Lemma: the essential form of a word

What do you know when you know a word?

You probably know many forms of the same word, with small modifications, or what linguists call inflections— small grammatical changes that don’t really change the meaning of the word. While the technical term for the whole group of possible forms together is a lexeme, the most basic or essential definition (usually the “uninflected” form) is called the lemma.

A good practice for determining a lemma is looking for the dictionary entry of the word. Several other forms of the word are probably grouped together under the same entry. Grouping words under a basic form like this is useful in many fields of language research, especially computational linguistics: it lets the machine know that words share a meaning and can be grouped together in an analysis, even if the forms are very different.

Try it yourself: only one of the following words is a lemma (but all are part of the same lexeme)wentgonegoinggogoes 

Finding went in the dictionary points to go, as does finding gonegoing, and goes. 

Therefore, the answer is go 

A fun exercise is to name all the forms of a lemma. What is the lemma of a particular word which has a form of “are?” What are the other forms? Scroll below the picture to find the answer: 

Other formsis, are, was, were, am, be, been,  


Aahnix poses for a picture on a chair, facing the sunset.

Aahnix Bathurst


Aahnix is a Project Coordinator in the Bergelson lab at Duke University

Elika Bergelson

Principal Investigator