Section 4: Morphemes

Morphemes are the smallest unit of meaning in a language. A morpheme is either a FREE morpheme or a BOUND morpheme (but never both). Words can be made up of one of three combinations: 1) a single free morpheme; 2) a free morpheme plus one or more bound morphemes; or 3) two or more bound morphemes. 

We begin with morphemes, because all words in the English language are constructed from morphemes and an understanding of, especially, derivational and inflectional morphemes can help with identifying words more effectively.

Morphemes should never be confused with syllables. Syllables are units of sound used for pronunciation. Again, morphemes are units of meaning and a single free morpheme may consist of multiple syllables (Massachusetts).

A FREE MORPHEME can carry meaning on its own and does not require a prefix or suffix to give it meaning. For this section, however, we will be less concerned with free morphemes; instead our primary focus be on BOUND MORPHEMES, which carry meaning but cannot stand alone as a word. There are two main types of bound morphemes:

DERIVATIONAL morphemes combine with a limited subgroup of free morphemes or with other derivational morphemes to create a "new" word or change the meaning of a word or change the form-class of a word.

INFLECTIONAL morphemes create a variant form of a word in order to signal grammatical information without changing the meanings of words. 

More specifically we will examine the marked differences between derivational morphemes and inflectional morphemes:

  1. Derivational morphemes create “new” words.
  2. Derivational morphemes change the meanings of words.
  3. Derivational morphemes can change the word’s form-class.
  4. Derivational suffixes always precede any inflectional suffix.
  5. Derivational suffixes have some lexical meaning.
  6. Derivational suffixes can combine with a limited subgroup of bases.
  1. Inflectional morphemes show grammatical relationships.
  2. Inflectional morphemes don’t change the meanings of words.
  3. Inflectional morphemes cannot change the form-class.
  4. Inflectional suffixes always follow any derivational suffix.
  5. Inflectional suffixes have grammatical meaning only.
  6. Inflectional suffixes can combine with nearly all members of a single part of speech.

Derivational morphemes can be used to create all the following words from the base friend:











Each of these words has a different meaning than the base friend. The derivational morphemes have created a new word.

Inflectional morphemes can be used to create all the following words from the base fast:

Friday fasts always leave me starving on Saturdays.

The fast's dates are never convenient.

Wendy usually fasts when she works late.

She fasted earlier this evening.

Now that she is home, she is no longer fasting.

She usually eats faster than I do.

Bill eats the fastest.

Each of these words retains the meaning of the base fast (whether as noun, verb, or adjective). The inflectional morphemes have given us grammatical information.