Inflectional and Derivational Morphology. A Comparison

Term Paper, 2014
16 Pages, Grade: 2.0


Table of Content

1. Introduction

2. Inflectional Morphology
2.1. Definition of Inflectional Morphology
2.2. Inflectional Morphology on Nouns
2.3. Inflectional Morphology on Verbs
2.4. Inflectional Morphology on Adjectives

3. Derivational Morphology
3.1. Definition of Derivational Morphology
3.2. Change of Nouns
3.3. Change of Verbs
3.4. Change of Adjectives

4. Comparison of Inflectional and Derivational Morphology

5. Conclusion

6. References

1. Introduction

Every day we use our language and most of us do not think about how we build words or how they help us to be as precise as possible with what we express. Morphology is the academic branch that in contrast to us focuses on words and their structure.

Morphology as such is a very complex and wide topic and within my term paper I want to focus on only the small sub- chapter of Inflectional and Derivational Morphology.

Inflected words are variations of already existing lexemes that were only changed in their grammatical shape. Therefore many of the Inflectional Morphemes are not listed in the dictionary. If you know the word surprise and look it up you will also find in the same entry the word surprise -s which simply expresses the plural.

Derivational Morphology on the other hand uses affixes to create new words out of already existing lexemes. Typical affixes are -ness, -ish, -ship and so on. These affixes do not change the grammatical shape of a word such as inflectional affixes do, but instead often create a new meaning of the base or change the word class of the base. An Example would be the word light. The plural form light-s would be consider Inflectional Morphology, but if we consider de-light the prefix -de has changed the meaning of the word completely. We now do not think of light in the form of sunshine or lamps anymore but instead about a feeling. Also if we consider en-light the suffix -en has changed the word class of light from noun to verb.

In my term paper I would like to compare Inflectional and Derivational Morphology, not only because I consider this an interesting topic but also because I think it is a topic everybody can relate to. We use Inflection and Derivation every day and in my opinion that is why everybody is able to understand it. Furthermore I would like to show, how Derivational Morphology produces a wider range of words then Inflectional Morphology does. I want to prove, that Inflectional Morphology has its borders and only can produce a certain amount of new lexemes, while Derivational Morphology has endless potential.

To do so my term paper contains first of a section about Inflectional Morphology in which I would like to explain how it is used with nouns, verbs and adjectives and what exceptions and special cases there are. Secondly I want to do the same for Derivational Morphology and then compare both to underline the differences between the two. At the end in my conclusion I would like to sum up the comparison and show why I think Derivational Morphology produces a wider range of new words then Inflectional Morphology does.

2. Inflectional Morphology

2.1. Definition of Inflectional Morphology

Inflection can be seen as the “realization of morphosyntactic features through morphological means” (Aronoff, 2005, p.160). But what exactly does that mean? It means that inflectional morphemes of a word do not have to be listed in a dictionary since we can guess their meaning from the root word. We know when we see the word what it connects to and most times can even guess the difference to its original. For example let us consider help-s, help-ed and help-er. According to what I have said about words listed in the dictionary, all of these variants might be inflectional morphemes, but then on the other hand does help-s really need an extra listing or can we guess from the root help and the suffix -s what it means? Does our natural feeling and instinct for language not tell us, that the suffix –s indicates the third person singular and that help-s therefore only is a variant from help (considering help as a verb and not a noun here)? Yes it does. As native speaker one instantly knows that –s, as also the past form indicator –ed only show a grammatical variant of the root lexeme help.

So why is help-er or even help-less-ness different? The answer is actually very simple. The suffixes in these last two words change the word class and therefore form a new lexeme. Help-er can now be the new root for additional suffixes such help-er-s which would then be an inflectional morpheme again, the root here being the smallest free morpheme after you remove all affixes.

