Terminology: Morphemes and Morphology

Morphology is the organizing principle for all English spelling. If we want to understand how to make sense of every single word in English, we need to start by studying morphology, deeply and accurately, along with etymology and phonology. Read more about phonology here. 

So let’s talk about terms that are critical to understand when studying morphology.

A morpheme is the smallest distinctive unit of meaning in English. Morphemes exists in spoken and written English.

Like phonemes and graphemes, a morpheme is a concept, and there can be a number of different realizations of any given morpheme. A written realization of a morpheme is called an element. A spoken realization is called a morph.

We use angle brackets < > to indicate the spelled, written representation of a morpheme, a grapheme, or a word. We spell out whatever is inside of angle brackets. So <free> is referred to as “F – R – double E.”

Elements (written morphemes) in English include bases and affixes. Types of affixes include prefixes, suffixes and connecting vowel letters.

Here are some examples of bases: <slip, do, quest, struct, hap>. Some of these are free bases and some are bound bases. Every word in English includes at least one base, and many have more than one base.

Free bases can exist as words by themselves with no affixes. Examples of free bases would be <do, slip, elephant, either, play, stop, say, be, quest>. We call a free base “free” because it can be a complete English word without an affix attached to it.

A  bound base, on the other hand, appears as a freestanding English word only when attached to either a prefix or suffix (and often both.) A bound base must be “bound” to an affix to form an English word.  Examples of bound bases would be the <struct> in <instruction, structure>, the <hap> in <perhaps, happy>, and the <fine> in <final, define>.

By definition, all affixes  — prefixes, suffixes and connecting vowel letters — are bound. They never appear as a stand-alone word by themselves.

A prefix is a written element that comes before a base in a word. Sometimes there are several prefixes in succession before a base. Examples of prefixes include the <pre> in <prefix> along with <in, re, dis, un>.

A suffix is a written element that comes after a base in a word. Examples include <ed, s, ing, ive, ure>.

Prefixes and suffixes do not have orthographic denotations or “meanings.” They often change grammatical structure and can have a “force.” Most prefixes and suffixes can have more than one function. The prefix <re> can add a sense of “back” or “again” as in <restate> but can also act as an intensifier. Something that is “remarkable” is not something that is able to be marked again, but something is intensely worth noting or “marking.”

Looking at the orthographic denotation of a base and the force of the affixes can be a powerful way to deepen our understanding of words.

It’s important to note that a morpheme does not have a pronunciation until it appears in a word. For example, <struct> is not pronounced the same in <instruct> and <structure>. Suffix <ed> can be pronounced at least three different ways.

Many words in English are simple, consisting of a base and nothing else.  This would include words like <do, slip, elephant, either>. Some are very short, built with only a few graphemes, and others are quite long; the criterion for being simple is that they consist of only one base with no prefixes or suffixes added to it.

Other words are complex; they include a base and at least one other morpheme — another base, an affix, or both. Here are some examples, and I will show you the structure of these words using word sums.

playing ➞ play + ing

stopped ➞ stop + ed      (We double the <p> when constructing this complex word.)

<Playing & stopped> are familiar complex words. However, short words, pronounced as one syllable, may also include more than one morpheme.

does ➞ do + es

says ➞ say + s

been ➞ be + en

The spelling and morphological structure of these words are perfectly consistent.  But these words are often categorized as irregular because their structure — the sequence of morphemes —  is being ignored, and because of the pervasive (yet false) assumption that the primary purpose of spelling is to represent the pronunciation of words.

Compound words are words that consist of more than one base together in a word. The type of compound word that you are probably familiar with is a construction like <baseball, lighthouse, snowstorm, crosswalk> where two free bases are written together with no space between them. However, there are other types of compound words.

Compound words are always complex, since they consist of at least two bases. (Not all complex words are compounds, though.)

To analyze words, we need to understand three suffixing conventions. These are conventions that are consistently applied in English words. In <hap + y ➞ happy> the doubling convention has been applied, in <fine + al ➞ final> the E convention has been applied and in <dry + ed ➞ dried> the Y convention has been applied.


One of the reasons that I call this site Learning About Spelling is because that’s what I’m doing as I write this. Every single day I learn something new about our writing system and replace pieces of my old thinking with new. This is my current understanding and I welcome questions and responses. I’ll edit this as my understanding grows and changes.

Please contact me here with your questions, comments, and reactions.