5 Morphology

Learning Outcomes

After studying this chapter, you should be able to discuss:

  • the definition of morphology
  • the difference between a word, a morpheme, and an allomorph and the characteristics of each
  • the difference between derivational and inflectional morphology
  • the different ways words can be created
  • the process of morphological analysis

What is Morphology?

When you were in elementary school, you probably studied suffixes and prefixes, the letter combinations that can be added to words to change their meaning. For example, adding the suffix “s” changes a noun from singular to plural. Adding the suffix “ed” changes a verb from present to past tense.

Morphology is the branch of linguistics that studies the way words are created through the combination of different elements. In English, most words have just one or two elements, but they can have many more. Think about the word “deactivated.” This word can be broken up into five parts:

de Prefix: remove
act Verb: To do
ive Adjective suffix: quality or nature of
ate Verb suffix: cause to be modified or affected by
ed Verb suffix: past tense

So, deactivated means to that the nature of doing previously caused by something has been removed. In this chapter, you’ll learn about more about the different ways words can be created and investigated using morphology.


What’s a word?  It seems almost silly to ask such a simple question, but if you think about it, the question doesn’t have an obvious answer. A famous linguist named Ferdinand de Saussure said that a word is like a coin because it has two sides to it that can never be separated. One side of this metaphorical coin is the form of a word: the sounds (or letters) that combine to make the spoken or written word. The other side of the coin is the meaning of the word: the image or concept we have in our mind when we use the word. So a word is something that links a given form with a given meaning.

Words are Free

Linguists have noticed that words behave in a way that other elements of mental grammar don’t because words are free. What does it mean for a word to be free? One observation that leads us to say that words are free is that they can appear in isolation, on their own. In ordinary conversation, we don’t often utter just a single word, but there are plenty of contexts in which a single word is indeed an entire utterance. Here are some examples:

What are you doing?  Cooking.

What are you cooking?  Soup.

How does it taste?  Delicious.

Can I have some?  No.

Each of those single words is perfectly grammatical standing in isolation as the answer to a question.

Words are Moveable

Another reason we say that words are free is that they’re moveable: they can occupy a whole variety of different positions in a sentence.  Look at these examples:

Penny is making soup.

Soup is delicious.

I love to eat soup when it’s cold outside.

The word soup can appear as the last word in a sentence, as the first word, or in the middle of a sentence.  It’s free to be moved around.

Words are Inseparable

The other important observation we can make about words is that they’re inseparable: We can’t break them up by putting other pieces inside them. For example, in the sentence,

Penny cooked some carrots.

The word carrot has a bit of information added to the end of it to show that there’s more than one carrot. But that bit of information can’t go just anywhere:  it can’t interrupt the word carrot:

*Penny cooked some car-s-rot.

This might seem like a trivial observation – of course, you can’t break words up into bits! – but if we look at a word that’s a little more complex than carrots we see that it’s an important insight.  What about:

Penny bought two vegetable peelers.

That’s fine, but it’s totally impossible to say:

*Penny bought two vegetables peeler.

even though she probably uses the peeler to peel multiple vegetables.  It’s not that a plural -s can’t go on the end of the word vegetable; it’s that the word vegetable peeler is a single word (even though we spell it with a space between the two parts of it).  And because it’s a single word, it’s inseparable, so we can’t add anything else into the middle of it.


So we’ve seen that a word is a free form that has a meaning.  But you’ve probably already noticed that there are other forms that have meaning and some of them seem to be smaller than whole words. (Think about the parts of the word deactivation–each small part of the word has meaning.) These small parts of the word are called morphemes. A morpheme is the smallest form that has meaning. Some morphemes are free: they can appear in isolation. (This means that some words are also morphemes.) But some morphemes can only ever appear when they’re attached to something else; these are called bound morphemes.


Bound Morphemes

Let’s go back to that simple sentence,

Penny cooked some carrots.

It’s quite straightforward to say that this sentence has four words in it. We can make the observations we just discussed above to check for isolation, moveability, and inseparability to provide evidence that each of Penny, cooked, some, and carrots is a word. But there are more than four units of meaning in the sentence.

