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Feb 10, 2015
Andrew Walkley

2 Words are difficult to define

We recently had an email about the text on one part of our website, where this question was asked – “Should it be language is the building blocks or language is the building block?” It’s a good question to lead into this post. It’d be a bit strange to say building block as not much gets constructed with one block, but can you say lexis are the true building blocks? The temptation is to replace lexis with words, but then this panders to the idea of a word as clear, distinct entity matched with a clear distinct meaning unaffected by other words or grammar around it. According to Hanks (see below), this is more or less the original position of Chomsky. It allows for infinite creativity as these single words are slipped into syntactic slots, but runs into problems when we see how words are actually used.

Of course, words can be used on their own. Help!, God and You all work on their own and strings of single words such as ‘want see film ages’ can be used to create messages even without formal syntax. That’s what often happens when we start using a language, whether mother tongue or second language. However, in the language that more fluent speakers produce, what we mean by a word is often pretty difficult to define, not just in terms of meaning, but also in terms of its boundaries.

Units of meaning

For example, phrasal verbs contain two or three types (the technical term for a single word), but we don’t process “pick up” or ‘look forward to’ as types with separate meanings. If we see phrasal verbs as having a single meaning, then we might also see an idiom like “lay your cards on the table” as being equivalent to one meaning. Alison Wray has argued that there are many more formulaic phrases that may be less obviously idiomatic such as “when I was a kid” which are processed in a similar way. For the purposes of recall, these phrases are conceived of as single units of meaning (Wray) in the speaker’s mind and in the way the listener processes what they hear. Interestingly, one sign that Wray suggests identifies these formulaic phrases is that they are said more quickly than non-formulaic combinations. The phonologist Richard Cauldwell shows how a ‘word’ within this kind of formulaic phrase can be compressed to single sounds or may even disappear altogether. We might conclude that this doesn’t matter because what we process in terms of meaning is the whole utterance.


We then have the effect of collocation on the meaning of words. In his brilliant new book Norms and Exploitations, the lexicographer Patrick Hanks illustrates the subtle changes in meaning of words such as fire or file when new collocates are applied to them. So raging fire and roaring fire imply different kinds of fire – one out of control and usually consuming a whole building, the other one deliberately constructed in a fireplace to warm a domestic space. At the same time, though, fire implies a different kind of raging and roaring to raging lunatic and roaring crowd. Filing a medical report, a news report or a flight log all involve quite different acts, despite all fitting a ‘file a document’ pattern. We will return to his ideas of norms and exploitations at a later date, but for the moment it’s sufficient to emphasise again that meanings – particularly all the meanings of many single words – are difficult to define and as a principle we should be looking beyond single words in terms of our teaching


Still, based on our first principle that words are more important than grammar, let’s not say “never teach a single word”. Let’s say instead that we should

  • See the single word and the definition as only a first step  – e.g. revise single words by looking at collocations and patterns
  • Notice longer units of meaning and not just traditional phrasal verbs and idioms
  • Provide and elicit more collocations and examples
  • If you are starting from a collocation or phrase, think about the collocations and usage of that collocation / phrase.
  • Provide more examples of how combined words sound at speed (Cauldwell)

Links and references – Tom Cobb’s review of Alison Wray’s work – including Wray’s doubts on how applicable her ideas are to L2 learning. – Richard Cauldwell’s site – Intro to Folse’s Vocabulary Myths which covers similar ground to this post – but more fully and better!


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