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Short description: Unit of lexical meaning

A lexeme (/ˈlɛksm/ (About this soundlisten)) is a unit of lexical meaning that underlies a set of words that are related through inflection. It is a basic abstract unit of meaning,[1] a unit of morphological analysis in linguistics that roughly corresponds to a set of forms taken by a single root word. For example, in English, run, runs, ran and running are forms of the same lexeme, which can be represented as RUN.[note 1]

One form, the lemma (or citation form), is chosen by convention as the canonical form of a lexeme. The lemma is the form used in dictionaries as an entry's headword. Other forms of a lexeme are often listed later in the entry if they are uncommon or irregularly inflected.


The notion of the lexeme is central to morphology,[2] the basis for defining other concepts in that field. For example, the difference between inflection and derivation can be stated in terms of lexemes:

  • Inflectional rules relate a lexeme to its forms.
  • Derivational rules relate a lexeme to another lexeme.

A lexeme belongs to a particular syntactic category, has a certain meaning (semantic value) and, in inflecting languages, has a corresponding inflectional paradigm. That is, a lexeme in many languages will have many different forms. For example, the lexeme RUN has a present third person singular form runs, a present non-third-person singular form run (which also functions as the past participle and non-finite form), a past form ran, and a present participle running. (It does not include runner, runners, runnable etc.) The use of the forms of a lexeme is governed by rules of grammar. In the case of English verbs such as RUN, they include subject–verb agreement and compound tense rules, which determine the form of a verb that can be used in a given sentence.

In many formal theories of language, lexemes have subcategorization frames to account for the number and types of complements. They occur within sentences and other syntactic structures.


A language's lexemes are often composed of smaller units with individual meaning called morphemes, according to root morpheme + derivational morphemes + suffix (not necessarily in that order), where:

  • The root morpheme is the primary lexical unit of a word, which carries the most significant aspects of semantic content and cannot be reduced to smaller constituents.[3]
  • The derivational morphemes carry only derivational information.[4]
  • The suffix is composed of all inflectional morphemes, and carries only inflectional information.[5]

The compound root morpheme + derivational morphemes is often called the stem.[6] The decomposition stem + desinence can then be used to study inflection.

See also


  1. RUN is here intended to display in small caps. Software limitations may result in its display either in full-sized capitals (RUN) or in full-sized capitals of a smaller font. Either is regarded as an acceptable substitute for genuine small caps.


  1. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of The English Language. Ed. David Crystal. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995. p. 118. ISBN:0521401798.
  2. Bonami, Olivier; Boyé, Gilles; Dal, Georgette; Giraudo, Hélène; Namer, Fiammetta (2018) (pdf). The lexeme in descriptive and theoretical morphology. Berlin: Language Science Press. doi:10.5281/zenodo.1402520. ISBN 978-3-96110-110-8. 
  3. "SIL Glossary of Linguistic Terms: What is a Root?". 3 December 2015. 
  4. "SIL Glossary of Linguistic Terms: What is a Derivational Affix?". 3 December 2015. 
  5. "SIL Glossary of Linguistic Terms: What is an Inflectional Affix?". 3 December 2015. 
  6. "SIL Glossary of Linguistic Terms: What is a Stem?". 3 December 2015. 

External links