Morpheme (Words and Word Parts)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

morphemes yes and no
The words yes and no are morphemes. 7nuit/Getty Images

In English grammar and morphology, a morpheme is a meaningful linguistic unit consisting of a word (such as dog) or a word element (such as the -s at the end of dogs) that can't be divided into smaller meaningful parts. Adjective: morphemic.

Morphemes are the smallest units of meaning in a language. They are commonly classified as either free morphemes (which can occur as separate words) or bound morphemes (which can't stand alone as words).

Many words in English are made up 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.

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Etymology

From the French, by analogy with phoneme, from the Greek, "shape, form"

Examples and Observations

  • A prefix may be a morpheme:
    "What does it mean to pre-board? Do you get on before you get on?"
    (George Carlin)
     
  • Individual words may be morphemes:
    "They want to put you in a box, but nobody's in a box. You're not in a box."
    (John Turturro)
     
  • Contracted word forms may be morphemes:
    "They want to put you in a box, but nobody's in a box. You're not in a box."
    (John Turturro)
     
  • Morphs and Allomorphs
    "A word can be analyzed as consisting of one morpheme (sad) or two or more morphemes (unluckily; compare luck, lucky, unlucky), each morpheme usually expressing a distinct meaning. When a morpheme is represented by a segment, that segment is a morph. If a morpheme can be represented by more than one morph, the morphs are allomorphs of the same morpheme: the prefixes in- (insane), il- (illegible), im- (impossible), ir- (irregular) are allomorphs of the same negative morpheme."
    (Sidney Greenbaum, The Oxford English Grammar. Oxford University Press, 1996)
     
  • Morphemes as Meaningful Sequences of Sounds
    "A word cannot be divided into morphemes just by sounding out its syllables. Some morphemes, like apple, have more than one syllable; others, like -s, are less than a syllable. A morpheme is a form (a sequence of sounds) with a recognizable meaning. Knowing a word's early history, or etymology, may be useful in dividing it into morphemes, but the decisive factor is the form-meaning link.

    "A morpheme may, however, have more than one pronunciation or spelling. For example, the regular noun plural ending has two spellings (-s and -es) and three pronunciations (an s-sound as in backs, a z-sound as in bags, and a vowel plus z-sound as in batches). Similarly, when the morpheme -ate is followed by -ion (as in activate-ion), the t of -ate combines with the i of -ion as the sound 'sh' (so we might spell the word 'activashun'). Such allomorphic variation is typical of the morphemes of English, even though the spelling does not represent it."
    (John Algeo, The Origins and Development of the English Language, 6th ed. Wadsworth, 2010) 
     
  • Grammatical Tags
    "In addition to serving as resources in the creation of vocabulary, morphemes supply grammatical tags to words, helping us to identify on the basis of form the parts of speech of words in sentences we hear or read. For example, in the sentence Morphemes supply grammatical tags to words, the plural morpheme ending {-s} helps identify morphemes, tags, and words as nouns; the {-ical} ending underscores the adjectival relationship between grammatical and the following noun, tags, which it modifies."
    (Thomas P. Klammer et al. Analyzing English Grammar. Pearson, 2007)
     
  • Language Acquisition
    "English-speaking children usually begin to produce two-morpheme words in their third year and during that year the growth in their use of affixes is rapid and extremely impressive. This is the time, as Roger Brown showed, when children begin to use suffixes for possessive words ('Adam's ball'), for the plural ('dogs'), for present progressive verbs ('I walking'), for third-person singular present tense verbs ('he walks'), and for past tense verbs, although not always with complete corectness ('I brunged it here') (Brown 1973). Notice that these new morphemes are all of them inflections. Children tend to learn derivational morphemes a little later and to continue to learn about them right through childhood . . .."
    (Peter Bryant and Terezinha Nunes, "Morphemes and Literacy: A Starting Point." Improving Literacy by Teaching Morphemes, ed. by T. Nunes and P. Bryant. Routledge, 2006)

    Pronunciation: MOR-feem