Dr. Johanna Rubba
English Department (Linguistics)
California Polytechnic State University San Luis Obispo
© 2004 Johanna Rubba
Last updated  2/15/06

An overview of the English morphological system

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CONTENTS OF THIS PAGE: (click on the topic to be taken to that section)

  • Basic terminology with definitions and examples
  • English inflectional morphology
  • Regular and irregular inflectional morphology
  • English derivational morphology
  • Word formation processes: Ways of creating new words in English
  • Word formation exercise
  • Allomorphy, or morphophonemic variation in English
  • Basic terminology with definitions and examples
  • ** The 'at' sign ( = @ ) is used in internet exchanges as a replacement for the schwa symbol (the upside-down, backwards <e>). This is because it is not yet possible to transmit IPA symbols over the net to people whose machines do not contain phonetic fonts. In this document, I'll use the @ to stand for schwa, since many of my readers do not possess a phonetic font on their machines.

  • English inflectional morphology
  • English has only three categories of meaning which are expressed inflectionally, known as inflectional categories. They are number in nouns, tense/aspect in verbs, and comparison in adjectives.  Within these categories, English has a remarkably small inventory of affixes, by comparison with languages such as Spanish or Russian. English does not always use affixes to express these categories (see the discussion of irregular morphology).

    Inflectional categories and affixes of English

    Word class to which inflection applies Inflectional category Regular affix used to express category
    Nouns Number -s, -es: book/books, bush/bushes
    . Possessive -'s, -':  the cat's tail, Charles' toe
    Verbs 3rd person singular present -s, -es: it rains, Karen writes, the water sloshes
    . past tense -ed: paint/painted
    . perfect aspect -ed: paint/painted ('has painted) (past participle)
    . progressive or continunous aspect -ing: fall/falling, write/writing (present participle)
    Adjectives comparative (comparing two items) -er: tall/taller
    . superlative (comparing +2 items) -est: tall/tallest
    Spanish, by contrast, inflects its nouns for number and gender, but not for possession (which is signalled by placing the particle 'de' between the possessed item and the possessor, as in 'la casa de mi madre', 'the house of my mother'. Spanish has far more inflectional categories and affixes to mark them for verbs than does English.

    Spanish inflectional categories and affixes

    Word class to which inflection applies Inflectional category Regular affix used to express category
    Nouns Number '-s'   mano/manos 'hand/hands'
    . Gender '-a' Fem., '-o' Masc. 
    hermana/hermano 'sister/brother'
     The following table shows the verb suffixes for just one of the three classes of Spanish verbs:
    -ar class  present imperfect preterite future conditional pres. subjunctive  imperf. subj.
    I -o -aba -e -ía -e -a
    you (sg.) -as -abas -aste -as -ías -es -as
    s/he/it -a -aba -ía -e -a
    we -amos -ábamos -amos -emos -íamos -emos -amos
    you (pl.) -áis -abais -asteis -éis -íais -éis -ais
    they -an -aban -aron -án -ían -en -an
  •  Regular and irregular inflectional morphology
  • Here are some ways English inflectional morphology is irregular:

    Type of irregularity Noun plurals Verbs: past tense Verbs: past participle
    Unusual suffix oxen, syllabi, antennae , taken, seen, fallen, eaten
    Change of stem vowel foot/feet, mouse/mice run/ran, come/came, flee/fled, meet/met, fly/flew, stick/stuck, get/got, break/broke swim/swum, sing/sung
    Change of stem vowel with unusual suffix brother/brethren/ feel/felt, kneel/knelt write/written, do/done, break/broken, fly/flown
    Change in base/stem form 
    (sometimes with unusual suffix)
    , send/sent, bend/bent, think/thought, teach/taught, buy/bought send/sent, bend/bent, think/thought, teach/taught, buy/bought
    Zero-marking (no suffix, no stem change) deer, sheep, moose, fish hit, beat hit, beat, come
    More ways inflection can be irregular:

    Suppletion (instead of a suffix, the whole word changes):
    be - am - are - is - was - were - been
    go - went - gone
    good - better - best
    bad - worse - worst
    some - more - most

    Syntactic marking (added meanings are indicated by a separate word rather than marking with a suffix or change to the base):
    Future of verbs: will go, will eat, will fight, etc.
    Comparative/superlative of adjectives: more intelligent, more expensive, etc.; most intelligent, most expensive, etc.

  • English derivational morphology
  • Below is a sample of some English derivational affixes. This is only a sample; there are far more affixes than presented here.

    Some derivational affixes of English

    Affix Class(es) of word to which affix applies Nature of change in meaning Examples
    Prefix 'non-' Noun, adjective Negation/opposite Noun: non-starter  
    Adj.: non-partisan
    Suffix '-ity' Adjective Changes to noun electric/electricity  
    Prefix 'un-' Verb  
    Reverses action  
    opposite quality
    tie/untie, fasten/unfasten  
    clear/unclear, safe/unsafe
    Suffix '-ous' Noun Changes to adjective fame/famous, glamor/glamorous
    Prefix 're-' Verb Repeat action tie/retie, write/rewrite
    Suffix '-able' Verb Changes to adjective;  
    means 'can undergo action of verb'
    print/printable, drink/drinkable
  • Word formation processes: Ways of creating new words in English
  • 1. Affixation:  adding a derivational affix to a word. Examples: abuser, refusal, untie, inspection, pre-cook.
    2. Compounding: joining two or more words into one new word. Examples: skateboard, whitewash, cat lover, self-help, red-hot, etc.
    3. Zero derivation: (also called conversion or functional shift): Adding no affixes; simply using a word of one category as a word of another category. Examples: Noun-verb: comb, sand, knife, butter, referee, proposition.
    4. Stress shift: no affix is added to the base, but the stress is shifted from one syllable to the other. With the stress shift comes a change in category.

