Inflectional Morphemes

Morphology is similar to organic chemistry. Much like an organic chemist might study the structure of organic compounds, a linguist can look at a word and break it into meaningful pieces (called morphemes) to learn about its structure and how it changes under different circumstances. Inflectional morphemes are a particularly insightful piece of the puzzle, as they communicate grammatical properties such as tense, comparison, number, and more. The list of inflectional morphemes isn’t long; there are only eight inflectional morphemes in the English language, but they are among the most common sounds in our language.

Inflectional Morphemes Inflectional Morphemes

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    Inflectional Morphemes Definition

    Inflectional morphemes are defined as units of meaning that are added to the base or root of a word to indicate grammatical information but do not change the word's basic meaning or its part of speech. In English, there are eight inflectional morphemes which can indicate aspects such as tense, number, possession, or comparison. For example, adding "-s" to the end of a noun to indicate plurality (so "cat" becomes "cats") is an instance of using an inflectional morpheme.

    One sentence summary: An inflectional morpheme is a letter, or group of letters, that adds grammatical information to a word.

    Inflectional morphemes have meaning of their own, but they don’t significantly alter the meaning of the base word to which they’re attached. A base word and an inflectional morpheme work together to enhance the meaning of a word in some way.

    The word to which an inflectional morpheme is added is called a base word.

    For example, the base word bake in baking still communicates the idea of cooking with flour and eggs using an oven. The suffix -ing simply adjusts the tense to express when it happens.

    Inflectional morphemes Inflectional morphemes definition Baking example StudySmarterFig. 1 - "He bakes... they're baking... I baked." Regardless of the tense, the word bake retains its meaning.

    Inflection is a change in a word’s form. When a base word is inflected, it retains its essential meaning, but due to the context, there’s a shift in the form to reflect a change in tense, gender, person, number, mood, voice, or case.

    Inflectional morphemes are suffixes, which is a type of affix. An affix is a group of letters attached to either the beginning (prefix) or end (suffix) of a base word. Here are a few suffixes that are inflectional morphemes:

    Base wordAffixInflected word
    Talk-edTalked
    Bark-ingBarking
    Rest-sRests
    Clean-estCleanest

    The significance of the cluster of letters is why they’re categorized as morphemes. Each carries its own meaning, which can alter a grammatical aspect of the sentence (such as showing tense or plurality).

    Morphemes are the smallest linguistic unit that carries meaning. There are two types of morphemes: free and bound. Free morphemes are those that are stand-alone words that can’t be subdivided into meaningful pieces, such as bite, ship, up, and taste. Bound morphemes are those that are dependent on other morphemes to make a complete word. Inflectional morphemes are one of two types of bound morphemes; the other type is derivational morphemes.

    Inflectional vs. Derivational Morphemes

    The difference between inflectional and derivational morphemes is pretty simple: derivational morphemes can create new words when added to a base word, but inflectional morphemes cannot.

    Derivational morphemes derive new words by adding an affix—much like an inflectional morpheme—but they are capable of changing the base word’s grammatical category, which inflectional morphemes cannot do.

    Caramel (noun) + ize = caramelize (verb)

    Decorate (verb) + ive = decorative (adjective)

    Flour (noun) + less = flourless (adjective)

    Inflectiona morphemes Inflectional vs derivational morphemes Pie example StudySmarterFig. 2 - "Carmelize the apples and top with your decorative, flourless pie crust." This sentence depends on derivational morphemes.

    When a derivational morpheme is added to a base word, that word might (not in every case) take a new meaning entirely. While these words are certainly related in essence, the word class has changed and thus altered the way the word functions.

    When an inflectional morpheme is added to a base word, the base simply becomes inflected. This means that the word changes forms to reflect its grammatical surroundings.

    Complete List of Inflectional Morphemes Examples

    There are eight inflectional morphemes in English, each serving a different grammatical function. Here are some examples:

    List of Inflectional Morphemes Example
    Inflectional morphemeFunctionExample
    'sPossessiveThe boy's house.
    -sPluralThe houses on our street.
    -sThird-person singularHe mows the grass.
    -edPast tenseShe lived next door.
    -ingPresent participleThey're moving soon.
    -erComparativeHe's the quieter neighbor.
    -estSuperlativeWe're the quietest neighbors.