Penny cook-ed some carrot-s.

The word cooked is made up of the word cook plus another small form that tells us that the cooking happened in the past.  And the word carrots is made up of carrot plus a bit that tells us that there’s more than one carrot.

That little bit that’s spelled –ed (and pronounced a few different ways depending on the environment) has a consistent meaning in English: past tense.  We can easily think of several other examples where that form has that meaning, like walked, baked, cleaned, kicked, kissed. This –ed unit appears consistently in this form and consistently has this meaning, but it never appears in isolation: it’s always attached at the end of a word. It’s a bound morpheme. For example, if someone tells you, “I need you to walk the dog,” it’s not grammatical to answer “-ed” to indicate that you already walked the dog.

Likewise, the bit that’s spelled –s  or –es (and pronounced a few different ways) has a consistent meaning in many different words, like carrots, bananas, books, skates, cars, dishes, and many others.  Like –ed, it is not free: it can’t appear in isolation.  It’s a bound morpheme too.

Simple vs Complex Morphemes

If a word is made up of just one morpheme, like banana, swim, or hungry, then we say that it’s morphologically simple, or monomorphemic.

But many words have more than one morpheme in them: they’re morphologically complex or polymorphemic. In English, polymorphemic words are usually made up of a root plus one or more affixes. English has affixes that attach to the end of a root; these are called suffixes, like in books, teaching, happier, hopeful, singer. And English also has affixes that attach to the beginning of a word, called prefixes, like in unzip, reheat, disagree, impossible.

The root morpheme is the single morpheme that determines the core meaning of the word. In most cases in English, the root is a morpheme that could be free. The affixes are bound morphemes.

Check Your Understanding


Some languages have bound morphemes that go into the middle of a word; these are called infixes. Here are some examples from Tagalog (a language with about 24 million speakers, most of them in the Philippines).

[takbuh] run [tumakbuh] ran
[lakad] walk [lumakad] walked
[bili] buy [bumili] bought
[kain] eat [kumain] ate

It might seem like the existence of infixes is a problem for our claim above that words are inseparable. But languages that allow infixation do so in a systematic way — the infix can’t be dropped just anywhere in the word. In Tagalog, the position of the infix depends on the organization of the syllables in the word.

Did you spot the difference between present tense and past tense? The past tense of the word contains the infix, “um,” immediately following the first letter of the word.

Inflectional Morphology

Inflectional morphemes are morphemes that add grammatical information to a word. When a word is inflected, it still retains its core meaning, and its category stays the same. We’ve actually already talked about several different inflectional morphemes:

Noun Number

The number on a noun is inflectional morphology.  For most English nouns the inflectional morpheme for the plural is an –s or –es (e.g., books, cars, dishes) that gets added to the singular form of the noun, but there are also a few words with irregular plural morphemes. Some languages also have a special morpheme for the dual number, to indicate exactly two of something. Here’s an example from Manam, one of the many languages spoken in Papua New Guinea. You can see that there’s a morpheme on the noun woman that indicates dual, for exactly two women, and a different morpheme for plural, that is, more than two women.

Manam (Papua New Guinea)
 /áine ŋara/ that woman singular
  /áine ŋaradiaru/ those two women dual
  /áine ŋaradi/ those women plural

Verb Tense

The tense on a verb is also inflectional morphology. For many English verbs, the past tense is spelled with an –ed, (walked, cooked, climbed) but there are also many English verbs where the tense inflection is indicated with a change in the vowel of the verb (sang, wrote, ate).  English does not have a bound morpheme that indicates future tense, but many languages do.

Verb Agreement

Another kind of inflectional morphology is agreement on verbs.  If you’ve learned French or Spanish or Italian, you know that the suffix at the end of a verb changes depending on who the subject of the verb is.  That’s agreement inflection.  Here are some examples from French. You can see that there’s a different morpheme on the end of each verb depending on who’s doing the singing.

1st je chante I sing
2d tu chantes you sing
3d elle chante she sings
1st nous chantons we sing
2d vous chantez you (pl.) sing
3d elles chantent they sing

Case Inflection

And in some languages, the morphology on a noun changes depending on the noun’s role in a sentence; this is called case inflection.  Take a look at these two sentences in German:

Der Junge sieht Sofia. The boy sees Sofia.
Sofia sieht den Jungen Sofia sees the boy.