After establishing this we still have a problem if we consider the word help as noun and as verb. How do we distinguish these two? The answer is context and the phenomenon is called a zero morpheme. Only threw context can we say if help is a verb or a noun. To illustrate this consider the following two sentences:

1. I help my grandmother in her garden.
2. He is my grandmother`s help.

Here our general knowledge of words and their meaning shows us, that in 1. help is used as a verb and expresses us working with our grandmother in order to support her. In 2. help is a noun and stands for the person that regularly supports my grandmother. This variation of a word without actually changing its form is called a zero morpheme and cannot only distinguish verb and noun (which makes it a derivational morpheme) but also singular and plural, which makes it an inflectional morpheme. I will talk about this later in 2.2.: Inflection in nouns, though.

“We may define inflectional morphology as the branch of morphology that deals with paradigms. It is therefore concerned with two thing: on the one hand, with the semantic oppositions among categories; and on the other, with the formal means, including inflections, that distinguish them.” (Matthews, 1991, p.38).

In addition to Matthews definition I would say what one should remember to understand inflectional morphology is that it changes the word form, it determines the grammar and it does not form a new lexeme but rather a variant of a lexeme that does not need its own entry in the dictionary.

2.2. Inflectional Morphology on Nouns

Inflection of course can be used on close to every existing word apart from those in closed word classes. The closed word classes include for example Pronouns and Determiners. There are no new words added to these classes and the words included in them are not changed. In open word classes on the other hand new words are constantly added and those existing changed by Inflectional or Derivational Morphology.

Let us start though in Inflectional Morphology with an obvious and easy class: the nouns. Nouns have a singular and a plural distinction, they differ in number. Consider cat and cat-s. The plural –s is the most common and often believes regular form of the plural indication with nouns. Within this regular form we have a difference in pronunciation. We either use [ez] as in place- places, “when the proceeding sound is sibilant” (Carstairs, 2004, p.22), or [z] as in mug- mugs, “after a vowel or a voiced consonant” (Carstairs, 2004, p.22), or in the last case use [s] as in book- books, “when the preceding sound is voiceless” (Carstairs, 2004, p.22).

There are also other plural allomorphs though. Here a list of words which illustrate this:

1. Diploma
2. Oxen
3. Sheep
4. Feet

In 1. Diplom-a the plural is visualized through the morpheme -a. We do not say “diplomes” (fictional word) because diploma is a loan word from Latin and has kept its original plural form (in Latin the plural for feminine lexemes is -a).

In 2. Ox-en we have the visualization through –en which is quite uncommon in English. Again here the form derives from Latin.

In 3. Sheep on the other hand we have what I already explained earlier: A zero morpheme. Only from context we can tell the difference between the singular and the plural. To further explain this let us again consider two sentences:

1. The sheep were eaten by a wolf.
2. A sheep was eaten by a wolf.

As you can also read in Carstairs- McCarthy´s book “An Introduction to English Morphology” in the first sentence we know that sheep is plural because of the context and especially the following verb were. Were is only used as plural form and therefore accompanies the plural noun. In contrast in the second sentence we see a and was as context indicators. A is an article that only stands with singular forms (e.g.: a house, a flower). Was similar to were indicates the form of the verb: singular, and therefore also the form of the noun. Sheep is therefore considered a zero morpheme of which we can only know if it is singular or plural from the context it stands in.

In 4. Feet we have a change in the vowel from the singular form foot. Here as also in sheep there is no suffix used at all but instead the vowel changed in the root. This form is quite often used in English and can also be seen in a similar way in the Suppletion of verbs which I will explain later.

None of these irregularities work with a rule, without being a native speaker there is no indicator that tells you when to use the plural –s and when an “irregular” form. Still according to Carstairs-McCarthy there “seems to be a common semantic factor among the zero-plurals.” Many of the lexemes connected with a zero morpheme apply to animals that are “either domesticated or hunted, usually for food” (Carstairs, 2004, p.35).


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Inflectional and Derivational Morphology. A Comparison
Introduction to Morphology
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inflectional, derivational, morphology, comparison
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Sina Lockley (Author), 2014, Inflectional and Derivational Morphology. A Comparison, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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