English Morphology: Inflection versus Derivation

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2009
25 Pages, Grade: 2,0



1. Introduction on Morphology

2. Inflection
2.1 What is Inflectional Morphology?
2.2 Grammatical Categories
2.3 The Inflected Word Classes
2.3.1 Nouns and Verbs
2.3.2 Adjectives and Numerals
2.4 Irregularities of Inflection
2.4.1 Suppletition and Portmanteau Morphemes
2.4.2 Zero-Allomorphs and Vowel Change

3. Derivation
3.1 What is Derivation?
3.2 Derivation via Affixation
3.4 Derivation without Affixation

4. Inflection versus Derivation
4.1 Distinctions
4.1.1 Stem versus Base
4.1.2 Change of the Lexical Meaning
4.1.3 Syntactical versus Lexical Function
4.1.4 “Listedness”
4.1.5 The Position of Derivational and Inflectional Affixes
4.1.6 The Number of Affixes, Limitations and Frequency
4.2 Similarities
4.2.1 Roots
4.2.2 Suffixes
4.2.3 Irregularities
4.2.4 Inherent and Contextual Inflection versus Derivation

5. Conclusion

6. List of Sources

1. Introduction to Morphology

What is morphology? An easy answer would be: “It is a field of linguistics!” But it is far more complex then this reply reveals. The field of morphology studies and analyses the form of words by factorizing them into morphemes. These morphemes are the smallest units the word can be divided in. But what is the smallest unit of a word? This could also be a letter. There is one word missing, which makes the definition complete, namely ‘meaning’. A proper definition of the term can be found in the OALD: “Morpheme: the smallest unit of meaning that a word can be divided into (827).” Words and morphemes are linguistic signs but even though the morpheme is considered a meaningful unit does not mean that every morpheme can be a word. Sure, morphemes like ‘go’ are also words because it cannot be subdivided further. There are different kinds of morphemes regarding their distribution and function in the word, which can also be seen in the examples below:

1. states
2. bewitching
3. villages
4. walked
5. went
6. go

At the first view there are just words, but regarding their constituents and thinking about their functions, several distinctions have to be made. ‘States’, for instance, can be divided into state-s. The morpheme state is a verb and the suffix -s indicates the 3rd person singular form of the verb in the present tense, which was added to mark the grammatical category of the verb. The second example shows the adjective ‘bewitching’, which was derived by the verb bewitch by adding the suffix -ing. The prefixes -s and -ing are morphemes too, but they are not words like state or bewitch. The third word is the noun ‘villages’, which is the plural form of village marked by an -s. The plural marker -s of a noun expresses the category number in a rather imprecise way. Singular indicates the amount of one single ‘village’, whereas the word villages just shows that there are more than one village. The noun and the suffix are both linguistic signs, namely morphemes. The examples 4-6 express different verb forms. The verb ‘walked’ consists of the morpheme walk and the suffix -ed which marks the past and the participle form of the verb. This is the regular plural form of verbs in general but there are exceptions to the regular rule. Went, for example, is the irregular past tense form of go but even though is appears in a different formal realization, one knows that the word form comes from the present form of go. To make this more abstract, another term has to be introduced, namely lexeme. Went, for example, is a word-form and belongs to the lexeme go; walked to walk as well as walking. Leonard Lipka provides a definition of the term: “1. A complete sign on a particular linguistic level, namely the lexicon; 2. A class of variants, namely word-forms:

3. An abstract unit of the language system (An Outline of English Lexicology, 73).” Walked and walking belong to the lexeme walk, they are different forms of the lexeme and convey its meaning but the word walker does not because it has a different lexical meaning. Let us come back to the variety of morphemes and the examples. As already described, morphemes are different according to their function. Whereas the morphemes walk and state can stand on their own, the suffixes -ed as well as -s cannot because they would simply make no sense. This is one criterion to distinguish morphemes - according to their distribution. Morphemes can be free or bound. Free morphemes are for instance {ball} and {ear}, {play} and {learn}, {to} and {at}. These morphemes do not need affixes to make sense. They can stand on their own and are also known as roots of words. Free morphemes are lexemes at the same time because the morpheme {play} can also be a lexeme with word-forms like playing plays or played. On the contrary, there are bound morphemes which are affixes like in the examples 1-4. They are called bound morphemes because they cannot stand alone and have to occur in combination with other morphemes to make sense. There are of course some exceptions to the rule. Apparently, it is easy to differentiate between free and bound morphemes but there are cases like ism which seems to be a bound suffix like in ‘national- ism ’ or ‘surreal- ism ’ but recently it can also be used as a free morpheme because it has a single entry in the dictionary. Considering the OALD, ism is a noun, “used to refer to a set of ideas or system of beliefs or behavior.” Another exception is the system of the so called ‘blocked’ morphemes which are rather rare like in the bound words raspberry and cranberry and the initial part of the weekdays like Fri - or Wednes-. These elements occur nowhere else than with the appropriate second part of the words -berry and -day, which are considered as free morphemes.

