Morphology (from Gr. μορφή = shape/form + λόγος = word/speech/account) in the linguistic sense is the study of word forms and how they are constructed. Before we begin to study morphology, we first need to develop some ideas as to what may constitute a word, which we’ll do in the following section.

What Is a Word?

A ‘schoolbook definition’ might state that a word is an object that is made up of letters of the alphabet and separated from other words by either spaces or punctuation marks. However, especially with regard to English, this definition is far too vague. Just consider the word ice cream, which formally is made up of two independent word forms and, to make matters worse, may even be written in three different ways:

  1. as two separate word forms, separated by a space: ice cream
  2. as two separate word forms, joined by a hyphen: ice-cream
  3. as one compound word form: icecream

Apart from this, a word as we know it can in many cases occur in different forms (singular/plural for nouns, 1st/2nd/3rd person singular/plural for verbs, etc.), which is why it makes – strictly speaking – more sense not to talk about words, but word forms instead, at least if we need to be very precise as to which form we’re referring to. If we refer to a particular word as a concept, we usually use a canonical/citation form (singular for nouns, infinitive for verbs) to represent it. This form is also sometimes referred to as a lemma or lexical entry, especially in the context of dictionaries.

You may have noted above that I showed the words I was discussing in italics. This is one of a number of conventions employed in linguistics that you should get used to soon, and basically marks the word as being a sample of the language discussed – in our case, English – and not part of the description itself.

The forms a word can take on may be constructed according to fairly regular or irregular/suppletive patterns. A classic example for the latter is the word BE*, where we have the individual forms be, am, are, is, was, were, being & been. Interestingly, this kind of irregularity often occurs with highly frequent, everyday words.

Parts of Speech (PoS)

Each word, according to its function in context can usually be assigned to a particular word class. The list of word classes we tend to use these days is still very much a classical list from antiquity and not all items listed in it are equally applicable to all languages. As a matter of fact, there may also be some controversy as to which word class some of the particular items below ought to be listed under.

Looking at the lists above, we can also draw two further, but related, distinctions, those between function and content words, and between open and closed classes. The former distinguishes between words that tend to perform an almost purely grammatical function and bear little meaning themselves and those words that carry a high degree of meaning. The latter refers to groups of words that form a closed and non-extensible, enumerable set, as opposed to those word classes where new items can easily be created and added.


Using your knowledge of school grammar or other languages, try to identify the functionality of the individual word groups listed for the different parts of speech above and to determine whether they can always be assigned unambiguously to a particular word class.

The Morpheme

As we have seen above, words may be made up not only of single word items, but also of multiple individual words. However, they may equally well be constructed from smaller meaningful parts. These smallest sense-bearing units are called morphemes and are, again by convention, marked up in curly brackets ({}), e.g.

Words that consist of a single morpheme are referred to as monomorphemic, whereas words consisting of multiple morphemes are labelled polymorphemic. Although morphemes may often seem to be identical to syllables, they are certainly not to be confused with them, as the example of eats above shows, as this word form consists of one syllable, but two morphemes.

Free vs. Bound Morphemes

As we can see from the last two items above, when we combine morphemes to produce new word forms, we may have a choice of either combining elements that already constitute words in their own right or elements that are not meaningful if they occur in isolation. Morphemes that can exist independently and meaningfully on their own are called free morphemes, all other morphemes are referred to as bound morphemes. The latter usually tend to carry a grammatical or meaning-distinguishing/diversifying function, e.g.

Most bound morphemes are grammatical morphemes, i.e. morphemes that tend to have a grammatical function only, whereas bound morphemes such as the cranberry morphemes, that do have a very specific and non-grammatical meaning, are called lexical morphemes.

‘Morpheme Anchors’

When we create new words from individual morphemes, we can – and often need to – distinguish between different types of original word forms that new morphemes are attached or ‘anchored’ to. The most general term for this type of ‘anchor’ is base, which essentially includes anything we can add to. Two more specific terms are stem, signifying a base that may already have another morpheme attached to it, and root, a base that cannot be further analysed and therefore represents a minimal unit. Examples for the latter two are:

Please note that, in some cases, it may not always be clear which part of a word should be considered the root element, especially not when two free morphemes are combined. As a rough rule of thumb, though, you can generally assume that the root belongs to major PoS, such as a noun, verb, or adjective that has something attached to it at the end, and that any other morphemes usually get added to the front of the base last. We’ll soon learn about some of the reasons for this.


