning, termed ‘connotation’.


2.2.2 Connotation

The term ‘connotation’ is particularly rich in technical senses. In this study, it is used in opposition with denotation and sense – the components of descriptive meaning of a lexeme. Connotation is, in fact, largely dependent on the context of usage of the word. Cruse (1986) classifies non-propositional meaning (or connotation, to use the term in this study) into expressive, presupposed and evoked meaning. In Geerearts (quoted in Asher 1994: 2154), connotation refers to “all types of non-denotational meaning as a whole” including emotive, stylistic, discursive and evocative meaning. In Jeffries (1998:109-144), connotation is used to refer to the expressive and evoked meaning discussed in Cruse (1986). It is obvious that there is no clear-cut classification of non-descriptive meaning of a lexeme.

Part of the connotation of a lexeme is its expressive meaning, (sometimes called emotive, attitudinal, or affective meaning), which communicates the speakers’ evaluation or their attitudes. For example, ‘complain’ and ‘whine’ have the same descriptive meaning, but the latter communicates the speaker’s annoyance when complaining while the former does not.

The connotation of a lexeme is its evoked meaning (stylistic colouring in other linguists’ term), which is “a consequence of the existence of different dialects and registers within a language” (Cruse 1986: 282). Dialects are varieties of language which have currency within a specific community or group of speakers. Dialectal variation can be classified as geographical (e.g. Scottish dialect: ‘loch’, American English: ‘fall’ as opposed to British English: ‘autumn’), temporal (e.g. words used by members of different age groups within a community or words used at different periods in the history of language), and social (words used by members of different social classes).

While dialects are varieties of language associated with different characteristics of users (e.g. age, class and regional affiliation), registers are varieties of language that a single speaker considers appropriate to a specific situation which may be formal or informal. ‘Bicycle’ and ‘bike’, for instance, have the same descriptive meaning, but the former is a neutral word while the latter is an informal one, thus being used in less formal circumstances than the former. Other examples are ‘chat’, ‘talk’, and ‘converse’, which are used depending on different situations: informal, neutral, and formal, respectively.

Apart from this, Geerearts (quoted in Asher 1994: 2155) argues that part of the connotation of the lexeme is ‘evocative meaning’, which is different from the evoked meaning used by Cruse (1986). It is the associations connected with a word, e.g. a word such as ‘Christmas’, which could call up images of Christmas trees, family gatherings, presents and so on.


3. Polysemy

As is stated in Palmer (1981: 100), not only do different lexemes have different senses; it is also the case that the same lexeme may have a set of senses. This is polysemy and such a lexeme is polysemous. Polysemy is a property of single lexemes, which is characteristic of most lexemes in English. For example, the noun ‘neck’ is treated in standard English dictionaries as a single lexeme with several distinguishable senses: “part of the body”, “part of bottle”, “part of a shirt or other garment”, etc. The lexeme ‘neck’ is thus polysemous.

According to Leech (1974: 228), polysemy (one word having two or more senses) is recognized if the senses concerned are related in two ways: historically and psychologically, which do not necessarily coincide. Two senses are historically related: they are traced back from the same source or one sense is derived from the other; and two senses are psychologically related: they are intuitively felt to be related, and are assumed to be “different uses of the same word” by present-day users of the language. These are the two criteria used to distinguish polysemy from homonymy – the case where two or more words have the same pronunciation and / or spelling. The polisemous lexeme ‘head’ has related senses denoting the head of a person, the head of a company, head of a table, a head of a lettuce, etc whereas the lexeme ‘bank’ with its sense of “a business establishment in which money is kept for saving or commercial purposes or is invested, supplied for loans, or exchanged” is homonymous with the lexeme with the same pronunciation and spelling but unrelated sense of “the slope of land adjoining a body of water, especially adjoining a river, lake, or channel”. However, there are cases in which the senses are related historically, but not psychologically and vice versa, which raises the problem for the distinction. An example is the lexeme ‘pupil’ with two different senses of the same origin: “the apparently black circular opening in the center of the iris of the eye, through which light passes to the retina” and “a student under the direct supervision of a teacher or professor”.

Palmer (1981: 102) and Lyons (1981: 147) discuss the two criteria of etymology and the relatedness of meaning. The lexicographers base on etymology to decide the case of polysemy or homonymy. Identical forms having one origin are treated as polysemous and given a single entry in the dictionary. By contrast, identical forms having different origins are treated as homonymous and given separated entries in the dictionary. Thus, ‘head’ is given one entry and ‘bank’ two entries.


4. Conclusion

To conclude, English words have both descriptive meaning – denotation and sense, and their non-descriptive meaning: connotation – expressive and evoked meaning. It is because of many descriptive meanings occurring in a word that the word has the characteristic of polysemy; and because of its connotation that the word is distinct from others.  Teachers, learners and translators of English should have a good understanding of word-meaning in English, which assists in their jobs of teaching, learning and translation together with their communication in English. In presenting the meaning of words, the teacher should introduce both the descriptive and non-descriptive meanings of the words so that the learners could use the words properly and effectively. Regarding the translation, the happy choice of words with their appropriate denotation and connotation will assist in creating perfect equivalence.



Asher, R. E. (ed.) (1994). The Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics. Oxford and New York: Pergamon Press.

Baker, M. (1992). In Other Words: A Coursebook on Translation. London and New York: Routledge.

Bright, W. (ed.) (1995). International Encyclopedia of Linguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cruse, D. A. (1986). Lexical Semantics. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.

Crystal, D. (1995). The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language. Second Edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Jeffries, L. (1998).  Meaning in English. Hampshire: Macmillan Press Ltd.

Leech, G. N. (1974). Semantics. Harmondsworth, Middlessex: Penguin.

Lyons, J. (1977). Semantics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lyons, J. (1981). Language and Linguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lyons, J. (1995). Linguistics Semantics: An Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Palmer. F. R. (1981). Semantics. Second Edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Nguyen Thi Van Lam is an English teacher (Giao vien Anh van), at Foreign Languages Department (Khoa Ngoai Ngu), Vinh University (Truong Dai Hoc Vinh), 182 Le Duan Road (Duong Le Duan), Vinh City (Thanh pho Vinh ),Nghe An Province (Tinh Nghe An), Vietnam

TIL (Tun Institute of Learning, Yangon, Myanmar),  is grateful to Madam Nguyen Thi Van Lam to have the opportunity to publish her article on its web-site.

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