woman walking in front of columns

Paradigm and Syntagm


When we use signs to communicate, we take their definitions for granted. We can only really understand their meaning because they are part of system

If you are studying semiotics, you probably already know signs have a physical form and will signal some sort of meaning. You might also be aware that signs acquire their definitions because they are part of system which we call a code. The most common code is obviously spoken language.

In this way, the true value of signs comes from their relationship with each other. For example, we know the word “tea” denotes a different drink to “coffee”. We understand the difference between the joyful ring of the school bell compared to an aggressive-sounding fire alarm. Or that sports teams wear different colours to establish their identity.

In communication studies, paradigm and syntagm refers to two types of relationships.

Paradigm and Syntagm Definition

A paradigm is a set of signifiers and/or signifieds. You know computers, laptops, tablets and mobile phones are different, but they can all be used to access your social media account and post an update about the food you are eating. Of course, TikTok, Twitter and Instagram form their own paradigm because you can easily substitute one platform for another. Sausage rolls and fresh salad have very different calorie counts, but they are part of the food paradigm.

A syntagm is the combination of signifiers into a meaningful sequence. In terms of language, a syntagm could be sentence, a paragraph or a speech. If you are studying a media text, there will be a spatial relationship between the signifiers on the page or screen. Moving images will also have a temporal relationship between the signifiers.

To conclude, if you want to convey a particular message to the audience, you need to select the right signifiers from the options available in those paradigms and then make sure the signifiers are sequenced into a meaningful order, or syntagm.

Saussure’s Explanation

Ferdinand de Saussure was Swiss linguist who was fascinated by the structure of language and wanted to take a more scientific approach to studying the life of words. His lecture notes, which were organised and published by two of his students into “Course in General Linguistics”, outlined his very influential thoughts on signs and introduced the term semiology.

Saussure (1916) believed words acquired their definitions by how they were “chained together” in a sentence. His “building” analogy is an interesting way of explaining his concept of syntagms. Similar to how words combine in a sentence to construct meaning, a building is the sum of its various parts.

The columns and the roof they support have a syntagmatic relation because of the way they are arranged in space. In other words, a column needs to support the weight of the section above for it to achieve the definition of a column. The column is nothing more than blocks stacked on top of each other if it doesn’t have an architrave or pediment to support.

syntagm infographic with greek building icon
Saussure’s Definition of Syntagm

He also used this analogy to reinforce his concept of a paradigm by referring to the different styles of columns in classical architecture. For example, an ionic column is slimmer and more ornate than the earlier plain Doric versions. The Corinthian column is even sleeker and more decorative.

Don’t worry if you not familiar with these terms from architecture. Saussure was simply making the point that the fashion and construction technique may have changed over the years, but their function remained the same. A fancy column is still a column.

An Example from Linguistics

In linguistics classes, paradigms are often presented with a vertical relationship and syntagms run along the horizontal axis.

Paradigm and syntagm diagram

In this diagram, the verbs have been identified as a paradigm because the definition of “love” is related to our understanding of the “loathe”. You can easily switch the verbs and the shape of the sentence will remain the same. Of course, the nouns at the start of the sentences also have a paradigmatic relationship because you can substitute one for the other. The same can be said for the noun phrases that conclude each example.

The combination of signs form each sentence, or syntagm.

A Modern Example

David Lodge (1977) offers a more accessible example of paradigm and syntagm with his “clothing” analogy.

When we are choosing which clothes to wear, there are three sets of signs to consider – upper body, lower body and footwear. Each of these paradigms then have different pieces. Depending on the occasion, you can wear trainers, boots, sandals or stilettos.

cartoon girl with a choice of clothes
David Lodge’s Paradigm Analogy

Of course, socially defined rules might dictate that trainers and a black dress are not an appropriate combination so you might substitute high heels into your outfit. T-shirt, jeans and trainers are an obvious syntagm. The outfit, Lodge argued, was a “kind of sentence”.

Susan Spiggle (1998) added that this informal choice would convey different meanings at the beach compared to a formal dinner. Put simply, we often choose what to wear to convey our feelings or to express our identity.

Class Activity

The following advertisements use a combination of signifiers to communicate their message. Explore how the syntagmatic or paradigmatic relationships between these signs help construct a preferred reading of the text.

If you are analysing the Lucozade advertisement, focus on the how the dominant signifier of the rugby player combines with the image of rain to suggest the sports drink will make the reader successful on the pitch. Why did the producers add the outstretched arms of the opponent trying to stop the protagonist?

You should consider the narrative created by the relationship between the two images of the man in the advertisement for the optician’s company.

What story is being constructed by the signifier of the man holding the sparks plugs and the woman spill petrol on the ground? In other words, what will happen when you use Lynx deodorant?

Obviously, the Breitling watch uses celebrity endorsement to sell the product. However, what does the private jet signify and what is its relationship with the watch? There is quite a lot going on in this combination. Also, what does the bag signify?

In the McDonald’s advertisement, what is the unexpected paradigm?

Finally, for all of the advertisements, consider how the taglines help provide anchorage and direct the audience towards a preferred reading.

Final Thoughts

When you are analysing a media text, you should identify the message the producers are trying to convey to the audience. You should then support this interpretation by describing how the different signs combine to encode meaning. This arrangement of signs is the syntagm.

If the text consists of an unusual combination of signs, it might be worthwhile exploring those particular paradigms and why they play with the audience’s expectations. A really good example of this dynamic is the McDonald’s advertisement in our classroom activity because we can substitute the food carton with a laptop and the image will still make sense.

Don’t be surprised in you are asked to define paradigm and syntagm in a short-answer question.

Exam Practice and Revision

Applying Saussure’s paradigm and syntagm to a variety of media texts is the best way to develop your understanding if the two concepts. You can find examples of sign-systems to analyse in our semiotics exam practice page, but you should begin your revision with a look at the use of paradigm and syntagm in the “Mean Girls” DVD box art and the syntagmatic relationship between signs in the fantastic Nescafé mock-up.

Further Reading

Thanks for reading!