In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Lexemes

  • Introduction
  • Textbooks
  • Lexemes and Words
  • Online Resources

Linguistics Lexemes
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 March 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0232


A lexeme is a theoretical construct that stands for the unitary meaning and shared syntactic properties of a group of word forms. A lexeme is stripped of any inflectional endings. Thus play, plays, played, and playing are all inflected forms of the lexeme play. In a similar vein, cat and cats are inflected forms of the same lexeme, i.e., cat. Although inflection creates forms of the same lexeme, derivation creates new lexemes. Thus, player is not a form of the lexeme play but is considered a different lexeme; it has its own meaning and lexical category; it is a noun. With respect to their morphology, lexemes can be either simple or complex. For example, door is simple and lemon-tree is complex. With respect to their semantics, lexemes can be monosemous or polysemous. For instance, names for days such as Saturday have only one meaning and are monosemous, whereas a lexeme such as university is polysemous; it has more than one meaning. Polysemy is often contrasted with homonymy, under which the same form is associated with two or more unrelated meanings. Polysemous senses are attributed to the same lexeme; homonyms are considered as different lexemes. Although it is usually possible to identify a phonological form that is basic to all the forms of a lexeme, this is not always the case. For example, the form kiss is shared by all forms of the lexeme kiss (e.g., kiss, kisses, kissed, kissing). There is no common phonological form, however, between all forms of the lexeme go (e.g., go, went). Lexemes and their citation form should be kept distinct since the way a lexeme is cited is merely a convention and does not bear on any crucial phonological property of that lexeme. In certain traditions, as for example in Greek, the first-person singular is used as a citation form for verbs, whereas in other traditions, as for example in French, the infinitive is used. For nouns, the nominative singular is used. The terms lexeme, lexical unit, lexical item, word, and lemma are often used interchangeably in the relevant literature and in different linguistic fields. The author gratefully acknowledges the financial support of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG Collaborative Research Centre 991: “The structure of representations in language, cognition, and science,” Project C08, “The semantics of derivational morphology: A frame-based approach”).


Since Matthews 1965 and Lyons 1968, which offer the first treatments of the term lexeme in modern linguistic theory, the lexeme has become a fundamental unit in morphological and semantic analysis. As such, textbooks on morphology and semantics often address issues that relate to its definition and properties. Textbooks on morphology include Spencer 1991, Carstairs-McCarthy 1992, Plag 2003, Lieber 2010, and Aronoff and Fudeman 2011. Cruse 2000 and Löbner 2013 are introductions to semantics.

  • Aronoff, Mark, and Kirsten Fudeman. 2011. What is morphology? 2d ed. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

    An introduction to morphology that includes a very useful discussion of the term lexeme on pp. 43–46.

  • Carstairs-McCarthy, Andrew. 1992. Current morphology. New York: Routledge.

    A comprehensive survey that presents a number of approaches to morphology. It is very useful since it analyzes each approach critically. On the lexeme, pp. 182–187.

  • Cruse, Alan D. 2000. Meaning in language: An introduction to semantics and pragmatics. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    An introduction to both semantics and pragmatics. Best for undergraduate students. On the lexeme, pp. 88–89.

  • Lieber, Rochelle. 2010. Introducing morphology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    An introduction to morphology that does not require previous knowledge of the field. On the lexeme, pp. 4–5.

  • Löbner, Sebastian. 2013. Understanding semantics. 2d ed. New York and London: Routledge.

    An introduction to semantics. Presents and critically comments on a number of theoretical approaches to semantics. On the lexeme, pp. 40–42.

  • Lyons, John. 1968. Introduction to theoretical linguistics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139165570

    One of the first works on the term lexeme. The author defines the term lexeme as an abstract unit which occurs in different inflectional forms.

  • Matthews, Peter H. 1965. The inflectional component of a word-and-paradigm grammar. Journal of Linguistics 1:139–171.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0022226700001146

    One of the first works on the term lexeme. The author defines the term word by its assignment to a specific vocabulary element (i.e., lexeme) and by the assignment to it of a specific set of morphosyntactic properties.

  • Plag, Ingo. 2003. Word-formation in English. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511841323

    An introduction to morphology that targets both undergraduate and advanced students. On the lexeme, p. 9, p. 14, pp. 18–19, p. 28, p. 103, p. 117, p. 128, p. 193, and p. 194.

  • Spencer, Andrew. 1991. Morphological theory: An introduction to word structure in generative grammar. Oxford: Blackwell.

    An introduction to morphology that aims at showing how morphological theories have been developed, criticized, and revised. Best introduction for advanced students. On the lexeme, pp. 45–49.

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