Analyse the following words, splitting them into their individual morphemes: inaudible, disrespectful, incomprehensibility, preselected, supernatural. Also try to see whether you can determine the order in which the morphemes may have been joined together. An example for how you can present this is given for the first word.


If a morpheme has different variants, these are referred to as allomorphs (Gr. άλλος = other), e.g.

Often the shape of different allomorphs is conditioned phonologically, i.e. has (originally) been changed in order to facilitate pronunciation in different contexts. A good example of this is the word impolite above, where the original negation morpheme {in} is replaced by {im} due to the nature of the initial <p> in polite. We’ll learn more about what causes these adaptive processes when we talk about phonetics later on the course. You may also have noted that I enclosed the letter p in angled brackets; this is yet another convention, used to distinguish written forms – called graphemes – from sounds or morphemes.


As will be clear from the above descriptions, one major part morphology has to play in linguistics is to try and expain how new word forms are produced, and regularities in the processes involved can be explained. This is dealt with under the heading of word-formation.

Word-formation Processes

As far as morphological processes in word-formation are concerned, we can distinguish between a variety of types, affixation, compounding, zero-derivation, backformation, clipping & blending, and acronym formation. We’ll discuss each of these processes in some detail below.


Affixation is the process of attaching bound morphemes to a base. Morphemes occurring in affixation processes can be further sub-divided into:

As with so many other problems in linguistics, affixation may be seen from two different angles, that of reception (or interpretation) and that of production (or productivity). We’ll begin by investigating the former and then move on to the latter.

Although many affixes do have a relatively clearly defined function, recognising affix functionality is not always as easy as it may seem because often what may superficially look like an affix (or a root) may either be part of a longer unit or not constitute an affix at all. In order to be able to understand this problem, let’s have a look at how ‘blindly’ looking for and stripping off specific pre- or suffixes may lead to misinterpretations. The process of stripping off affixes is called stemming and is usually used in applications such as search engines or information retrieval programs in order to derive a root from a complex word form, thereby keeping track of related information without the need to list each word form of a particular paradigm.


The form below allows you to test the effect of stemming for the individual words listed below each set of text boxes and buttons. Simply double-click on a particular word to highlight it and then drag and drop it into the first text box; if this doesn’t work well, either type or copy and paste the word. When you click on the stem word button, the input word will be split for you and the two parts appear in the text box on the right, separated by a + symbol. Try stemming all the different words and to understand why in some cases the resulting splits do not make sense, either from the point of view of separating the word forms into affix+base or why the pre-/suffix may sometimes have a different meaning from the one the stemmer is supposed to identify.

selfish, fish, dish, youngish; truly, apply, happily, belly, evidently, unruly, fly, ally, likely, early, folly, only, hardly, jolly, rely; successful, awful, doleful, eggspoonful, uneventful

illustrate, illogical, illuminating; inconsistent, inflexible, interesting, inbred, intensity, intelligent; impossible, immaculate; distance, distinct, dismiss; unbelievable, understand, unremarkable, until

When a word form is reduced too far, we talk of overstemming. Often this effect occurs when combinations of letters that look like suffixes are stripped off when we have already arrived at the root form, or when a change in the combination of letters in the word formation process has been missed. In many cases, there are some relatively simple rules like “assume that any word that becomes shorter than four letters after removing an affix cannot be a stem” that can help us to avoid overstemming. Another solution is to compare each resulting word form to a root lexicon to see whether it exists, which obviously necessitates such a lexicon.

If you want to try out stemming for other words/suffixes not catered for by the two example programs above, you can test the Porter stemmer, one of the best known and widely used stemming algorithms, mainly for internet applications. A few sample words that are due to provide either incorrect or correct roots are already given below, but you should try to experiment using your own sample words, too. Again, try to think of reasons why sometimes the algorithm succeeds and sometime fails.

incorrect: inability, happiness, friendly, insufficiency, cognition, international
correct: paradoxically, powerful, contentment, national/nationality

A mentioned before, the counterpart to reception is production. Production in affixation is characterised by the ability of certain affixes to attach to bases. As you will be well aware of, not all pre- or suffixes can simply be attached to any base. We can test this by trying out different combinations of pre-/suffixes and bases in the form below. Simply select an option from all three dropdown lists and click on the combine button to see whether a certain combination is valid. If the resulting word form is correct, it will appear in green in the text box on the right, otherwise in red.

