Te Kete Ipurangi Navigation:

Te Kete Ipurangi

Te Kete Ipurangi user options:

English Online. Every child literate - a shared responsibility.
Ministry of Education.

The Word

The word is the basic building block of language: traditional grammars of English used to take words as the smallest unit of their analysis. Modern linguistics recognises that words can be divided up into smaller units called morphemes.


  • Two sorts of word
    When we look at the shape of English words, we can see that there are two sorts of word.
    There are words that seem to exist as wholes: elephant, tomato, chalk, frog, obey, marmalade.
    There are words that can be broken down into smaller pieces, some of which they share with other words: lovely, unbreakable, disappearance.
  • Lovely has a base part, love, with -ly added.
    Other words also have this -ly ending: swiftly, coldly, cheerfully, stupidly.
    Unbreakable can be broken into three sections. The base is break. We will refer to this as the stem of the word. The prefix un- has been added on to the front of the stem, and the suffix -able has been attached to the end of the stem.
un- break -able
(prefix) (stem) (suffix)

The words that can stand alone without any attachments (for example, break) are called free morphemes.

The attachments that cannot stand alone (for example, un-) are called bound morphemes.

  • Different kinds of attachment

There are two kinds of bound morpheme.

  • Inflectional morphemes

Albert worked at home and illustrated books.

In the sentence above, the words worked, illustrated, and books all show the process of inflection. The attachments -ed and -s are called inflections or inflectional morphemes. They add extra information to the word without fundamentally changing it.

In the case of -ed on worked and illustrated, the inflection tells us that the action is in the past tense. In the case of -s on books, it tells us about number - that there is more than one book.

  • Derivational morphemes

Margaret was unhappy about Sooty's disappearance.

In the sentence above, the words unhappy and disappearance illustrate the process of derivation. The attachments un-, dis- and -ance are all derivational morphemes.

Derivational morphemes can change the meaning of a word. happy -> unhappy appear -> disappear
Derivational morphemes can change word classes. disappear (verb) -> disappearance (noun)

It is usually quite easy to tell the difference between inflection and derivation. A rough rule of thumb is that an inflection always comes at the end of a word.

  • You can say farm+er+s.
  • You can't say * farm+s+er.

It seems that derivational morphemes are more firmly attached to their stems than inflectional ones. We can see how inflectional morphemes can cause problems when people make slips of the tongue.

  • Alice was always making slip of the tongues.
  • Danny wash upped the dishes.

We can also see it in problem cases with compound words.

  • fathers-in-law/father-in-laws

Morphemes are not the same as syllables, although morpheme boundaries and syllable boundaries often coincide, as in slow+ly.

A morpheme is the smallest element of meaning in a word. Elephant is one morpheme, elephants is two; neighbour is one morpheme, neighbourhood is two.


Inflection Derivation  
Suffix Prefix Suffix
The book + s were un + read  +able.

Exploring language content page

Exploring Language is reproduced by permission of the publishers Learning Media Limited on behalf of Ministry of Education, PO Box 3293, Wellington, New Zealand, © Crown, 1996.

Published on: 25 Feb 2009