    Noun            Verb
    cómbine      combíne
    ímplant         implánt
    réwrite          rewríte
    tránsport      transpórt

    Noun              Adjective
    cóncrete        concréte
    ábstract         abstráct
    5. Clipping: shortening of a polysyllabic word. Examples: bro (< brother), pro (< professional), prof (< professor), math (< mathematics), veg (< 'vegetate', as in veg out in front of the TV),  sub (< substitute or submarine).
    6. Acronym formation: forming words from the initials of a group of words that designate one concept. Usually, but not always, capitalized. An acronym is pronounced as a word if the consonants and vowels line up in such a way as to make this possible, otherwise it is pronounced as a string of letter names. Examples: NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration), NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization), AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome), scuba (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus), radar (radio detecting and ranging), NFL (National Football League), AFL-CIO (American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations).
    7. Blending: Parts (which are not morphemes!) of two already-existing words are put together to form a new word. Examples: motel (motor hotel) brunch (breakfast & lunch), smog (smoke & fog), telethon (television & marathon), modem (modulator & demodulator), Spanglish (Spanish & English).
    8. Backformation: A suffix identifiable from other words is cut off of a base which has previously not been a word; that base then is used as a root, and becomes a word through widespread use. Examples: pronunciate (< pronunciation < pronounce), resurrect (< resurrection), enthuse (< enthusiasm), self-destruct (< self-destruction < destroy), burgle (< burglar), attrit (< attrition), burger (< hamburger). This differs from clipping in that, in clipping, some phonological part of the word which is not interpretable as an affix or word is cut off (e.g. the '-essor' of 'professor' is not a suffix or word; nor is the '-ther' of 'brother'. In backformation, the bit chopped off is a recognizable affix or word ('ham ' in 'hamburger'), '-ion' in 'self-destruction'. Backformation is the result of a false but plausible morphological analysis of the word; clipping is a strictly phonological process that is used to make the word shorter. Clipping is based on syllable structure, not morphological analysis. It is impossible for you to recognize backformed words or come up with examples from your own knowledge of English, unless you already know the history of the word. Most people do not know the history of the words they know; this is normal.
    9. Adoption of brand names as common words: a brand name becomes the name for the item or process associated with the brand name. The word ceases to be capitalized and acts as a normal verb/noun (i.e. takes inflections such as plural or past tense). The companies using the names usually have copyrighted them and object to their use in public documents, so they should be avoided in formal writing (or a lawsuit could follow!) Examples: xerox, kleenex, band-aid, kitty litter.
    10. Onomatopoeia (pronounced: 'onno-motto-pay-uh'): words are invented which (to native speakers at least) sound like the sound they name or the entity which produces the sound. Examples: hiss, sizzle, cuckoo, cock-a-doodle-doo, buzz, beep, ding-dong.
    11. Borrowing: a word is taken from another language. It may be adapted to the borrowing language's phonological system to varying degrees. Examples: skunk, tomato (from indigenous languages of the Americas), sushi, taboo, wok (from Pacific Rim languages), chic, shmuck, macho, spaghetti, dirndl, psychology, telephone, physician, education (from European languages), hummus, chutzpah, cipher, artichoke (from Semitic languages), yam, tote, banana (from African languages).

    Exercise: Word Formation Processes

    Working with a partner, supply five more English words that exemplify each of the above word formation processes. If you don't have a partner to work with, supply three words for each process. A dictionary will be of some help. You will probably not be able to find examples of backformation; this requires knowledge of the history of words that would be very difficult to track down without a lot of extra work. Skip this category.

  • Allomorphy, or morphophonemic variation in English
  • Many morphemes of English have more than one way of being pronounced; this is often not reflected in the spelling of the morpheme. Such variations affect both affixes and roots. Sometimes the pronunciation varies because of nearby sounds; sometimes there is no logic to it its motivation lies in forgotten history.

    The pronunciation variants of a morpheme are called allomorphs. The phenomenon of variation in the pronunciation of a morpheme is called allomorphic variation or morphophonemic variation (since it is the phonemic makeup of a morpheme that is varying). The variations themselves are sometimes called morphophonological processes.
    The English past-tense morpheme has three allomorphs: /@d/, /t/, and /d/. (Remember, /@/ is being used to stand for schwa.)

    Morpheme: Past tense   '-d'/'-ed'
    Allomorphs: /@d/, /t/, /d/
    Distribution: /@d/ after /t/ and /d/, /t/ after other voiceless consonants, /d/ after other voiced Cs and vowels
    Motivation: Phonological. /d/ occurs after vowels and voiced consonants other than /d/; /t/ occurs after voiceless consonants other than /t/; and /@d/ occurs after the alveolar stops /t/ and /d/.
     /@d/ after /t/ and /d/ /t/ after other voiceless consonants /d/ after other voiced Cs and vowels
    faded, stated, petted, sounded kissed, leaped, fluffed, stocked buzzed, played, mooned, sued
    Unmotivated allomorphy: A change in the pronunciation of a morpheme that is not based on the phonological surroundings. Most of these simply must be memorized.


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