Morphology concerns the internal structure of words. Words are comprised of units of meaning, called morphemes. Each morpheme is a distinct unit of meaning. For example the word banana is one morpheme while the word uneventfulness contains four morphemes: un- event -ful and -ness. The meaning can be lexical (for example, banana) or grammatical (for example, the plural morpheme -s on nouns such as bananas).

Morphemes are different to syllables. The word bananas contains two morphemes banana-s and three syllables ba-na-nas. (You can identify syllables by clapping the rhythm of the word.)

Morphology also looks at the way morphemes are combined into words. Thus, it distinguishes between forms that can stand alone (bases, for example the verb run) and forms that can be added to bases (for example, the suffix -ing which marks present participles).


1. Words and lexemes

2. Bound versus free morphemes

3. Lexical and grammatical morphemes

4. Bases and affixes

5. Base modification

Related pages

Derivation and inflection

Word formation

Words and lexemes

One preliminary distinction that needs to be drawn is between words and lexemes. The term 'word' is a non-technical term. All of us will agree on the number of words in the following sentence:

Mel phoned the international operator to get help with phoning the forklift operators union representative who was doing volunteer work in Zimbabwe.

In this sentence we'd want to say something more about the words operator, operators and phone, phoning. We'd want to say they're versions of the same thing. These pairs involve different inflections of the same lexeme. The lexeme is the simple form of the word.

Bound versus free morphemes

Free morphemes can stand alone as independent words (for example, custom). Many, but not all, bases are free morphemes.

Bound morphemes cannot stand alone; they must be attached to another morpheme (for example, the suffix -er in the word customer).

Lexical and grammatical morphemes

The meaning that each morpheme encodes can be lexical or grammatical. For example the word apples contains two morphemes: the lexical base apple and the grammatical suffix, the plural marker -s.

Inflectional morphemes are affixes which carry grammatical meaning (for example, the plural suffix -s in cats or progressive -ing in sailing).

Bases and affixes

Morphemes can be either bases (for example, event) or affixes (for example, un-, -ful or -ness). Affixes that come before the base are called prefixes; suffixes follow the base.

Derivational and inflectional affixes are examples of bound morphemes.

Base modification

Base modification is when the base of different inflectional forms of a lexeme differ, for example, sing-sang-sung and mouse-mice. This is also known as suppletion. These different forms were historically more productive, but now only appear as irregular sets of verb inflection and noun inflection.

Base modification can also be used to contrast different parts of speech. Many base modified sets are distinguished in the pronunciation but are spelt the same, e.g. the verb perMIT, with stress on the second syllable, and the noun PERmit, with stress on the first.

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