PHONOLOGY has been described as the study of speech sounds and their patterns. It is a study based on the ‘phoneme’ or smallest significant unit of speech. Morphology is the study of morphemes, which are the smallest significant units or grammar. This definition becomes more comprehensible if you look at some examples. If you examine such pattern as:

            (a)   cat                                    cats

                   mat                       mats

                   bat                                    bats


            (b)   cook                     cooked

                   look                      looked

                   book                     booked

you will see that in (a) plurality is indicated by adding  +s  to the singular noun thus:

            singular                        plural

            cat                               cat + s

            mat                              mat +s

            bat                               bat +s

In each example, there are two morphemes, the morpheme ‘cat’ (or the morpheme ‘mat’ or ‘bat’) and the morpheme ‘s’ which in many English words marks the difference between singular and plural. In (b) there is the following patterns:

            Present                                    Past

            cook                            cook +ed

            look                             look +ed

            book                            book +ed

where the ‘ed’ morpheme indicates the past tense for many English verbs.


If you look at a number of other examples you can establish different categories of morpheme. The words:



can be split up into:




In both these examples, the words are composed of three morphemes, only one of which can occur in isolation:

            that man is very tired.

            What do you mean?

Morphemes which can occur freely on their own are called ‘free’ morphemes. Morphemes which can only occur as affixes are described as ‘bound’ morphemes (or affixes) are divided into two types: those like ‘dis-‘ and ‘un-‘ which precede words (that is, free morphemes) and which are called prefixes and those like ‘-ly’ and ‘-ness’ which follow free morphemes and which are called suffixes.


Often, morphemes which fulfill the same function have slightly different forms. If you look at the following three words:




you will notice that, in the written form, they all have the ‘-ed’ morpheme indicating the past tense. When you pronounce these words, however, you become aware that the ‘-ed’ morpheme has three different forms:




/d/ in ‘slammed’, /t/ in ‘slipped’ and /ıd/ in ‘stilted’. When a morpheme has alternative forms the various forms are known as ‘allomorphs’.

       Take another example. Some English adjective form their opposites by prefixing the bound morpheme ‘in-‘:

            capable                        incapable

            tolerant                        intolerant

Often, however, the negative morpheme changes ‘n’ to the consonant of the word it prefixes:

            legal                             illegal

            mobile                         immobile

            regular                         irregular

‘il-‘, ‘im-‘, ‘in-‘ and ‘ir-‘ can thus be called allomorphs.


Morphology fulfils two main functions in English. Morphemes can be used to form new words:

            beauty + ful > beautiful

            danger + ous > dangerous

or to inflect verbs and nouns:

            look, look+s, look+ing, look+ed

            tree, tree+s

The first category is known as derivational morphology and it involves prefixation:

            re + turn > return

            un + true > untrue


            man + ly > manly

            wicked + ness > wickedness

or affixation involving both prefixation and suffixation:

            un + speak + able > unspeakable

            sub + conscious + ly > subconsciously

Commonly occurring prefixes are ‘be-‘, ‘en-, ‘ex-‘, ‘hyper-‘, ‘pre-‘, ‘pro-‘, ‘re-‘, ‘sub-‘, ‘super-‘ and ‘trans-‘. Prefixes alter meaning but do not always change the function of the word to which they are prefixed:

            prefix                Free morpheme (Class)                 Result(Class)

            be                    witch (n.)                                 bewitch (v)

            de                    limit (v.)                                   delimit (v.)

            en                    rich (adj.)                                 enrich (v.)

            ex                     terminate (v.)                           exterminate (v.)

            hyper               market (n.)                               hypermarket (n.)

Commonly occurring suffixes always change the class of the word to which they are attached:

            beauty (n.) + ful                      beautiful (adj.)

            determine(v.) + ation               determination (n.)

Words ending in the moephemes ‘-acy’, ‘-ation’, ‘-er/-or’, ‘-ess’, ‘-ity’, ‘-ment’, ‘-ness’ and ‘-ship’ tend to be nouns:

            democracy                   actor                            bewilderment

            adoration                     mistress                       weakness

            painter                         solemnity                     horsemanship

Words ending n ‘-ise’/ize’ tend to be verbs:



Words ending in ‘-able’, ‘-ed’, ‘-ful’, ‘-ical’, ‘-ive’, ‘-less’, ‘-ous’ and ‘-y’ tend to be adjectives:

            an enjoyable film

            a polished performance

            a comical episode

            a diminutive person

            a helpless individual

            a workmanlike effort

            an industrious group

            a pretty girl

And words which end in ‘-ly’ tend to be adverbs:

            He ran home quickly.

            She locked the doors securely.

