Jun 23, 2012

Two axes of word relationships

Let's start with a warmer...

Which of these tasks or exercises do you normally see in coursebooks?
  1. Look at the highlighted verbs in the text and match them with the following synonyms: investigate, find, catch, escape
  2. Match the adjectives with their opposites, e.g. tall / short
  3. Underline in the text all the expressions with OF
  4. Group the words according to categories, e.g. vehicles: car, motorcycle; musical instruments: guitar, piano etc
  5. Underline all the adverbs in the text. Now underline the verbs they go with.
  6. Rick says "the journey was long and tiring". What other adjectives can be used to describe journeys?
  7. Which is the odd word out? gaze - smile - stare - look
You probably answered 1, 2, 4 and 7 and to a lesser extent 3, 5 and 6 

Now read on to find out why...

Words in a language can be described in terms of two types of relationships: paradigmatic and syntagmatic. A paradigmatic relationship refers to the relationship between words that are the same parts of speech and which can be substituted for each other in the same position within a given sentence. A syntagmatic relationship refers to the relationship a word has with other words that surround it. In the table below, paradigmatic relationships are shown vertically and syntagmatic relationship - horizontally:







Click on the tab in the bottom right-hand corner to view in full screen

As you can see, the substitution of one word for another will not affect the syntax of the sentence. 

Paradigmatic (vertical) axis
The words carmotorcycle and bicycle are related to each other because they all belong to the same semantic group: vehicles - a relationship known as hyponymy with a vehicle as a hypernym (a more general or superordinate word) and car, motorcycle and bike as hyponyms (more specific words, in this case types of vehicles). The other two kinds of paradigmatic relationship are those of synonymy (buy = purchase) and antonymy (new / old).

Seen like this, it may seem that any word in a language can be substituted for another. But as Corpus linguistics and Second Language Acquisition research have shown, language doesn't work in this slot-and-filler fashion and is not stored in the mental lexicon as a giant substitution table. Linear relationships with other words are equally important.

Syntagmatic (horizontal) axis
Unlike the paradigmatic relationships, the syntagmatic relationships of a word are not about meaning. They are about the lexical company the word keeps (collocation) and grammatical patterns in which it occurs (colligation).

Let's look again at the table / graph above where expensive can be substituted for pricey:

expensive new car
 pricey    new   car

It seems to work, but you're unlikely to say "costly new car". Also old cannot be easily replaced by new as the combination expensive old is less likely than expensive new. In any case, the opposite of new in this case would probably be used or second-hand and not necessarily old. All these are collocational patterns. But there are also colligational preferences. For example, the words take in and deceive are in a paradigmatic relationship with each other, i.e. they are synonyms. However, take in has a tendency to occur in the passive:

He was taken in by her sob story
rather than "Her sob story took him in"

whereas deceive doesn't show such grammatical preference.

Wolter and Gylstad (2011), who studied the production of English collocations in L1 Swedish speakers of English, make an interesting observation that paradigmatic relationships tend to be similar across - even vastly different - languages whereas syntagmatic relationships are often arbitrary. For example, in English one goes on a diet, in Greek one “does diet” /'ka;neiß di;aita/, in French one “puts oneself on a diet” /sǝ metR o ReƷim/ and in Russian one “sits on a diet” /sest’ na di;'aitu/.

Therefore in ELT whereas students (and teachers) may derive great pleasure from such activities as putting words in categories (animals: dog, cat, turtle; transport: car, bus, bike) they would probably get more linguistic benefit if they - to put it simply - focused on drive a car and ride a bike, i.e horizontal / syntagmatic relationships.

John Sinclair (2004), the pioneer of corpus linguistics, contends:

the tradition of linguistic theory has been massively
biased in favour of the paradigmatic rather than the
syntagmatic dimension. (p. 140)

I believe, just like in linguistics, the paradigmatic dimension has been overemphasised in the ELT methodology. As you have seen from the warmer, vocabulary teaching in textbooks tends to focus mainly on paradigmatic relationships, e.g matching synonyms and antonyms, grouping words according to sets. However, collocations have also made their way into the mainstream teaching materials in the past 10 or so years.

I have provided some ideas (examples 3, 5 and 6 in the warmer) for focusing on syntagmatic relationships between words. Can you think of other activities and tasks that would highlight the syntagmatic dimension of vocabulary learning? Your ideas are welcome in the comments below.


Sinclair, J. M. (2004). Trust the text: Language, corpus and discourse. London and New York: Routledge.

Wolter, B. & Gyllstad, H. (2011). Collocational links in the L2 mental lexicon and the influence of L1 intralexical knowledge. Applied Linguistics, 32(4), 430-449


  1. Good post Leo. I have a very advanced student and we have moved past simple collocations to phrases and longer structures. This is something lacking in books too. For CPE writing for example some advanced students come out with great vocab but lack structures and phrases that just make you think "wow, that's so natural".

    1. You see, despite all the calls that the native speaker model should be revised or abandoned completely, we still like the "naturalness" that students with a large phrasal lexicon have. And you're right with advanced levels, like CAE or CPE, it becomes particularly noticeable whether students have a large vocabulary (lots of individual words they try to string together) or large phrasal lexicon.

      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment, Phil.

  2. I enjoyed the read very much. I didn't know some of the relationship terms you mentioned here and appreciate the explanations and examples. Thanks, Leo.

