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.)

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). A free morpheme has its own meaning. A bound morpheme does not; 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

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