The first one, Der Junge sieht Sofia, means that, “The boy sees Sofia”.  Look at the form of the phrase, the boy, “der Junge”. Now, look at this other sentence, Sofia sieht den Jungen, which means that “Sofia sees the boy”. In the first sentence, the boy is doing the seeing, but in the second, the boy is getting seen, and the word for boy, Junge has a different morpheme on it to indicate its different role in the sentence.  That’s an example of case morphology, which is another kind of inflection.

Check Your Understanding

Derivational Morphology

The other big job that morphemes have is a derivation.  The derivation is the process of creating a new word. The new, derived word is related to the original word, but it has some new component of meaning to it, and often it belongs to a new category.

One of the most common ways that English derives new words is by affixing a derivational morpheme to a base.  For example, if we start with a verb that describes an action, like teach, and we add the morpheme –er, we derive a morphologically complex noun, teacher, that refers to the person who does the action of teaching. That same -er morpheme does the same job in singer, dancer, baker, and writer.

Verb Suffix Noun
teach -er teacher
sing -er singer
dance -er dancer
bake -er baker
write -er writer

If we start with an adjective like happy and add the suffix –ness, we derive the noun that refers to the state of being that adjective, happiness.

Verb Suffix Noun
teach -er teacher
sing -er singer
dance -er dancer
bake -er baker
write -er writer

Adding the suffix –ful to a noun derives an adjective, like hopeful.

Noun Suffix Adjective
hope -ful hopeful
joy -ful joyful
care -ful careful
dread -ful dreadful

Adding the suffix–ize to an adjective like final derives a verb like finalize.

Adjective Suffix Verb
final -ize finalize
modern -ize modernize
social -ize socialize
public -ize publicize

Notice that each of the morphologically complex derived words is related in meaning to the base, but it has a new meaning of its own. English also derives new words by prefixing, and while adding a derivational prefix does lead to a new word with a new meaning, it often doesn’t lead to a category change.

Prefix Verb Verb
re- write rewrite
re- read reread
re- examine reexamine
re- assess reassess

Check Your Understanding

Each instance of derivation creates a new word, and that new word could then serve as the base for another instance of derivation, so it’s possible to have words that are quite complex morphologically.

For example, say you have a machine that you use to compute things; you might call it a computer (compute + -er).Then if people start using that machine to perform a task, you could say that they’re going to computerize (computer + -ize) that task.  Perhaps the computerization (computerize + -ation) of that task makes it much more efficient. You can see how many words have many steps in their derivations.

An interesting thing to note is that once a base has been inflected, then it can no longer go through any derivations.  We can inflect the word computer so that we can talk about plural computers, but then we can’t do derivation on the plural form (*computers-ize).  Likewise, we can add tense inflection to the verb computerize and talk about how yesterday we computerized something, but then we can’t take that inflected form and use it as the base for a new derivation (*computerized-ation).  Inflection always occurs as the last step in word formation.

Word Creation

Back in Chapter 1 we learned that mental grammar is generative, that is, it allows users to create, or generate, brand new words and sentences that have never been spoken before. And in fact, one of the fastest ways that languages change, and the easiest way to observe, is by new words entering the language.


There are all kinds of different ways that new words can make their way into a language. It’s possible to coin a new word, that is, to create a completely new form that hasn’t existed before. Let’s say we made up a word, vrang; we don’t know what it means because we just made it up. But that was pretty hard to do — many new words we try to create turn out to have some obscure definition. So brand new coinages are possible, but they don’t actually happen very often.

One way that English gets a lot of new words is by borrowing them from other languages. You can probably think of many common English words that started out as borrowings from other languages and became deeply embedded in the English lexicon, like anime, from Japanese, limousine from French, and boomerang from Australian Indigenous languages.

Of course, one of the most obvious ways to derive a new words is with an affix. You might recognize the suffix –ology, which usually means “the study of.” So mythology involves studying myths, criminology is the study of criminality, and epidemiology is the study of epidemics. The Oxford English Dictionary recently added garbageology, the study of a society or community by investigating what people consider to be garbage.

