Making Sense of Morphemes



A GrammarBook.com reader recently wrote to us with a question about the use of morphemes in American English. We thought this was a good opportunity to review the subject in further understanding the structure and parts of our language.

Language, like matter, can be broken down from its largest to its smallest components. The five grammatical units of English are sentence, clause, phrase, word, and, the least of them, the morpheme. (An alphabet letter would not be considered a grammatical unit, nor would phonemes and syllables, which pertain to sounds in language.)

Dictionary.com defines a morpheme as “any of the minimal grammatical units of language, each constituting a word or meaningful part of a word, that cannot be divided into smaller independent grammatical parts, such as ‘the,’ ‘write,’ or the ‘-ed’ of ‘waited.’ ”

Every word in American English includes at least one morpheme. A morpheme differs from a word mainly in that it may or may not stand alone, whereas a word, by definition, is always independent.

When a morpheme can stand alone with its own meaning, it is a root, or the base to which other morphemes can be added (e.g., dog, cat, house). When a morpheme depends on another morpheme to complete its idea, it is an affix (e.g., -est needs fast to function for the superlative fastest; il- needs logical to help us state something is “not” logical).

Thus, morphemes are either free (root) or bound (affix). Because it has its own meaning, a free morpheme can serve as a word that does not always require other morphemes. Because a bound morpheme offers only a partial meaning, it cannot service as word; it will always have to join with a free morpheme to form one. Both prefixes and suffixes are bound morphemes.

Consider the morphemes in the following words; the bound morphemes are italicized and separated from the free morphemes by hyphens:

multi-million-aire un-certain-ty
trans-continent-al dis-agree-ment
tele-graph-y peace-ful-ness

Understanding morphemes helps us better recognize how words are formed and frees us to work with linguistic parts more aptly in achieving written precision.

 

Pop Quiz

In the following words, identify if the italicized morpheme is free or bound.

1. uncommon
a) free morpheme
b) bound morpheme

2. honorary
a) free morpheme
b) bound morpheme

3. provocative
a) free morpheme
b) bound morpheme

4) inflectional
a) free morpheme
b) bound morpheme

5) capitalization
a) free morpheme
b) bound morpheme

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. uncommon
a) free morpheme
b) bound morpheme

2. honorary
a) free morpheme
b) bound morpheme

3. provocative
a) free morpheme (the root is provoke)
b) bound morpheme

4) inflectional
a) free morpheme
b) bound morpheme

5) capitalization
a) free morpheme
b) bound morpheme

Posted on Tuesday, October 16, 2018, at 11:00 pm

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6 Comments on Making Sense of Morphemes

6 responses to “Making Sense of Morphemes”

  1. Donna Repetski says:

    Regarding morphemes, then what is the difference between a morpheme and syllable?

    • A morpheme is the smallest grammatical unit with a meaning in a word, whereas a syllable is the smallest speech sound in a word.

      Consider the word “transcontinental” as an example. “Transcontinental” has three morphemes, or units in a word that have a meaning: “trans-” (bound morpheme), “continent” (free morpheme), and “-al” (bound
      morpheme). The same word has five syllables (sounds), not all of which have a meaning or even a unity to form a morpheme: “trans-con-ti-nen-tal.”

  2. Wendi says:

    Two things I need clarification on:

    1) Wouldn’t a phoneme, after morpheme, be the smallest grammatical unit of English?

    2) You say, “Thus, morphemes are either free (root) or bound (affix). A free morpheme has its own meaning. A bound morpheme does not; both prefixes and suffixes are bound morphemes.” Yet, you use “il-logical” as an example of this and il- means not, doesn’t it? That tells me bound morphemes can have meaning on their own.

    • 1) A morpheme is the smallest grammatical unit in language. A phoneme is an indivisible sound in language. In a word such as “continental,” for example, the morphemes are “continent” (free) and “-al” (bound). Each morpheme has a meaning in building the word. Phonemes are the sounds that form the word: “con-ti-nen-tal.” The sounds produce the words but do not have meanings of their own.

      2) A free morpheme is a morpheme that can stand on its own without any other morphemes – e.g., we can say, “That statement is logical.” A bound morpheme has a partial meaning that is not complete unless it is joined to a free morpheme; we would not say, “That statement is il-.”

  3. Bucky Killpatrick says:

    What is the current thinking on using “quality” as a word without a modifier, e.g., high- or low-quality? Being an old curmudgeon, I don’t accept “quality” as a substitute for high-quality. To wit, if ‘they’ say, “We stayed in quality lodgings,” it begs the question whether said lodgings were vermin infested or the cat’s meow.

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