This page discusses the concept of polysemy, and why it is important that mainstream teachers are aware of it.


About 40% of English words are polysemous. This means that they have more than one meaning. Some words, such as run or set have more than thirty different meanings. @ Polysemous words can cause difficulty in contexts where the meaning is other than the primary or dominant meaning of the word. ~

In this case, primary refers to the sense of the word that the student has learned first. For example, ESL students generally first learn the word table as referring to an item of furniture.

So they might be confused when the mathematics teacher tells them to put their data in a table . Indeed, mathematics is full of words that ESL students are likely to have learned first with their everyday meaning: mean, power, even, volume, root, etc.

Examples of polysemous words

Here are a few examples of polysemous words. They are shown first in a primary-meaning context and followed by secondary-meaning context.

  • Arms bend at the elbow.
  • Germany sells arms to Saudi Arabia.
  • Boil the solution once with salt and once with sugar.
  • Once Germany had surrendered, the Soviets were free to enter the conflict against Japan.
  • Is economics an arts subject or a science subject?
  • All income is subject to tax.
  • While the family was in the garden, an intruder entered the house.
  • While your answer is correct, it is not complete.
  • Work out the solution in your head.
  • Heat the solution to 75° Celsius.
  • The key broke in the lock.
  • The key problem was not one of quality but of quantity.
  • There are many non-native pupils in the class.
  • The size of the pupils changes according to the brightness of light.

Mason (1978) investigates the effects of polysemous words on sentence comprehension in a research study of the same name. The study supports the intuitive assumption of ESL teachers that texts with polysemous words used in their non-primary sense are more difficult to process than texts with primary-sense polysemous words.

Here is the concluding sentence of the abstract:

It is apparent that the presence of polysemous words in text materials is one source of comprehension difficulty.

Implications for mainstream teachers

@@ It is important that teachers are aware of the polysemic nature of much English vocabulary, and the problems that this can cause non-native speakers. ~~ It is helpful if teachers can alert ESL students to words with a different meaning than the one that the students will likely have learned first.

These can be words that the teachers themselves use in speaking or writing, or words that students encounter in their textbooks and other prescribed reading texts.

Further reading

Here is a detailed article discussing research into the effects of polysemous words in a text on comprehensibility: Polysemy in Sentence Comprehension: Effects of Meaning Dominance


Mason, J., Kniseley, E., & Kendall, J. (1979). Effects of Polysemous Words on Sentence Comprehension. Reading Research Quarterly, 15(1), 49-65.