    You’ll notice that each example of an inflectional morpheme is a suffix, which means it has been added to the end of the base word.

    Types of Inflectional Morphemes

    If you want to think of different types of inflectional morphemes, you might consider the various ways they impact the base word.

    Tense

    For many verbs in the English language, past tense is denoted with a -ed (looked, climbed, painted) so -ed is an inflectional morpheme. In some irregular cases, though, the past tense of a verb is expressed with a change in vowel.

    Sit - sat

    Dig - dug

    Cling - clung

    Sing - sang

    In either case, a tense change is a type of inflection, so inflectional morphemes are necessary to communicate the change.

    Verb Agreement

    Verb agreement is the grammatical rule that a subject must “agree” with the number and person of the subject. The verb will take a particular inflectional morpheme to show agreement.

    If you look at Spanish, you’ll see inflectional morphemes at the end of verbs that agree with the number and person of the subject of the verb.

    I live - vivo

    You live - vives

    They live - viven

    We live - vivimos

    He/ she lives - vive

    Number

    English communicates the number of a noun by adding -s or -es to the end of the noun.

    Beds

    Locks

    Boxes

    Due to some oddities of the English language, some inflectional morphemes have several different pronunciations. One example of this is the sound to indicate plurality, the inflectional morpheme -s. Notice the difference between the -s sound when you say cats and dogs; in the first instance, the sound is /s/, but in the second, it’s /z/. This is due to the difference in consonant sounds that precede the -s.

    More Inflectional Morphemes Examples

    There are a number of examples of inflectional morphemes, but compared to other languages, inflectional morphology is relatively limited in English. Some languages have case morphology, which is absent in English.

    Case morphology refers to when a noun changes its form to express its grammatical role in a sentence.

    Case morphology is used in languages such as German. For example, take a look at the sentences below:

    Der Junge sieht Lyla - the boy sees Lyla

    Lyla sieht den Jungen - Lyla sees the boy

    In the first sentence, the boy is doing the seeing, and the phrase “the boy” is formed “der Junge.” In the second sentence, Lyla is doing the seeing. What does she see? The boy. In the instance where the boy is seen, the phrase “the boy” is changed to “den Jungen”, which has a different morpheme to represent the boy’s different role in the sentence. This is something that does not occur in English! For example, in both sentences, "the boy" would stay the same no matter what his role is.

    Inflectional Morphemes - Key takeaways

    • An inflectional morpheme is a letter, or group of letters, that adds grammatical information to a word.
    • Inflection is a change in a word’s form.
    • Inflectional morphemes are suffixes, which is a type of affix.
    • There are 8 inflectional morphemes:
      • 's (possesive)
      • -s (third-person singular)
      • -s (plural)
      • -ed (past tense)
      • -ing (present participle)
      • -er (comparative)
      • -est (superlative)
    Frequently Asked Questions about Inflectional Morphemes

    What are the eight inflectional morphemes?

    The 8 examples of inflectional morphemes are:

    • 'S (possessive)

    • -s (third-person singular)

    • -s (plural)

    • -ed (past tense)

    • -ing (present participle)

    • -er (comparative)

    • -est (superlative)

    What is derivational and inflectional morpheme?

    Derivational and inflectional morphemes are bound morphemes, which means they must attach to a base to create a word.

    What is an example of an inflectional morpheme?

    An example of an inflectional morpheme is the suffix -ing, seen in the word working. 

    What is the difference between inflectional and derivational affixes?

    The difference between inflectional and derivational affixes is that derivational affixes can change the base word’s class, while inflectional morphemes only inflect the base word, but don’t change its class.

    What are the characteristics of inflectional morphemes?

    The characteristics of inflectional morphemes are that they’re a suffix, which means they’re added to the end of a base word. These morphemes create a shift in a word’s form that reflects a change in tense, gender, person, number, mood, voice, or case. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    A(n) ___________  and inflectional morpheme work together to enhance the meaning of a word in some way.

    True or false: When a base word is inflected, it retains its essential meaning.

    Inflectional morphemes are all ________.

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