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In linguistics an accidental gap, also known as a gap or a hole in the pattern, is a word or other form that does not exist in some language but which would be expected to exist given the grammatical rules of the language.[1] For example, in English a noun may be formed by adding the suffix -al to a verb (e.g. reciterecital; arrivearrival), yet there is no English word describal related to the verb describe.[2] Although theoretically such a word could exist, it does not; its absence is therefore an accidental gap.

Various types of accidental gaps exist. Phonological gaps are either words allowed by the phonological system of a language which do not actually exist, or sound contrasts missing from one paradigm of the phonological system itself. Morphological gaps are non-existent words predicted by the morphological system, such as describal mentioned above. A semantic gap refers to the non-existence of a word to describe a difference in meaning seen in other sets of words within the language.

Phonological gaps

Often words that are allowed in the phonological system of a language are absent. For example, in English the consonant cluster /bl/ is allowed at the beginning of words such as blind or blister and the syllable rime /ɪk/ occurs in words such as sick or flicker. Even so, there is no English word pronounced */blɪk/. Although this potential word is phonologically well-formed, it happens not to exist.[3]

The term "phonological gap" is also used to refer to the absence of a phonemic contrast in part of the phonological system.[1] For example, Thai has several sets of stop consonants that differ in terms of voicing (whether or not the vocal cords vibrate) and aspiration (whether a puff of air is released). Yet there is no voiced velar consonant (/ɡ/).[4] This lack of an expected distinction is commonly called a "hole in the pattern".[3]

plain voiceless aspirated voiceless voiced consonant
p b
t d

Morphological gaps

A morphological gap is the absence of a word that could exist given the morphological rules of a language, including its affixes.[1] For example, in English a deverbal noun can be formed by adding either the suffix -al or -tion to a verb. Some nouns of this pattern simply do not exist, even though there is no grammatical reason for them not to.[5]

verb noun (-al) noun (-tion)
recite recital recitation
propose proposal proposition
arrive arrival
refuse refusal
derive derivation
describe description

A particularly conspicuous form of the opposite process (removal of an affix, rather than addition) arise in unpaired words, where removal of an affix yields a word that is not used, such as *effable from ineffable or *ambiguate from disambiguate. Note that other apparently unpaired words only coincidentally seem to have affixes, but are not analyzed as having affixes.

Semantic gaps

In semantics a gap may be noted when a particular meaning distinction visible elsewhere in the lexicon is absent. For example, English words describing family members generally show gender distinction. Yet the English word cousin can refer to either a male or female cousin.[1] The separate words predicted on the basis of this semantic contrast are absent from the language.

masculine feminine
brother sister
uncle aunt
father mother
cousin cousin

See also

  • Defective verbs, which lack some of the inflections of normal verbs.
  • Lexical gap
  • Semantic gap in computer programming languages and natural language processing
  • Unpaired word


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Crystal, David (2003). A Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics, Malden: Wiley-Blackwell.
  2. Halle, Morris (1973). Prolegomena to a theory of word-formation. Linguistic Inquiry 4: 451–464.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Trask, Robert Lawrence (1996). A Dictionary of Phonetics and Phonology, London: Routledge.
  4. Abramson, Arthur S. (1962). The Vowels and Tones of Standard Thai: Acoustical Measurements and Experiments, Bloomington: Indiana University Research Center in Anthropology, Folklore, and Linguistics.
  5. (2001). Accidental gap. Lexicon of Linguistics. Utrecht institute of Linguistics OTS. URL accessed on 2011-02-12.
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