Lexical Relations: Describing Similarities in the English Language

Updated on May 12, 2017
Katy Preen profile image

I love reading about reading, and writing about writing. As a child I used to read dictionaries (no, I'm not making that up!).


Let's Start At The Very Beginning; A Very Good Place To Start

Synonyms & Antonyms: same meaning, different meaning

When we have words that convey the same meaning, but are spelled and pronounced differently (i.e. they are completely different words), they are said to be synonyms.

Words that are spelled and spoken differently, and have opposite meanings are called antonyms.

FUN FACT: There are no exact synonyms for the word "thesaurus".

A quick note on i.e. and e.g.

i.e. and e.g. are abbreviations for Latin terms that are commonly used when clarifying or defining a point made in a piece of text.

  • e.g. is derived from exempli gratia, which translates as "for example",
  • i.e. is derived from id est, which we understand as "that is".

They are different, and should be applied differently (and correctly!). We use e.g. when considering general examples that illustrate a point, and we use i.e. when we are talking about a specific instance, in order to say "in other words". A couple of examples:

"There are many varieties of waterfowl in St. James's Park, e.g. mallards, Canada geese, and moorhens." In this sentence, we use e.g. to indicate different types of birds that you might see there under the category of "waterfowl". The list is not exclusive, and could include others, or none of these. We are using e.g. to mean "such as" here, to aid understanding in what we mean by the term "waterfowl".

"Manchester's tall buildings with copious relief detailing have made it home to one of the UK's rarest protected species, i.e. the peregrine falcon." In this sentence, we are talking about the peregrine falcon alone, and the words earlier in the sentence are used to set the scene, to describe in a more interesting way that peregrine falcons live in Manchester. In this sentence, we use i.e. to mean "that is", to indicate a specific and single example.

Homonyms, Homophones, Homographs


Meaning, Sound and Appearance

There are a number of terms that describe the way similar words fit together within the structure of the English language, and here I am going to discuss those which describe words of particular meanings, i.e. terms for words that sound the same, look the same, mean the same - or the opposite. We already covered the two simplest categories above, synonyms (different words that mean the same thing) & antonyms (different words that are opposite in meaning.

There are more to add to the list, and what with English being the awkward and fussy language that it is, some of them have almost identical meanings - but the subtle differences are important. This is best illustrated with a diagram:

A Picture Tells A Thousand Words


Breaking it down

To better explain what these words mean, we can look at the separate components of each of the words:

  • homo- means "the same as"
  • hetero- means "different to"
  • -phone means "sounding"
  • -nym stands for "meaning"
  • -graph means "written"

And so we have:

  • homonyms: words that are spelled and spoken in the same way, but with different meanings, e.g.
  • heteronyms: words that sound different, and mean different things, but are spelled the same, e.g.
  • homophones: words that sound the same, but have a different meaning (they can be spelled the same, or differently), e.g.
  • heterophones: words that are spoken differently, but are spelled the same (they can have the same or different meanings), e.g.
  • homographs: words that are spelled in the same way, but with different meanings (they can sound the same, or differently), e.g.
  • heterographs: words that have a different meaning and spelling, but sound the same.

Or, to illustrate it another way:


Defining More Precisely

From the above diagrams and descriptions, we can see the relationship between all of these terms about similarity and difference. But where it becomes confusing is with the terms that are in themselves similar! Three of the terms are completely prescriptive, with no ambiguity in their meaning:

different spelling
same spelling
same spelling
different meaning
different meaning
different meaning
same sounding
same sounding
different sounding

However, their counterparts can mean more than one thing:

A homophone can also be a heterograph or a homonym, but a heterograph or a homonym might not necessarily be a homophone. Homophones can be synonyms, but if they are, then they cannot also be heterographs or homonyms.

A heterophone can also be a heteronym or a homograph, but a heteronym or a homograph might not necessarily be a heterophone. Heterophones could be synonyms, and similar to the above, if they are synonyms then they cannot also be heteronyms or homographs.

A homograph can also be a heteronym or a homonym, but a heteronym or a homonym might not necessarily be a homograph.

If you're finding this confusing, I have bad news for you: it gets worse.

Many meanings

Some words have more than one meaning (English is full of these), and some words broadly cover a great many other words that fall into the same category. And sometimes we substitute words that are very specific when we actually mean a broader grouping of things. I did warn you that it was about to get worse. Let's try to unravel some of that and maybe we can gain some clarity.

Hypernyms & Hyponyms

Hypernyms are words that describe a general feature of a group of things, and hyponyms are more precise descriptions of things that fall in the set described by the hypernym.

As in the diagram above, lion, tiger, jaguar and leopard are all hyponyms of the hypernym "cats", and if the hypernym is "languages", then Flemish, Swahili, English and Spanish are its hyponyms.

"hyper-" means "over"; "hypo-" means "under.

Holonymy & Meronymy

Holonymy & meronymy are terms related to hypernymy & hyponymy, but they are specifically concerned with the relationship between one thing and its parts, rather than between categories and subsets of those categories (as in hypernymy & hyponymy). It sounds confusing when put like that, so let's delve a bit deeper.

If we have an entity, A, then A is a holonym of B, C, & D if B, C & D are constituent parts of A.

For example: a tree has bark, a trunk, and branches. "Tree" is a holonym of "bark", of "trunk" and of "branch".