    1. Hi Tyson
      I am glad that you learned something new on my blog! :) But the terms aside, I am sure the concepts themselves were not new to you. Today in my workshop I referred to them as simply "vertical" and "horizontal" relationships without using fancy words, and teachers understood what I was talking about.
      Thanks for your comment!

  3. Thanks for this post, Leo. Very clear explanation. What about an activity that focused students on a description of something that needs to be communicated? There is then a list of words to choose from to make natural phrases fitting that description. The description could be very visual to make the students imagine actually needing to communicate it, creating more memorable connections with the natural phrases (the answers) and when they can be used.

  4. Hi Nate
    Do you mean a gapfill? I think generally gapfills can be used to focus on syntagmatic relationships if parts of common collocations and lexical phrases are gapped, e.g:

    He was accused for the ________ he did not commit.

    In this case you don't even need to provide students with a word bank.

    Thank you for stopping by and taking the time to comment!

    1. Thanks for the reply, Leo. I guess a gapfill is the best way to keep some control in the activity. Here's a quick example of what I was thinking. It might not be the best example, but should show what I had in mind at least.

      Description: You talked a group of friends into skinny dipping on your class trip. Some teachers caught you and wanted to know who was responsible. You whisper to your friends...

      *Choose words from the bank to make phrases that can be used in this sentence*

      "I'll __1___ ___2___ for this one."

      *Word Bank*
      Gap 1


      Gap 2

      the heat
      the blame
      the hit
      the scapegoat
      the fall

      take the heat, take the blame, take the hit, take the fall, be the scapegoat, go down

      The lesson creator would also have a chance to add comments about language that came up in the description. For this one, explain "talk someone into", skinny dip, and "to catch someone".

      It would also show the student what verb is predominantly used to express this kind of thing. In this case, 'take'.

      Maybe it's too complicated to be useful for most students. I don't know. I think it would definitely take a lot of time to think of good examples and compile all the best phrases that could be used. But you could also adapt it to include colligations as well.

      Just a thought. I've never seen any activities much like this, but had the idea reading your post. Thanks for reading.

    2. No I think it's not complicated at all and would make a great activity. Indeed, why should gaps only involve single words? I think to help students develop their phrasal lexicons they should be able to "mix and match" as in the sample exercise you outlined above. Thank you for contributing to this discussion!

  5. Very interesting, Leo! I have my student keep lists of verbs and the prepositions that go with them (when they differ from Hebrew). For example, in Hebrew "ride" and "play" go with the preposition "on" (ride on a horse, play on the guitar), but in English there is no preposition needed. In Hebrew, they "laugh on" people and in English we "laugh at". Does this fall into the category of "syntagmatic relationships"?

  6. Hi Elana
    Sorry for taking ages to comment. It's important to encourage students to record verbs with dependent prepositions but I wouldn't limit these only to those verbs whose grammatical patterns differ from L1. I think we should encourage students to notice patterns even if they are the same with L1 - a good habit which will help them avoid many mistakes in the future.
    Thanks for stopping by!

  7. Hi Leo, great post. The sintacmatic and paradigmatic relationships I referred to before was taken from "constructing a language" by M. Tomasello. But your articles made a connection with the lexical approach. Your table here is a good example of a "distributional analysis".
    I agree with the idead that L2 Ss should be exposed to a lot of opportunities to raise their awareness on collocations or chunks before they are asked to guess on a possible combination, as indicated by Wolter and Gylstad. I have found out that they could be helped out by a systematic procedure proposed by George Woolard by which Ss are introduced an input before they are required to personalising messages.
    I am attempting to "fine-tune" his approach by using a lexical tool. I am looking forward to reading more from you soon! Best.

    1. Julio,
      Thank you for stopping by again. Didn't know what I did above amounted to distributional analysis but thank you for the compliment. I'd like to hear more about your adaptation of Woolard's procedure.

  8. Hi leo, I hope that you are good. I wanted to tell you thank you very very very much for those precious information in linguistics. It helped me a lot in preparing the lectures. By the way, I am a teacher of linguistics at university and I made so many reading about this topic and really I find the answers to all my questions in your article. Thanks.

    1. I am really flattered. Where do you teach?

  9. Pls can someone help explain what this question mean? Paradigmatic relation indicate that words can replace one another in vertical order?

  10. I don't where this question comes from but it makes sense. Like in my example above, buy/purchase/get can all be substituted for one another without affecting the syntax of the sentence.

  11. I know very well that it is extremely difficult to come up with worthwhile article subjects all the time. So I just want to say: well done! R

  12. In this blog the writers define the simply form which helps the many students like me , thnx a lot for helps ...

  13. Words, English words, are full of echoes, of memories, of associations. They have been out and about, on people's lips, in their houses, in the streets, in the fields, for so many centuries. Applying right word at the right place is very necessary. To get a hand over vocabulary get in touch with https://vocabmonk.com.

  14. I'm an architecture student and I am working on a dissertation that is about drawing structural correlation between narratives and architecture. These were the two terms that I found a little tricky to explain in a clearer sense. Your post makes it much simpler and easier to understand :) Thanks for the post!

    1. Thank you!
      I am glad and surprised that my blog serves not only English teachers, but people from other fields too :)

  15. Hi, we have a research about: "looking for sentences syntagmatic where you cannot find paradigmatic" can I get help from someone. Thanks in advance

  16. Great!! I find exactly the thing i was looking for) thanks)

  17. what role do syntagmatic and paradigmatic relations in synonyms and antonyms

  18. what role do syntagmatic and paradigmatic relations in synonyms and antonyms

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