What Are the Elements of English Morphology?

Mark Wollacott

Inflection and derivation are the two basic elements of English morphology. Inflection refers to the patterns of word structures and derivation to created words with a new meaning. English has both regular and irregular morphology. It covers pronouns, nouns, verbs and adjectives in all their forms.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology linguist Noam Chomsky has contributed to theories of language acquisition and how we learn to use grammar.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology linguist Noam Chomsky has contributed to theories of language acquisition and how we learn to use grammar.

Morphology is the study of a word’s internal structure. The word morphology is not related directly to the word morph, as in to change, but comes from the word morpheme. A morpheme is the most basic, but meaningful, unit in the English language. Morphemes can be either free or bound.

A free morpheme is one that has a meaning if left to itself. For example, ‘cat’ is a free morpheme, as is ‘a’ and ‘berry.’ Bound morphemes are words or units that have no meaning by themselves. For example, ‘cran’ and ‘sume’ are bound morphemes and must be combined with another morpheme to make something meaningful such as ‘cranberry’ and ‘resume.’

Inflection, in English morphology, is used to express different grammatical categories, even classes, using the same base word. With nouns, this means indicating number and possessive. With verbs, this means tenses such as third person singular, past, present-continuous and perfect aspect. Adjective inflection is used to indicate comparative and superlative forms.

Elements of English morphology have changed over time. Nouns, verbs and adjectives have lost their gender inflections, for example. Old English verbs were also divided into strong and weak verbs, which they no longer are. Nouns have also lost their links to sentence function such as dative and accusative forms. These now absent forms put English on a par with European languages such as German.

Derivation in English morphology is similar to Noam Chomsky’s mergers. Chomsky defined merging as when two words are placed next to one another to make a new label or meaning like "steam engine" or "hot chocolate." There are various ways of using English words to make new meanings. Two words can be shunted together in what is called compounding, they can be merged into one to make blendings or have their class changed in conversion.

Simple compounds put two words together to create something new. For example, sky and dive combined created "skydive" or dish and washer together makes "dishwasher." Any combination of nouns, verbs and adjectives can be put together to create new words such as "redneck" and "checkmate."

Blendings, in English morphology, refer to the combination of two words where elements of one or both words are removed. This is a shortening of the word to make something more manageable. Examples of blendings include electronic plus mail to make "email" and web plus log to make "blog."

Conversions change a word from one grammatical class to another. For example, it turns a noun like paper into a verb, "to paper." Nouns, adjectives and verbs are theoretically interchangeable in English. This gives writers creative opportunities that many languages do not have, but that does not mean they will be accepted as standard English.

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Discussion Comments


With the way words and phrases are constantly changing, one can only wonder how words will morph a few years from now. After all, in a society that's constantly changing, words that seem normal to us now, might become awkward or outdated in the future. Internet lingo is one example of this.


Most of the words that have been combined, we don't even think about. They've become a natural part of how we speak and think. However, the third to last paragraph does bring up a good point. Many of the words we use are created from compound words, whether we realize it or not. The article uses skydive and redneck as an example. Other examples include "rainbow", "firecracker" and "toothpaste".


Though many words do have an interesting morphology, in a world where we're constantly coming up with new things to say, it's always changing. For example, many years ago, people would refer to cyberspace as the internet. However, in this day and age, it's known as the web, which actually makes more sense. Cyberspace can best be described as a giant web that catches all forms of information. It has no limit, and will continue to expand.

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