In English, affixation is one of the most productive ways to derive new words: No matter what the word is, you can almost always add an affix to derive a new, related word from it. Some other new affixed words that have found their way into the dictionary are enoughness, farmette (a small farm), and unfathom.

Another extremely productive way of deriving new words in English is by compounding, that is, by taking two existing words, both of which are free morphemes, and sticking them together. For example, the year 2020 saw the words plant-based, jerkweed, and delete key added to the dictionary.

Affixation is quite productive, meaning that our mental grammar uses the process for many different words, even for new words that come into the language. You’ve probably generated new words yourself sometimes by adding affixes to existing words.

Another extremely productive derivational process in English is compounding. Compounding is different from affixation. In affixation, a bound morpheme is affixed to a base. Compounding derives a new word by joining two morphemes that would each usually be free morphemes.

For example, if I take the free morpheme green, an adjective, and combine it with the free morpheme house, a noun, I get the new word greenhouse. We can tell that this is a new word because its meaning is different from what we would get if we just combined the two words to make a phrase. We could walk down the street describing houses: This is a brown house, and this one here is a tall house, and here is a red house, and here is a green house. But a greenhouse is something different from a house that’s green! It’s a new word, derived by compounding.


Image of house painted the colour green
Credit: Joe Shlabotnik on Flickr; Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)
Greenhouse where plants are grown
Image “Greenhouse at Wilson Farm, East Lexington MA“ by John Phelan is licensed under CC BY 3.0.

So we can say that productivity is a property of morphological processes in the grammar of a language. A given process is productive if it’s one that the language uses a lot, and uses to generate new forms. For example, in English the plural morpheme spelled –s is extremely common, and we see it on words like socks, cars, bananas, stars, and thousands of others. In contrast, a plural affix –en is very rare in English: we see it on the plural forms children, oxen, and the very old-fashioned word brethren, but pretty much nowhere else. And if we coin a new word, like vrang, and then decide we have more than one vrang, the plural we use is going to be vrangs, not vrangen.

If you look through the lists of new words that get added to dictionaries each year, you’ll see that besides affixation and compounding, there are other morphological processes that occur in English. Here are some of them.

One thing that English does a lot is take a word from one syntactic category and just move it to another category with a new meaning. For example, the old meaning of ghost is the noun meaning, and then there’s the newer verb meaning, where if you ghost someone you just stop replying to their messages and kind of disappear from their life. Not very nice! Likewise, catfish and sundown have newer, verb meanings that are different from their original compound noun meanings.

Acronyms pretty frequently make their way into English and some of them stick around, especially in typed form online, like a link that’s not-safe-for-work, the classic LOL, and of course, “too long, didn’t read”.

Clipping happens when we take a long word and just clip part of it off. Usually the meaning doesn’t change, but often the clipped form becomes much more frequent then the long form. Does anyone even know that fax is shortened from facsimile? And certainly noone talks about electronic mail anymore.

A few years ago clipping had a brief moment in the way some young people talked, so you might have an outfit that’s totes adorbs, or a relaish that’s not serious, just cazh. This trend seems to have lost its popularity, the way language fads often do.

The word-formation process that I’ve left for last is my favorite because I find a lot of them so funny. That’s the blend, or portmanteau, the process whereby two words are kind of jammed together, but not in a compound. Instead some parts of the two words overlap with each other, like when spoon and fork combine to make spork. The best blends, the ones that stick around in the language and become permanent, seem to share a syllable like the second syllable in both hungry and angry (hangry), or at least share some segments and the rhythmic pattern, like athleisure. And then there are some that just seem to be trying too hard, peanutritious, Christmasketball, and (shudder) covidpreneur. I’m no prescriptivist, but I hope these words die a quick death.

All these words are examples of the generativity of grammar. Languages are constantly adding new words, using the productive morphological processes that are part of the grammar. Pay attention to the new words you discover as you read and listen, and see if you can figure out how they’re formed.

Exercises: Try it!

