An overview of the English morphological system

  • Basic terminology with definitions and examples
  • MORPHEME = the smallest meaningful unit of language (any part of a word that cannot be broken down further into smaller meaningful parts, including the whole word itself). The word ‘items’ can be broken down into two meaningful parts: ‘item’ and the plural suffix ‘-s’; neither of these can be broken down into smaller parts that have a meaning. Therefore ‘item’ and ‘-s’ are both morphemes.
  • FREE MORPHEME = a morpheme that can stand alone as an independent word (e.g. ‘item’).
  • BOUND MORPHEME = a morpheme that cannot stand alone as an independent word, but must be attached to another morpheme/word (affixes, such as plural ‘-s’, are always bound; roots are sometimes bound, e.g. the ‘kep-‘ of ‘kept’ or the ‘-ceive’ of ‘receive’.
  • BASE = an element (free or bound, root morpheme or complex word) to which additional morphemes are added.  Also called a STEM. A base can consist of a single root morpheme, as with the ‘kind’ of ‘kindness’. But a base can also be a word that itself contains more than one morpheme. For example, we can use the word ‘kindness’ as a base to form the word ‘kindnesses’; to make ‘kindnesses’, we add the plural morpheme, spelled ‘-es’ in this case, to the base ‘kindness’.
  • ROOT = a (usually free) morpheme around which words can be built up through the addition of affixes. The root usually has a more-soecific meaning than the affixes that attach to it. Ex.: The root ‘kind’ can have affixes added to it to form ‘kindly’, ‘kindness’, ‘kinder’, ‘kindest’. The root is the item you have left when you strip all other morphemes off of a complex word. In the word dehumanizing, for example, if you strip off all the affixes — -ing, -ize, and de-, human is what you have left. It cannot be divided further into meaningful parts. It is the root of the word.
  •  AFFIX = a bound morpheme which attaches to a base (root or stem). PREFIXES attach to the front of a base; SUFFIXES to the end of a base; INFIXES are inserted inside of a root. An example of a prefix is the ‘re-‘ of ‘rewrite’; of a suffix, ‘-al’ of ‘critical’.
  • INFLECTION = the process by which affixes combine with roots to indicate basic grammatical categories such as tense or plurality (e.g. in ‘cat-s’, ‘talk-ed’, ‘-s’ an d’-ed’ are inflectional suffixes).  Inflection is viewed as the process of adding very general meanings to existing words, not as the creation of new words.
  • DERIVATION = the process by which affixes combine with roots to create new words (e.g. in ‘modern-ize’, ‘read-er’, ‘-ize’ and ‘-er’ are derivational suffixes). Derivation is viewed as using existing words to make new words. The inflection/derivation difference is increasingly viewed as shades of gray rather than an absolute boundary. Derivation is much less regular, and therefore much less predictable, than inflectional morphology. For example, we can predict that most English words will form their plural by adding the affix <-s> or <-es>. But how we derive nouns from verbs, for example, is less predictable. Why do we add <-al> to ‘refuse’, making ‘refusal’, but ‘-ment’ to ‘pay’ to make ‘payment’? ‘Payal’ and ‘refusement’ are not possible English words. We have to do more memorizing in learning derivational morphology than in learning inflectional morphology.
  • CONTENT MORPHEME: A morpheme that has a relatively more-specific meaningthan a function morpheme; a morpheme that names a concept/idea in our record of experience of the world. Content morphemes fall into the classes of noun, verb, adjective, adverb.
  • FUNCTION MORPHEME: A morpheme that has a relatively less-specific meaning than a content morpheme; a morpheme whose primary meaning/function is to signal relationships between other morphemes. Function morphemes generally fall into classes such as articles (‘a’, ‘the’), prepositions (‘of’, ‘at’), auxiliary verbs (‘was eating’, ‘have slept’), etc.
  • SIMPLE WORD = a word consisting of a single morpheme; a word that cannot be analyzed into smaller meaningful parts, e.g. ‘item’, ‘five’, ‘chunk’, ‘the’.
  • COMPLEX WORD = a word consisting of a root plus one or more affixes (e.g. ‘items’, ‘walked’, ‘dirty’).
  • COMPOUND WORD = a word that is formed from two or more simple or complex words (e.g. landlord, red-hot, window cleaner).
  • MORPHOPHONEMICS/ALLOMORPHY = the study of the processes by which morphemes change their pronunciation in certain situations.
  • ALLOMORPHS = the different forms (pronunciations) of a single morpheme.  Ex: the plural morpheme in English is {-z}.  Its allomorphs are / s /, / z /, / @z /.** Also, the morpheme ‘leaf’ has two allomorphs: ‘leaf’ in words built from it (e.g.’leafy’) and ‘leav-‘, found only in the plural: ‘leaves’.