Apart from the criterion ‘distribution’ morphemes can be differentiated according to their function. They can follow a grammatical/syntactical or lexical/semantic function. Function and distribution determine morphemes and should therefore not be seen isolated from each other. The table below shall give a little overview of the classification of morphemes:

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Image 1; Source: Schmid, Englische Morphologie und Wortbildung, 28-32

Group 1 and 2 are morphemes that can occur freely with the difference that the first group illustrates content words which belong to the open word classes like verbs, nouns, adjectives and adverbs. Open, because the system is open for new word inventions and some old words can vanish. On the other hand, there are the functional words like pronouns, prepositions and articles. These word classes belong to a closed system and new words cannot enter freely. Relevant for the analysis of this paper are group 2 and 4, bound morphemes with a lexical function or with a grammatical function. Both kinds of morphemes are bound and are realized via suffixes. The major difference between them is the function they fulfill, which can also be witnessed in the examples from the very beginning. When fractionizing ‘be-witch-ing’ and regarding the affixes it is different to the word ‘state-s’. First of all, ‘bewitching’ involves a prefix and a suffix whereas ‘state’ is marked by the suffix -s.

1. The old house is bewitching.
2. She states that she understands morphology.

Not every bound morpheme fulfils the same function. The personal pronoun she in sentence one causes the 3rd person plural -s suffix at the end of the verb ‘state’ (root ). This is also called ‘subject-verb agreement’ and will be discussed later in the term paper. It is the grammar or the syntax that forces the plural marker of the verb and makes it obligatory. This is different to sentence 2. The adjective ‘bewitching’ is simply derived by the verb ‘bewitch’ , as already discussed, but it has just a lexical function because the form is not required by the syntax. The sentence could also be: The house is red.

These are the two major functional categories of morphemes, which are called ‘derivation’ (class 2 of image 1) and inflection, which is illustrated as class 4 in the chart. The appropriate word building processes are known as derivational morphology, which formed the word ‘bewitching’ and inflectional morphology, which is responsible for the shape of the verb ‘states’. The distinction between both morphological processes is a disputed topic in morphology and therefore has to be analyzed in different aspects (Bybee, Morphology, 81). But, before going too far into the comparison of both morphological processes, the paper sets focus on each process separately, starting with inflection.

2. Inflection

2.1 What is Inflectional Morphology?

According to Carstairs-McCarthy, inflectional morphology is an: “area of morphology concerned with changes in word shape (e.g. through affixation) that are determined by, or potentially affect, the grammatical context in which a word appears (An Introduction to English Morphology 144).” Basically, inflection, as it refers to grammar, affects the content words/open word classes verbs, nouns, adjectives and some adverbs (like ‘soon’), as well as function words/closed word classes like pronouns, articles, modals, auxiliaries or modals (42). The author distinguishes between regular and irregular forms of inflection. The differences will become clear in the following chapters. In contrast to the distinction between regular and irregular inflection, there are other attempts to subdivide inflection into different types. Laurie Bauer differentiates between ‘inherent’ and ‘contextual morphology’. For her ‘contextual morphology’: “[…] is the morphology demanded by the construction in which the word occurs […] (A Glossary of Morphology, 55).” Some inflected forms are used to achieve an agreement between the constituents of the sentence. Others do not depend on such an agreement. They are still relevant to the syntax but not absolutely required. These cases do belong to ‘inherent morphology’. Another author who divided the field of inflection into ‘contextual’ and ‘inherent morphology’ is Martin Haspelmath. He provides a chart for the distinction:

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Image 2; Source: Understanding Morphology,83

In addition to that, the following chapter will reveal the syntactically relevant and semirelevant cases of inflection. Examples for both types will follow.

In general, inflection is a word building process that refers to syntax. Therefore, it cannot change the lexical category of words and does not have to be listed in a lexicon (Beard, Derivation, 45). But, there are exceptions in inflectional morphology that require the listings.

Usually, inflection is realized by affixes or, to be more precise, by suffixes which are added to the root of the word. In English there are just nine inflectional morphemes left, which are listed in the chart below. They change the form of a word grammatically and add information to it. But these morphemes do not change the category of the word.

Inflectional Suffixes

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Image 3; Source: The English Linguistic Tool-Kit and Schmid 53

But, inflection is not always visibly marked as in the examples in the chart above. The shown bound morphemes simply change the word forms of the already existing lexemes in order to make the word suitable for grammar of the sentence. Adding such a suffix to the word means that new information is attached. But this new attachment is limited to one single inflectional morpheme that can be added to a root (Schmid 54). The chart presents the regular realization of the morphological process inflection. But there are irregular and special cases, too, which will also be considered.

2.2 The Grammatical Categories

Before explaining the different inflectional forms, the grammatical categories, which can be seen in the right column of the chart, have to be considered because they are the categories in which the verbs and nouns change in their inflected forms. Inflection is very important in oral or written English, to express time, as a definite point or a period. Furthermore, inflection is used to give the number of persons or objects that are involved and marks possession. These things are presented in the chart as grammatical categories: tense, aspect, voice, person, mood, case and number.


Excerpt out of 25 pages


English Morphology: Inflection versus Derivation
Ernst Moritz Arndt University of Greifswald  (Institut für Anglistik/Amerikanistik)
English Morphology
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
4495 KB
Morphology, Linguistics, Inflection, Derivation, Suppletition, Portmanteau Morphemes, Affixation, Suffixes, Prefixes
Quote paper
Juliane Heß (Author), 2009, English Morphology: Inflection versus Derivation, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/177586


  • guest on 4/15/2013

    vry helpful indeed i like the simplicity of language i highly recommend as reference for beginners

  • guest on 7/5/2014

    When -er is used noncomparatively as in a person who sings (singer) and -ing as in showing (as in a house showing) they function as nouns. Does this mean that -er and -ing can be derivational endings that change meaning?

  • guest on 7/5/2014

    I think you should also note that the -ed and -ing endings can also function as adjectives (past and present participles) and nouns (gerunds).

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