Because of morphemes, it’s easy to create new words in language. For example, here are some made up words (they probably don’t exist in a dictionary and you’ve probably never heard them before), but you can probably understand what they mean as long as they’re all made of morphemes that you already know:

  • unsmelly
  • smellability

Give it a try! Use your knowledge of morphology to make up a few new words.


A morpheme is the smallest unit that pairs a consistent form with a consistent meaning. But when we say that the form of a morpheme is consistent, there’s still some room for variability in the form. Think back to what you know about phonology and remember that a given phoneme can show up as different allophones depending on the surrounding environment. Morphemes work the same way: a given morpheme might have more than one allomorph. Allomorphs are forms that are related to each other, but slightly different, depending on the surrounding environment.

  • Words can be analyzed into morphs.
  • Morphs can be grouped into morphemes.
  • Morphs of the same morpheme are allomorphs.

A simple example is the English word a.  It means something like “one of something, but not any particular one,” like in these examples:

a book
a skirt
a friend
a phone call

But if the word following a begins with a vowel and not a consonant, then the word a changes its form:

an apple
an ice cream cone
an iguana
an idea

The two forms a and an are slightly different in their form, but they clearly both have the same meaning. And each one shows up in a different predictable environment: a before words that start with consonants and an before words that begin with vowels.

Another example of allomorphy in English is in the plural morpheme. In written English, the form of the plural morpheme is spelled -s, as in:


But it’s spelled –es in words like:


And in fact, even in the cases where it’s spelled -s, it’s pronounced as [s] for words that end in a voiceless segment (carrots, books, cliffs) and as [z] for words that end in voiced sounds (worms, dogs, birds).  So it’s got two written forms (-s and -es) and three spoken forms ([s], [z], [ɨz]), but a consistent meaning of “more than one”.  Each form is an allomorph of the plural morpheme.

Morphological Analysis

One of the great things about linguistics is that it allows us to study other languages, even if we do not speak the language. We can use morphology to examine the structure of words and how they are used.


Now, test your knowledge with the following exercises:

Exercise 1

All languages make a distinction between singular and plural nouns, but some languages, like Inuktitut, also use inflectional morphology to indicate dual number when there are exactly two of something, as in the following examples:

matu door
matuuk doors (two)
matuit doors (three or more)
nuvuja cloud
nuvujaak clouds (two)
nuvujait clouds (three or more)
qarasaujaq computer
qarasaujaak computers (two)
qarasaujait computers (three or more)

Can you spot the derivations? What must be added to indicate two of something? What must be added to indicate more than two of something?

In the video, the speaker mentions cryptograms. Here is a fun website where you can try solving a cryptogram.


Examine the singular and plural forms of the words below from the Ilocano language. Can you determine how the plural is formed?
Singular Plural Meaning
ŋgan piŋŋgan dish/dishes
tálon  taltálon field/fields
dálon  daldálon road/roads
úlo  ulúlo head/heads
múla  mumúla plant/plants
táwa  tawtáwa window/window


Interestingly, there are some differences in morphology between British and American English. For example, in British English, the past tense and past participle of the verbs learn, spoil, spell, burn, dream, smell, spill, leap, and others, can be formed with -t (learnt, spoilt, etc.) or with the regular -ed (learned, spoiled, etc.). These subtle differences illustrate the variability of language as it evolves over time.

Understanding how words are put together is yet another important aspect of our study of language and culture. Learning about morphology can improve your own language and vocabulary skills, making learning new words easier because you understand the building blocks of language. Additionally, understanding morphology helps us to appreciate the creative ways people use language to generate new words and phrases to accommodate their experiences.



This chapter is licensed CC-BY-SA.

Content for this chapter has been adapted from the following:

Essentials of Linguistics by Catherine Anderson is licensed under CC-By-SA-4.0.

Using Morphemes to Create New Words” by Stephen Politzer-Ahles. CC-BY-4.0.

VLC206 – Morphology by Jürgen Handke, Peter Franke, Linguistic Engineering Team under CC BY 4.0

British vs American English licensed CC-BY-SA-4.0.



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More than Words Copyright © 2022 by Dr. Karen Palmer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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