I am thinking of two slightly different concepts, both of which I would refer to as synonymy. As I would like to distinguish the concepts in a text, I am looking for two distinct words.

First, I will use the following two terms (and define them here, because I am not sure whether I am using the correct terminology here, either):

  • A word consists of any number of inflected forms. It is like a full package of inflected forms, appropriate for its part of speech. For example, the word building is like a package that contains the various inflected forms of that word, namely building and buildings.
  • An inflected form is (in its written form) just a single piece of text; for example, building is one inflected form, buildings is another.

Now, for the sake of this explanation, let us consider building and edifice as synonyms (disregarding any different nuances in their precise meanings).

This means:

  1. The word building is a synonym of the word edifice.
  2. The inflected form building is a synonym of the inflected form edifice.
  3. The inflected form buildings is a synonym of the inflected form edifices.

Obviously, (1) describes a slightly different concept of synonymity compared to (2) and (3):

  • (1) implies that each inflected form of building can be assumed to be synonymous with the equivalent inflected form of edifice, if such a form exists (some words can be only used in singular or in plural, for example).
  • (2) and (3) say explicitly that building can be replaced with edifice, and that buildings can be replaced with edifices, respectively. However, they do not make any explicit statements about the synonymy relationship between the two "word packages".

The different concepts could be paraphrased as synonymy with respect to words and synonymy with respect to inflected forms, but is there any more concise term?

  • Except of course that building and edifice aren't synonyms ;)
    – curiousdannii
    Dec 22, 2014 at 0:27

1 Answer 1


What you call a word is actually called a lexeme, what you call inflected forms are actually called lemmas. The difference between the lexeme-to-lexeme synonymity and the lemma-to-lemma synonymity is actually the point of your question, but I am afraid your question cannot be answered, for the former and the latter are phenomena of different levels, it is like comparing whether 10 fingers are more important than 2 hands.

Synonyms can be of different kinds, the ones of your (1) kind are semantic synonyms, it is the similarity of the lexical meaning of the two words that makes them synonyms. The ones of the (2) and (3) kinds are not only lexical, but also grammatical synonyms, they share not only the lexical meaning, but also the grammar form.

  • Could that mean that (ignoring for a moment how well those terms can be understood by a general audience) synonymous lexemes and synonymous lemmas are the terms I am looking for? Dec 22, 2014 at 8:47
  • 1
    @O.R.Mapper - Actually, yes. Only note, that lexemes are synonymous in a bit different way than lemmas are synonymous, in the former case the synonymity is just lexical, in the latter one it is both lexical and grammatical.
    – Yellow Sky
    Dec 22, 2014 at 12:09
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    I don't think "lemma" is the word you want there. As explained in the wikipedia page you linked to, "lemma" refers to only one form of any particular lexeme- whichever one you choose to use as the label to talk about the lexeme as a whole. The individual morphological forms are generically just called "forms". Dec 23, 2014 at 6:17
  • 'Surface form' and 'wordform' are also common terms for the OP's 'inflected form', especially when distinguishing between surface forms and lexemes (and often bases and roots as well, just to complicate things!) The root 'build', for example, can be conceived of as a package containing multiple packages, one of which is the package (i.e. lemma) 'building'.
    – legatrix
    Dec 28, 2014 at 21:41

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