Meronymy is the opposite, so that if we have a thing, A, then A is a meronym of B if all instances of B contain A.

Another example: a human hand has digits, so digit (or finger / thumb) is a meronym of hand.

Meronymy is also similar to synecdoche (see below for more on this), but the difference is in the way the relationship is expressed. Meronymy is a literal relationship between an individual component and the whole, expressed as a factual relationship. Synecdoche is still factual, but the words are used to convey meaning in the form of a figure of speech.

Polysemy & Metonymy

If a word has polysemy, then it has many different meanings. If a word possesses metonymy, this means it is a word describing something related to a larger concept, used in a way that describes the whole.

Polysemy is a variety of synonymy, and appears similar to homophony and homonymy - but it is actually neither of these. Polysemy is a bit awkward to define. It describes a relationship between words, which has not come about by chance, i.e. there was a point in time where these words were etymologically linked, and the various meanings stem from that original root (homonyms & homophones are "accidental" polysemes, although there could be some examples of homophones & homonyms that are also polysemic - I haven't found any yet, though).

So What Is Polysemy?

"A condition in which a single word, phrase, or concept has more than one meaning or connotation."

— dictionary.com

That is the simplest definition that I could find. And it is something of an oversimplification, because the idea of relatedness between words is subjective. Although polysemes must have had a common linguistic root at one time, we must be careful as sometimes a common linguistic root can go off in directions that create new words with unrelated meanings.

Examples Of Polysemy

The thing that one writes on
"Please may I borrow some paper?"
A published work
"The journal accepted my paper!"
A newspaper
"I'll give you today's paper once I've finished reading it."
The human species
Man as opposed to other animals, as in Mankind.
Males of the human species
Man & woman.
Adult males of the human species
Man & boy.
A financial institution
"HSBC is the world's Local Bank"
A building belonging to a financial institution
"I'm going to the bank to pay in some cheques."
A river bank
"I'll be down at the bank this afternoon, fishing."
An elevated piece of land
"Follow the road round until the grassy bank, and then take the farm track on the right."

In this section, I'm also writing about metonymy. I want to call it the "opposite of polysemy", but it isn't. Synecdoche, a related term which I discuss below, would be closer to that, arguably. What is metonymy?

Metonymy is a figure of speech in which we refer to something by using a word that describes an attribute or accompaniment to the actual thing we are talking about.

Here are some examples of metonymy:

  • Saying "suits" when we mean "businessmen"
  • Refering to the monarchy as "The Crown"
  • "France has elected Macron as President" - where "France" means "the French electorate".


A synecdoche is a word that refers to a part of something to mean the whole. It is different from the definition of metonymy because metonymy describes the wider subject using something that is related to it, or signifies it, whereas a synecdoche is a word that describes an actual component of the whole thing it is used to describe.

Here are some examples of synecdoche:

  • Saying "wheels" to mean "transportation"
  • Saying "plastic" to mean "credit cards"
  • Saying "mouths to feed" to mean "dependent persons"

Synecdoche is a subset of metonyms. Most metonyms are not synecdochic, but all synecdoches are also metonyms.

And here is one example of synecdoche that upsets many people - because it is just plain offensive. It illustrates how powerful language can be, and that we should consider how we use it and its consequences. It's the use of "wheelchair" to mean "wheelchair user".

Who Are You Calling A Synedoche?


Heterosemy & Monosemy

These are terms related to polysemy (see above).

Polysemy is where a word can take many different meanings, related by a common etymological point in its history.

Heterosemy is very similar to polysemy (in fact it is a type of polysemy, but with a specific meaning). Two words possess heterosemy if they are related and have different meanings, and they are different "types". By type, I mean "morphosyntactic category", but it is easier to say "type". So one of the words might be a verb and the other a noun:

  • "I threw the apple peel in the bin" - here "peel" is a noun.
  • "Please would you peel the apple for me?" - in this case "peel" is a verb.

Monosemy is nice and simple (at last!). A word has monosemy if it has only a single possible meaning. The bad news is that most English words are not monosemic.

Antagonyms, Autoantonyms, Contranyms

These three terms all mean one thing: a word that has different meanings, at least one of which is opposite to another of those meanings. Here are some examples:

Dust: To dust a room is to remove dust from the surfaces. But to dust a cake is to sprinkle it with icing sugar, adding "dust".

Sanction: depending on context, this can mean to penalise, or to approve.

Oversight: To have oversight of a project is to be in charge of it and to exercise diligence. An oversight in the design process is an accidental omission or error.


The Take-Away Message

I have presented a lot of interesting (hopefully) facts about word categories in the English language. English is complicated, and hard to learn, but it is also a language overflowing with beauty. How else could it have spawned so many great works of literature?

Whether you are a native speaker or not, you can discover new things about the English language by reading more, and reading widely. Consume all the texts you can. You may notice some of these patterns in certain pieces, or other literary devices. You could write a whole book on it (many people have, in fact).

Perhaps I have missed something important, or you may feel I have defined something improperly or even incorrectly (gasp!). If so, please let me know in the comments.

© 2017 Katy Preen


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    • Penny Sebring profile image

      Penny Leigh Sebring 

      3 years ago from Fort Collins

      This is an extremely useful article. There always seems to be more to learn about the English language!


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