Although the above suffixes tend to be associated with particular word classes, it is always worth remembering that, in English, it is only safe to judge the class of an item when it has been seen in context. Thus, although ‘lovely’ and ‘friendly’ end in ‘-ly’ they function as adjectives and not as adverbs:

            a lovely girl                  a friendly welcome


Whereas derivational affixes often involve a change of class – such as the verb ‘attract’ becoming the adjective ‘attractive’ – inflectional suffixes never involve a change of class. Inflectional morphology occurs with nouns, pronouns and verbs. In nouns, inflection marks plurality in regular nouns:

            book                            books

            chair                            chairs

and the possessive of all nouns:

            John                             John’s book/books

            the man                       the man’s book/books

            the men                       the men’s book/books

            the builders                  the builders’ material/materials

Irregular nouns often form their plurals by a vowel change:

            foot                              feet

            man                             men

            mouse  /maʊs/           mice /maıs/

but they form the possessive in exactly the same way as regular nouns:

            the dog                                    the dog’s tail

            the mouse                    the mouse’s nose

There is no difference in sound between a regular noun’s plural form and its possessive:

            the doctor

            the doctor’s patients

            the doctors

            the doctors’ patients

In the written medium, however, the apostrophe indicates whether or not we are dealing with a possessive and whether or not the possessive is singular or plural.

With regard to verbs in English, inflectional suffixes are used to indicate present tense agreement:


            you                              look/sing




            he/she/it                     look+s/sing+s

and the present participle:


For regular verbs the past tense and the past participle are formed by suffix ‘-ed’:

            I look+ed/ I have look+ed

whereas, with irregular verbs, the past tense and the past participle are often signaled by a vowel change or a vowel change plus a suffix:

            sing                              sang                             sung

            take                             took                             taken

            write                            wrote                           written


DERIVATIONAL MORPHOLOGY takes one word and changes it into another, creating new lexical entries. In the clearest cases, it creates a word of another syntactic category. For example, the suffix –ness changes adjectives into abstract nouns, as in fat-ness, dry-ness, and red-ness. The suffix –(e)r changes verbs into nouns, as in teach-er, erase-r, farm-er, and tease-r. the suffix  -ify changes nouns or adjectives into verbs, as in class-ifypur-ify, and null-ify.

INFLECTIONAL MORPHOLOGY, on the other hand, does not change one word into another and never changes syntactic category. Rather, it produces another form of the same word. For example, when the English in inflectional suffix –(e)s is added to a noun, it produces the plural form of the same noun, not a new word. The same is true for other inflectional affixes:

            -(e)s       third person singular present (on verbs)

            -(e)d      past (on verbs)

As it turns out, this is essentially all the inflectional morphology there is in English; most other affixes (dozens of them) are derivational. Other languages have much more inflectional morphology  than English does.

The essential difference between inflection and derivation is whether the addition of an affix creates a new word or just another form of the same word. There are three other important differences between inflection and derivation. One concerns PRODUCTIVITY: inflectional morphology is very productive, while derivational  morphology usually is not. What this means is that if you take an inflectional affix that normally goes on verbs, you should be able to  attach it easily to newly invented or borrowed words. English past tense marking is inflectional and so it is very productive – when new verbs are coined, their past tense is automatically available in the grammar. For example, English speakers added –(e)d to the new verb digitize to form digitized without blinking an eye.

Derivational affixes, on the other hand, often cannot be used with such generality. Indeed, they often cannot be used even on words that have been in the language for centuries. Consider the following examples of derivational affixes; some work and others fail. The ones that fail do so not because of any general rule, but simply because the resulting words don’t happen to exist.

                   Good                                Bad

            same-ness                       *different-ness

            weakness                       *strong-ness

            mad-ness                                    *sane-ness

One simply has to memorize which derived words contain –ness and which do not. This memory load is hardly ever necessary with inflection.

   Of course, some derivational affixes are more productive than others. The suffix –er is relatively productive; word game players know that practically any verb can be turn into a noun by adding –(e)r. so, we aren’t dealing with a hard and fast distinction, but in general inflection is more productive than derivation.

Another difference is that derivational affixes often have lexical meaning, while inflectional affixes usually have grammatical meaning. For example, one meaning of the derivational suffix  -er can be expressed as ‘a person who …’, but the meaning of inflectional –(e)d is best expressed with the technical term ‘past tense’.

The third difference between inflection and derivation is that different inflected forms of a word can usually be usefully organized into a type of chart called a PARADIGM. For an example of this, we need to go to Spanish, a language that has more inflectional morphology than English. Most books about Spanish present the different forms of verbs in paradigms, the following chart of the present tense of andar ‘to walk’.

                                                Singular           Plural

            first person                  ando                 andamos

            second person              andas                andais

            third person                 anda                 andan


The information on morphology can be summarized as follows: