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7 Types of meaning
7 Types of meaning

In his book: Semantics-The Study of Meaning, Geoffrey Leech breaks down meaning into seven types giving importance to the conceptual meaning. ( Also, see Essay No. 1:Introducing Semantics )

An examination of the following sentences will show that the lexical meaning is a very complex phenomenon:

  1. The owner of the store died.
  2. The owner of the store passed away.
  3. The owner of the store deceased.
  4. The owner of the store kicked the bucket.

All the sentences above have the same meaning. They all mean that the “same store owner”  is not alive anymore.” This has been expressed by the words:

  • died
  • passed away
  • deceased
  • kicked the bucket

The question that might arise is that “ Why have four different words been used to express the same event?

he reasons are presented in the table below:



  1. The owner of the store died.

Informal or a matter of fact

  1. The owner of the store passed away.

A formal announcement or a report

  1. The owner of the store deceased.

A part of a legal document

  1. The owner of the store kicked the bucket.

A social status/an  emotional attitude

This confirms the significance  of talking about the types of meaning.

Leech’s Seven Types of Meaning

Following are the seven types of meaning as viewed by Geoffrey Leech along with some explanation and examples:

1. Conceptual or Denotative Meaning :conceptual meaning is also called logical or cognitive meaning. It corresponds to the primary dictionary definition. It is the literal meaning of a word.

For example, A ‘needle”  is a thin sharp instrument.

2. Connotative Meaning: it is something that goes beyond the referent of a word and hints at its attributes in the real world. Thus, purely conceptual content of ‘woman’ is ( +human + female+ adult),  but the psychosocial connotations could be ‘gregarious’, ‘having maternal instinct’ or ‘babbling’, experienced in cookery.

Connotations may vary age to age, society to society and culture to culture.

3. Social Meaning : It is the meaning conveyed by a piece of language about the social context of its use. We recognize some words or pronunciation as being dialectical i.e. as telling us something about the regional or social origin of the speaker.

e.g. “I ain’t done nothing.” The line tells us about the speaker and that is the speaker is probably a black American, poor and uneducated. ( using “ain’t” rather than” am not” and using the double negative: “ain’t and nothing” etc.)

Another example is using the word  “Pavement”: it tells us that the speaker is British or a person who speaks the British English, while using the  word “sidewalk”  to express the same meaning tells us that the speaker is American or a person that speaks the  American variety. .

Stylistic variation represents the social variation. This is because styles show the geographical region social class of the speaker.

For example, ‘steed ’, ‘horse and ‘nag’ are synonymous. They all mean a kind of animal i.e. Horse. However,  they differ in style and so they have various social meanings. ‘Steed’ is used in poetry; ‘horse’ is used in general, while ‘nag’ is slang.

 4. Affective or Emotive Meaning : it is what is conveyed about the personal feelings or attitude towards the listener.


  • home’ for a sailor, a soldier or an expatriate
  • ‘mother’ for a motherless child will have a special affective emotive quality.

Also, when a speaker says to a listener “You are a vicious tyrant and a villainous reprobation and I hate youHere, the speaker seems to have a very negative attitude towards his listener. This is called an affective meaning.

5. Reflected Meaning: what is communicated through association with another sense of the same expression. It arises when a word has more than one conceptual meaning.

Reflected meaning can be found in taboo words. In the past, the word “intercourse” was used to mean “communication” ( See the sign below designed in 1754. The sign called for communication.)

However, the word ‘intercourse’ is now associated with (sexual intercourse). The word  “discourse”  in now used instead of “ intercourse” as the latter has become a taboo word..

Also, the word “ gay” in the past had the meaning of “ happy”, but now it means “ homosexual.”

town of intercourse

6.  Collocative Meaning: it is the meaning which a word acquires in the company of certain words. Words collocate or co-occur with certain words only. e.g. Big business not large or great business.

Pretty’ and ‘handsome’ indicate ‘good looking’. The word ‘pretty’ collocates with – girls, women, villages, gardens, flowers, etc.

 However, the word ‘handsome’ collocates with boys, men, etc.

See how the meaning of “heavy” changes based on the context: heavy news (a piece of sad news); heavy schedule (a very tight schedule)

7.  Thematic  Meaning: the way we order our message conveys what is important and what is not.

Thus, active voice is different from passive voice though its conceptual meaning is the same.

  1. Mr. Smith  gave the first prize.
  2. The first prize was given by Mr. Smith.

In the first sentence “who gave away the prize “was more important, but in the second sentence “what Mr. Smith gave was more important”. Thus, the change of focus  has changed the meaning.

3. John is married to Mary.

4. Mary is married to John.

Who is more important in the 3rd sentence? In the 4th?

 5. I will do it tomorrow. ( neutral way)

 6. Tomorrow, I will do it. (a promise)

In conclusion, Leech's seven types of meaning provide a valuable framework for understanding the meaning of language in all its richness and complexity. They can be used to analyze the meaning of individual words and phrases, as well as the meaning of larger units of discourse, such as sentences, paragraphs, and entire texts.



  • Leech Geoffrey  (1981) Semantics: The Study of Meaning ( 2nd ed.) Penguin Books


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