Free Morphemes in English, Definition and Examples

Many words in English consist of this type of word element

Duck standing alone
Christopher Wesser - Images 

A free morpheme is a morpheme (or word element) that can stand alone as a word. It is also called an unbound morpheme or a free-standing morpheme. A free morpheme is the opposite of a bound morpheme, a word element that cannot stand alone as a word.

Many words in English consist of a single free morpheme. For example, each word in the following sentence is a distinct morpheme: "I need to go now, but you can stay." Put another way, none of the nine words in that sentence can be divided into smaller parts that are also meaningful. There are two basic kinds of free morphemes: content words and function words.

Examples and Observations

"A simple word consists of a single morpheme, and so is a free morpheme, a morpheme with the potential for independent occurrence. In The farmer kills the duckling the free morphemes are the, farm, kill and duck. It is important to notice here that (in this sentence) not all of these free morphemes are words in the sense of minimal free forms--farm and duck are cases in point."

(William McGregor, "Linguistics: An Introduction." Continuum, 2009)

Free Morphemes and Bound Morphemes

"A word like 'house' or 'dog' is called a free morpheme because it can occur in isolation and cannot be divided into smaller meaning units...The word 'quickest' composed of two morphemes, one bound and one free. The word 'quick' is the free morpheme and carries the basic meaning of the word. The 'est' makes the word a superlative and is a bound morpheme because it cannot stand alone and be meaningful."

(Donald G. Ellis, "From Language to Communication." Lawrence Erlbaum, 1999)

Two Basic Types of Free Morphemes

"Morphemes can be divided into two general classes. Free morphemes are those which can stand alone as words of a language, whereas bound morphemes must be attached to other morphemes. Most roots in English are free morphemes (for example, dog, syntax, and to), although there are a few cases of roots (like -gruntle as in disgruntle) that must be combined with another bound morpheme in order to surface as an acceptable lexical item...

"Free morphemes can be further subdivided into content words and function words. Content words, as their name suggests, carry most of the content of a sentence. Function words generally perform some kind of grammatical role, carrying little meaning of their own. One circumstance in which the distinction between function words and content words is useful is when one is inclined to keep wordiness to a minimum; for example, when drafting a telegram, where every word costs money. In such a circumstance, one tends to leave out most of the function words (like to, that, and, there, some, and but), concentrating instead on content words to convey the gist of the message."

(Steven Weisler and Slavoljub P. Milekic, "Theory of Language." MIT Press, 1999)

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Nordquist, Richard. "Free Morphemes in English, Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 27). Free Morphemes in English, Definition and Examples. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Free Morphemes in English, Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 24, 2023).