Content or Lexical Word in English

content (lexical) words
The italicized words in Mitch Hedberg's sentence are content words. (Getty Images)

In English grammar and semantics, a content word is a word that conveys information in a text or speech act. It is also known as a lexical word, lexical morpheme, substantive category, or contentive, and can be contrasted with the terms function word or grammatical word.

In his book The Secret Life of Pronouns (2011), social psychologist James W. Pennebaker expands this definition: "Content words are words that have a culturally shared meaning in labeling an object or action. . . . Content words are absolutely necessary to convey an idea to someone else."

Content words—which include nouns, lexical verbs, adjectives, and adverbs—belong to open classes of words: that is, classes of words to which new members are readily added. "The denotation of a content word," say Kortmann and Loebner, "is the category, or set, of all its potential referents" (Understanding Semantics, 2014).

Examples and Observations

  • "All morphemes can be divided into the categories lexical [content] and grammatical [function]. A lexical morpheme has a meaning that can be understood fully in and of itself—{boy}, for example, as well as {run}, {green}, {quick}, {paper}, {large}, {throw}, and {now}. Nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs are typical kinds of lexical morphemes. Grammatical morphemes, on the other hand—such as {of}, {and}, {the}, {ness}, {to}, {pre}, {a}, {but}, {in}, and {ly}—can be understood completely only when they occur with other words in a sentence." (Thomas E. Murray, The Structure of English. Allyn and Bacon, 1995)
  • "Reverend Howard Thomas was the presiding elder over a district in Arkansas, which included Stamps." (Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Random House, 1969)
  • "Most people with low self-esteem have earned it." (George Carlin, Napalm & Silly Putty. Hyperion, 2001)
  • "The odor of fish hung thick in the air." (Jack Driscoll, Wanting Only to Be Heard. University of Massachusetts Press, 1995)
  • "Liberal and conservative have lost their meaning in America. I represent the distracted center." (Jon Stewart)

Function Words vs. Content Words

All languages make some distinction between 'content words' and 'function words. Content words carry descriptive meaning; nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs are types of content word. Function words are typically little words, and they signal relations between parts of sentences, or something about the pragmatic import of a sentence, e.g. whether it is a question. Lewis Carroll's 'Jabberwocky' poem illustrates the distinction well:

`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

In this poem all the made-up words are content words; all the others are function words.

In English, function words include determiners, such as the, a, my, your, pronouns (e.g. I, me, you, she, them), various auxiliary verbs (e.g. have, is, can, will do), coordinating conjunctions (and, or, but), and subordinating conjunctions (e.g. if, when, as, because). Prepositions are a borderline case. They have some semantic content, but are a small closed class, allowing hardly any historical innovation. Some English prepositions serve a mainly grammatical function, like of (what is the meaning of of?) and others have clear descriptive (and relational) content, like under. New content words in a language can be readily invented; new nouns, in particular, are continually being coined, and new verbs (e.g. Google, gazump) and adjectives (e.g. naff, grungy) also not infrequently come into use. The small set of function words in a language, by contrast, is much more fixed and relatively steady over centuries." (James R. Hurford, The Origins of Language: A Slim Guide. Oxford University Press, 2014)