Another important notion related to production is productivity. Different affixes, or different morphemes in general, exhibit different characteristics in terms of how frequently they are involved in word formation processes. Some affixes, such as the negation morphemes, show higher productivity than others, a feature which may also change over time (i.e. diachronically).


Using the form provided above, try out different possibilities for affixation and see whether you can explain the results in terms of the combinatorial options (production) for different affixes, as well as in terms of productivity.


Compounding usually combines two free morphemes, apart from in the case of the above-mentioned lexical cranberry morphemes. We can essentially distinguish between three different types, endocentric, exocentric and copulative ones. The rightmost element in English always determines the word class, unless we have combinations involving prepositions as the right-hand morphemes, as in e.g. breakdown, fallout, barge-in, etc.

In endocentric (Gr. prefix ένδο- = in, within) compounds the rightmost element also determines the meaning of the overall compound. We can again distinguish between two different types, though. Those where the first element specifies a particular quality, instrument or ‘producer’ of the second element, e.g. in olive oil, as opposed to those where the first element specifies a particular usage or ‘recipient’ or purpose, e.g. in baby oil. Further examples are blackbird (noun+noun), spoonfeed (noun+verb) or nationwide (noun+adjective/adverb).

In exocentric (Gr. prefix έξω- = out, outside) compounds, it is not possible to infer the meaning from the rightmost element. The combination of the elements in this case results in a complete ‘redefinition of meaning’ of the individual elements for the resulting word form, as in e.g. walkman, paperback, paleface or redneck. In other words, the meaning produced by the compounding process cannot directly be inferred from the individual component parts, but has to be interpreted based on the context or even learnt.

In copulative compounds two equally important elements are co-ordinated to create a composite meaning, as in e.g. actor-manager, where the person described is both an actor and a manager.


Try to find a number of other examples of the different types of compounds described above. Also try to explain how they may have come into existence.


We talk of zero-derivation or conversion if a word does not change its form, but simply its word class, as in e.g. I like to run marathons. vs. Let’s go for a run!, I need to think about it. vs. I need to have a (quick) think about it., There’s a (big) ship in the harbour vs. We need to ship some goods by tomorrow.. Such instances are fairly numerous in English, where often verbal word forms can be used as nouns and vice versa. In cases like this, it is often also fairly difficult to decide which form is the original one, the verb or the noun, but there seems to be a strong tendency towards the former being the original. In rarer cases, we can also have conversion applying to other word classes, such as from adjective to noun, e.g. The poor man had no proper clothes to wear. vs. They gave some money to the poor., or preposition/particle to verb, e.g. Let’s go down to the river! vs. He can down a large beer in only a few seconds.


Backformation is a process whereby an existing suffix that had been attached during an earlier word-formation process is removed again in order to change the word class. Examples for this are to babysit, derived from something like an original complex structure someone who sits and keeps an eye on the babybabysitter, which is then stripped of the suffix {er} in order to create a simple verb, or (Am. En.) to housekeep, from originally to keep househousekeeper, again back to a simple verb.

Clipping & Blending

The two processes of clipping and blending are usually described together because one part of the blending process is very similar to clipping. Clipping itself is the reduction of polysyllabic words to monosyllabic ones, as in laboratorylab, gymnasiumgym or influenzaflu. Blending, on the other hand, is similar to compounding in the sense that parts of free lexical morphemes are combined, the difference here being that these parts are usually much shorter than the original free morphemes and therefore resemble clippings, only that the parts may be significantly shorter than whole syllables, sometimes as short as a single letter. Examples for this are: smogsmoke + fog, brunchbreakfast + lunch, blogweb + log.

Acronym Formation

Acronyms are words that are formed by taking individual letters from multiple words and combining them into a new word, usually in all upper-case (capital) letters. In most cases, the letters are the first letters of each each original word, but this doesn’t always have to be the case. Examples for acronyms are: NASA (National Aeronautics & Space Administration), NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation), UNO (United Nations Organization), HTML (Hypertext Markup Language). Many acronyms can also be pronounced as one words, whereas others, such as UNO and HTML above, need to be spelled out.

The acronym generator below allows you to create your own acronyms. Just type a sequence of words into the textbox on the left and click on the button to create the acronym.

General Functions of Word-formation

So far, we haven’t actually talked much about the functions of word-formation yet. The following will present a brief summary of some of these functions:

Sources & Further Reading:

Bauer, L. (1983). English Word-formation. Cambridge: CUP.

Plag, I. (2003). Word-Formation in English. Cambridge: CUP.