Verbal morphology

Verbal morphology  typically involves many more grammatical meanings than noun morphology.

  1. TENSE refers to the relation between the time of the situation described by the verb and the moment of speech.  You’re probably  already familiar with the distinction between PAST, PRESENT, and, FUTURE. Some languages only make a two-way distinction in their morphology, between  past and NONPAST or between future and NONFUTURE. For example, English verbs indicate tense by the presence or absence of -(e)d.  The presence of -(e)d indicates past tense, its absence indicates nonpast, since this form is used both for present and future situations.

(2)         a. I walk-ed

  1. I (will) work-Ø

Future time is distinguished from present by a separate auxiliary verb, will,  not by tense morphology on the verb. (the null sign Ø in example (2) indicates the absence of any suffix in a particular position.  Linguists sometimes talk about ZERO MORPHEMES.) In addition to all these possibilities, languages sometimes subdivide past tense into RECENT PAST (e.g., earlier today) and REMOTE PAST (e.g., before today), or even three or four degrees of remoteness from the present moment.

  1. ASPECT refers to the time of a situation in relation to its context. The two major distinctions that languages make are between PERFECTIVE and IMPERFECTIVE aspect. In imperfective aspect, the internal temporal structure of a situation (its beginning, middle, or end) is being presented as important, while in perfective, only the situation as a whole is important. Quite often, imperfective is used for present events (which are not complete and whose internal structure is therefore of interest) while perfective is used for past events (which are usually presented as complete wholes). However imperfect can also be used in past time, in context like this:

(3)               Imperfective                                         perfective

          While I was wandering through the maze, I noticed a strange design on one wall.

Since the time of noticing occurs entirely inside the time span of the wandering, the internal structure of the wandering is important. Thus wander would be presented in imperfective and notice in perfective. So, often aspect presents the time of each verb with respect to the other verbs in context, not to a fixed present moment.

       Sometimes, language also distinguishes between two types of imperfective aspect, called HABITUAL and PROGRESSIVE.  Habitual  aspect refers to situations that occur repeatedly or typically, such as ‘He is empties the trash on Tuesdays’. progressive refers to one-time or on-going events, such as ‘He is emptying the trash now’

       You will also encounter something called PERFECT ASPECT. It corresponds in meaning to the English auxiliary verb ‘have’ and is often translated ‘have already’. It is not the same as perfective aspect; in fact, it is really more like a tense than an aspect.

aspect n

a term used to denote the activity, event, or state described by a verb, for example whether the activity is ongoing or completed. Two types of aspect are commonly recognized:

  1. lexical aspect (or inherent lexical aspect) refers to the internal semantics

of verbs, which can be grouped into a number of categories:

states, verbs that refer to unchanging conditions (see STATIVE VERB), for example be, have, want

activities, verbs referring to processes with no inherent beginning or end point, for example play, walk, breathe

accomplishments, which are durative (last for a period of time) but have an inherent end point, for example read a book, write a novel

achievements, which are nondurative and have an inherent end point, for example finish, realize, arrive

  1. grammatical aspect, on the other hand, refers to the resources provided by a language (such as verbal auxiliaries, prefixes and suffixes) to encode different perspectives taken by a speaker towards activities, events, and states.

Languages make available different options for realizing aspect grammatically.

English has two grammatical aspects: PROGRESSIVE and PERFECT.

see also TENSE1

  1. MOOD refers to the relationship between the situation reported by the verb and reality. I introduce only two types here: INDICATIVE (used for statement and questions, and concerned with  how things actually are) and IMPERATIVE (used for commands, and concerned with how the speaker would like things to be)


a set of contrasts which are often shown by the form of the verb and which express the speaker’s or writer’s attitude to what is said or written.

Three moods have often been distinguished:

indicative mood: the form of the verb used in DECLARATIVE SENTENCEs or

QUESTIONs. For example:

She sat down.

Are you coming?

imperative mood: the form of the verb in IMPERATIVE SENTENCEs. For example:

Be quiet!

Put it on the table!

In English, imperatives do not have tense or perfect aspect (see ASPECT)

but they may be used in the progressive aspect. For example:

Be waiting for me at five.

subjunctive mood: the form of the verb often used to express uncertainty, wishes, desires, etc. In contrast to the indicative mood, the subjunctive usually refers to non-factual or hypothetical situations. In English, little use of the subjunctive forms remains. The only remaining forms are:

  1. be(present subjunctive), were (past subjunctive) of be
  2. the stem form, e.g.have, come, sing of other verbs (present subjunctive


The use of the subjunctive form is still sometimes found in:

a that clauses after certain verbs. For example:

It is required that she be present.

I demand that he come at once.

past subjunctive of be in if clauses. For example:

If I were you, I’d go there.

in some fixed expressions. For example:

So be it.

  1. agreement. The most common type of AGREEMENT is morphology on the verb that indicates something about the subject. For  example, in English present tense verbs with third person singular subjects  carry an–s suffix. If the subject is some other person or number, the suffix is absent.

(4)   a. she/he/it  ride-s fifteen miles a day.

  1. I/we/you/they ride-Ø fifteen miles a day.

We say that English verbs ‘agree with their subjects in person and number’.

Stem and affixes

Morphology has to do with the various ways that morphemes are combined to form words.

      Stems usually have richer semantics than affixes. That is, stems usually have lexical  meaning, while affixes often (not always) have grammatical meaning. Thus, stems can usually be glossed by a translation equivalent, while affixes often require technical linguistic terms.

       Stems are usually members of OPEN CLASSES, while affixes are almost always members of CLOSED CLASSES. ‘Open’ and ‘closed’ refer partly to the number of members in a class, but more to the possibility of adding new members to the class.

      Finally, affixes are always BOUND, while stems may be either bound or FREE. When we say that morpheme is free, we mean that it can occur by itself as a word. A morpheme that is bound cannot be a word by itself but must always be attached to some other morphemes.

       In summary the distinction between stems and affixes is a distinction between the central and peripheral parts of a word. The normal characteristics of stems and affixes are summarized  in the following chart:

STEMS                                       AFFIXES

Usually lexical meaning                  usually grammatical meaning

Usually from open classes             almost always from closed classes

Either bound or free                     always bound

open class n

also open set

a group of words (a WORD CLASS), which contains an unlimited number of items.

Nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs are open-class words. New words

can be added to these classes, e.g. laser, e-commerce, chatroom.

The word classes conjunctions, prepositions, and pronouns consist of

relatively few words, and new words are not usually added to them.

These are called closed classes, or closed sets.