** The ‘at’ sign ( = @ ) is used in internet exchanges as a replacement for the schwa symbol (the upside-down, backwards <e>). This is because it is not yet possible to transmit IPA symbols over the net to people whose machines do not contain phonetic fonts. In this document, I’ll use the @ to stand for schwa, since many of my readers do not possess a phonetic font on their machines.

  • English inflectional morphology

English has only three categories of meaning which are expressed inflectionally, known as inflectional categories. They are number in nouns,tense/aspect in verbs, and comparison in adjectives.  Within these categories, English has a remarkably small inventory of affixes, by comparison with languages such as Spanish or Russian. English does not always use affixes to express these categories (see the discussion ofirregular morphology).

Inflectional categories and affixes of English

Word class to which inflection applies Inflectional category Regular affix used to express category
Nouns Number -s, -es: book/books, bush/bushes
. Possessive -‘s, -‘:  the cat‘s tail, Charles‘ toe
Verbs 3rd person singular present -s, -es: it rains, Karen writes, the water sloshes
. past tense -ed: paint/painted
. perfect aspect -ed: paint/painted (‘has painted) (past participle)
. progressive or continunous aspect -ing: fall/falling, write/writing (present participle)
Adjectives comparative (comparing two items) -er: tall/taller
. superlative (comparing +2 items) -est: tall/tallest

Spanish, by contrast, inflects its nouns for number and gender, but not for possession (which is signalled by placing the particle ‘de’ between the possessed item and the possessor, as in ‘la casa de mi madre’, ‘the house of my mother’. Spanish has far more inflectional categories — and affixes to mark them — for verbs than does English.

Spanish inflectional categories and affixes

Word class to which inflection applies Inflectional category Regular affix used to express category
Nouns Number ‘-s’   mano/manos ‘hand/hands’
. Gender ‘-a’ Fem., ‘-o’ Masc.
hermana/hermano ‘sister/brother’

The following table shows the verb suffixes for just one of the three classes of Spanish verbs:

-ar class  present imperfect preterite future conditional pres. subjunctive  imperf. subj.
I -o -aba -e -ía -e -a
you (sg.) -as -abas -aste -as -ías -es -as
s/he/it -a -aba -ía -e -a
we -amos -ábamos -amos -emos -íamos -emos -amos
you (pl.) -áis -abais -asteis -éis -íais -éis -ais
they -an -aban -aron -án -ían -en -an
  •  Regular and irregular inflectional morphology

Here are some ways English inflectional morphology is irregular:

Type of irregularity Noun plurals Verbs: past tense Verbs: past participle
Unusual suffix oxen, syllabi, antennae , taken, seen, fallen, eaten
Change of stem vowel foot/feet, mouse/mice run/ran, come/came, flee/fled, meet/met, fly/flew, stick/stuck, get/got, break/broke swim/swum, sing/sung
Change of stem vowel with unusual suffix brother/brethren/ feel/felt, kneel/knelt write/written, do/done, break/broken, fly/flown
Change in base/stem form
(sometimes with unusual suffix)
, send/sent, bend/bent, think/thought, teach/taught, buy/bought send/sent, bend/bent, think/thought, teach/taught, buy/bought
Zero-marking (no suffix, no stem change) deer, sheep, moose, fish hit, beat hit, beat, come

More ways inflection can be irregular:

Suppletion (instead of a suffix, the whole word changes):
be – am – are – is – was – were – been
go – went – gone
good – better – best
bad – worse – worst
some – more – most

Syntactic marking (added meanings are indicated by a separate word rather than marking with a suffix or change to the base):
Future of verbs: will go, will eat, will fight, etc.
Comparative/superlative of adjectives: more intelligent, more expensive, etc.; most intelligent, most expensive, etc.

  • English derivational morphology

Below is a sample of some English derivational affixes. This is only a sample; there are far more affixes than presented here.

Some derivational affixes of English

Affix Class(es) of word to which affix applies Nature of change in meaning Examples
Prefix ‘non-‘ Noun, adjective Negation/opposite Noun: non-starter 
Adj.: non-partisan
Suffix ‘-ity’ Adjective Changes to noun electric/electricity 
Prefix ‘un-‘ Verb 
Reverses action 
opposite quality
tie/untie, fasten/unfasten 
clear/unclear, safe/unsafe
Suffix ‘-ous’ Noun Changes to adjective fame/famous, glamor/glamorous
Prefix ‘re-‘ Verb Repeat action tie/retie, write/rewrite
Suffix ‘-able’ Verb Changes to adjective; 
means ‘can undergo action of verb’
print/printable, drink/drinkable
  • Word formation processes: Ways of creating new words in English

1. Affixation:  adding a derivational affix to a word. Examples: abuser, refusaluntie, inspectionpre-cook.
2. Compounding: joining two or more words into one new word. Examples: skateboard, whitewash, cat lover, self-help, red-hot, etc.
3. Zero derivation: (also called conversion or functional shift): Adding no affixes; simply using a word of one category as a word of another category. Examples: Noun-verb: comb, sand, knife, butter, referee, proposition.
4. Stress shift: no affix is added to the base, but the stress is shifted from one syllable to the other. With the stress shift comes a change in category.

Noun            Verb
cómbine      combíne
ímplant         implánt
réwrite          rewríte
tránsport      transpórt

Noun              Adjective
cóncrete        concréte
ábstract         abstráct

5. Clipping: shortening of a polysyllabic word. Examples: bro (< brother), pro (< professional), prof (< professor), math (< mathematics), veg (< ‘vegetate’, as in veg out in front of the TV),  sub (< substitute or submarine).
6. Acronym formation: forming words from the initials of a group of words that designate one concept. Usually, but not always, capitalized. An acronym is pronounced as a word if the consonants and vowels line up in such a way as to make this possible, otherwise it is pronounced as a string of letter names. Examples: NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration), NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization), AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome), scuba (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus), radar (radio detecting and ranging), NFL (National Football League), AFL-CIO (American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations).
7. Blending: Parts (which are not morphemes!) of two already-existing words are put together to form a new word. Examples: motel (motor hotel) brunch (breakfast & lunch), smog (smoke & fog), telethon (television & marathon), modem (modulator & demodulator), Spanglish (Spanish & English).
8. Backformation: A suffix identifiable from other words is cut off of a base which has previously not been a word; that base then is used as a root, and becomes a word through widespread use. Examples: pronunciate (< pronunciation < pronounce), resurrect (< resurrection), enthuse (< enthusiasm), self-destruct (< self-destruction < destroy), burgle (< burglar), attrit (< attrition), burger (< hamburger). This differs from clipping in that, in clipping, some phonological part of the word which is not interpretable as an affix or word is cut off (e.g. the ‘-essor’ of ‘professor’ is not a suffix or word; nor is the ‘-ther’ of ‘brother’. In backformation, the bit chopped off is a recognizable affix or word (‘ham ‘ in ‘hamburger’), ‘-ion’ in ‘self-destruction’. Backformation is the result of a false but plausible morphological analysis of the word; clipping is a strictly phonological process that is used to make the word shorter. Clipping is based on syllable structure, not morphological analysis. It is impossible for you to recognize backformed words or come up with examples from your own knowledge of English, unless you already know the history of the word. Most people do not know the history of the words they know; this is normal.
9. Adoption of brand names as common words: a brand name becomes the name for the item or process associated with the brand name. The word ceases to be capitalized and acts as a normal verb/noun (i.e. takes inflections such as plural or past tense). The companies using the names usually have copyrighted them and object to their use in public documents, so they should be avoided in formal writing (or a lawsuit could follow!) Examples: xerox, kleenex, band-aid, kitty litter.
10. Onomatopoeia (pronounced: ‘onno-motto-pay-uh’): words are invented which (to native speakers at least) sound like the sound they name or the entity which produces the sound. Examples: hiss, sizzle, cuckoo, cock-a-doodle-doo, buzz, beep, ding-dong.
11. Borrowing: a word is taken from another language. It may be adapted to the borrowing language’s phonological system to varying degrees. Examples: skunk, tomato (from indigenous languages of the Americas), sushi, taboo, wok (from Pacific Rim languages), chic, shmuck, macho, spaghetti, dirndl, psychology, telephone, physician, education (from European languages), hummus, chutzpah, cipher, artichoke (from Semitic languages), yam, tote, banana (from African languages).

Exercise: Word Formation Processes

Working with a partner, supply five more English words that exemplify each of the above word formation processes. If you don’t have a partner to work with, supply three words for each process. A dictionary will be of some help. You will probably not be able to find examples of backformation; this requires knowledge of the history of words that would be very difficult to track down without a lot of extra work. Skip this category.

  • Allomorphy, or morphophonemic variation in English

Many morphemes of English have more than one way of being pronounced; this is often not reflected in the spelling of the morpheme. Such variations affect both affixes and roots. Sometimes the pronunciation varies because of nearby sounds; sometimes there is no logic to it — its motivation lies in forgotten history.

The pronunciation variants of a morpheme are called allomorphs. The phenomenon of variation in the pronunciation of a morpheme is calledallomorphic variation or morphophonemic variation (since it is the phonemic makeup of a morpheme that is varying). The variations themselves are sometimes called morphophonological processes.

The English past-tense morpheme has three allomorphs: /@d/, /t/, and /d/. (Remember, /@/ is being used to stand for schwa.)

Morpheme: Past tense   ‘-d’/’-ed’
Allomorphs: /@d/, /t/, /d/
Distribution: /@d/ after /t/ and /d/, /t/ after other voiceless consonants, /d/ after other voiced Cs and vowels

Motivation: Phonological. /d/ occurs after vowels and voiced consonants other than /d/; /t/ occurs after voiceless consonants other than /t/; and /@d/ occurs after the alveolar stops /t/ and /d/.

 /@d/ after /t/ and /d/ /t/ after other voiceless consonants /d/ after other voiced Cs and vowels
faded, stated, petted, sounded kissed, leaped, fluffed, stocked buzzed, played, mooned, sued

Unmotivated allomorphy: A change in the pronunciation of a morpheme that is not based on the phonological surroundings. Most of these simply must be memorized.


  • ‘Electric’ usually has final /k/; but has final /s/ in ‘electricity’. The morpheme ‘electric’ has two allomorphs: ‘electri/k/’ and ‘electri/s/-‘; the second occurs only when the suffix -ity’ is attached to the word.
  • Words such as ‘life’, ‘shelf’, ‘leaf’ have a final /f/ in most forms, but when they are pluralized, the base has a final /v/: ‘lives’, ‘shelves’, ‘leaves’. Thus these words have two allomorphs: one final in /f/ in the singular (‘life’, ‘shelf’, ‘leaf’) and one final in /v/, which occurs only when the plural suffix is added: ‘live-‘, ‘shelv-‘, ‘leav-‘. Notice that not all words that end in /f/ undergo this change: the plural of the noun ‘proof’ is not ‘prooves’. Dialects differ in how they pluralize words such as ‘roof’, ‘hoof’; some people say ‘roofs’ while others say ‘rooves’; some say ‘hoofs’ and others ‘hooves’. The plural of ‘loaf’ is ‘loaves’, but the plural of ‘oaf’ is not ‘oaves’ but ‘oafs’. A learner of English has to memorize which words change from /f/ to /v/ and which don’t.

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