English morphology

Author: Francis Katamba


English morphology is the branch of grammar that investigates the internal structure of English words.

Table of contents


Morphology is the subdivision of grammar that deals with the internal structure of words. Many words can be subdivided into smaller meaningful units called morphemes.

  1. pen-s
  2. Many morphemes have more than one phonetic realisation. The variant phonetic manifestations of a morpheme are called allomorphs. Usually the selection of allomorph depends on the phonetic context in which it occurs in a particular word. For instance, the regular past tense ending spelled -ed is represented by /-d/ following a voiced sound as in 2a) and as/-t/ after a voiceless consonant as in 2b).

  3. 2a.  allomorph /-d/ 2b.  allomorph /-t/
  4. Dividing words into morphemes can be problematic. While locked is segmentable into the root lock and the past tense ending -ed, a similar analysis cannot be applied to sang where internal vowel change is used to indicate past tense.

    Another awkward situation is where a grammatical function normally signalled by affixing is not overtly marked. For instance, while past tense is typically marked by -ed (or occasionally by internal vowel change as in sang), some monosyllabic verbs such as let, hit and put lack overt making of past tense. Instead, past tense is said to be marked by a zero morph. This analysis is controversial since morphs are supposed be actual phonetic forms.

    Even more intractable problems arise where isolating what appears to be the same morpheme leaves behind a residue of uncertain status. For example, dis- is identifiable as a negative morpheme in distrust and discontent. But what of dis- in distraught and disgruntled? Recognising it as a morpheme entails recognising also the implausible, non-recurring and semantically dubious morphemes -traught, and -gruntled .

    Morphology has two main subdivisions, namely inflection and derivation. Inflection deals with patterns of word structure that are determined by the role of words in sentences. For example, a pronoun like he has the forms he, him and his depending on whether it is subject, object or possessive in a given sentence.

    Derivation created new words with different meanings, e.g. maltreat from treat, or with different syntactic properties, e.g. the adverb quickly from the adjective quick.

    Compounding, the combination of nouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs or prepositions to form complex words is also widely used.

  5. Noun Adjective Verb
    godparent red-hot lipread
    Noun + Noun Adj. + Adj. Noun + verb
    blueprint underweight fastforward
    Adj.+ Noun Prep. + Noun Adv. + verb
  6. Compounds can be used to form bigger compounds:

  7. ( hot-air) balloon
    (Adj.+ Noun) + Noun
  8. Usually, but not always (cf. underweight) the right-hand element determines the syntactic class of the entire compound. Hence, it is the head of the compound.

    Conversion is also common. A word may change its class with no accompanying change in form if it is used in a particular syntactic context. Conversion is subject to idiosyncratic exceptions.

  9. Noun Verb Noun Verb
    floor to floor ceiling * to ceiling
    chair to chair settee * to settee


Carstairs-McCarthy , A. (2002) An Introduction to English Morphology. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Matthews, P. (1991) Morphology. 2nd edn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Marchand, H. (1969) The Categories and Types of Present-Day English Word-Formation. 2nd edn, Munich: C.H. Beck

Related links

Words in English: Latin and Greek Morphology Words in English
Rice University (Houston, Texas), Classical Morphology: Noun and Verb Classes

English Morphology
TU Berlin, Institute for Language and Communication, English Morphology.

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