Literary Discourse: Morpheme and Its Relevance to Sentence Construction

It is a widely held perception that the basic element of sentence construction in English is WORD. This is a faulty perception. Contrarily, the basic element of communication – phrases, clauses, and sentences – is MORPHEME. Fellow learner, don’t be intimidated by this technical term. Hahahahaaa! You might not know its proper name in the lexicon of grammar, but you certainly use the MORPHEME perfectly. What is then a MORPHEME? What is its relevance to sentence construction? These two questions provoke a discourse aimed at enhancing our understanding of sentence structure and usage. The discourse is divided into two parts. Part One is emphatic on MORPHEME and WORD now, and Part Two deals with PHRASES and CLAUSES later.

By the end of this lecture, fellow learners and readers are expected to improve their ability to:

 Understand morphemes
Know types of morphemes
Comprehend the relevance of morphemes to sentence construction.

A morpheme is the smallest meaningful unit in the grammar of a language. It can be uni-lettered, bi-lettered and multi-lettered. Examples are ‘S’, ‘LY’, ‘LADY.’

Morphemes are broadly divided into two: FREE MORPHEME and BOUND MORPHEME. Also called INDEPENDENT MORPHEME or ROOT, the FREE MORPHEME can stand alone and be meaningful. It therefore has both semantic properties and grammatical meaning. For instance, the morpheme ‘LADY’ semantically may mean a well-behaved, respected woman, and grammatically it is a noun. FREE MORPHEMES are, in some texts, referred to as LEXICAL MORPHEMES because they are both morphemes and ordinary words of dictionary meanings (Wiredu, 2009).

Conversely, the BOUND MORPHEME, which is also known as DEPENDENT MORPHEME, has only grammatical meaning when it stands alone. As an illustration, the morpheme ‘S’ has a grammatical meaning of plurality, but semantically it is meaningless. So, if we want to achieve the plural form of ‘BOY’, we can simply addS’ to ‘BOY’, and the result is ‘BOYS.’ Here it is clear that ‘BOY’ is a free morpheme, while ‘S’ is a bound morpheme, as it depends on ‘BOY’ for meaning. Other forms of bound morphemes are un: UNhappy, ness: busiNESS, ion: educatION. ise/ize: liberalISE, tic: sympatheTIC, ism: capitalISM. Bound Morphemes are also known as GRAMMATICAL MORPHEMES, since their meanings are dictated by grammatical demands such as plurality, possession, adjectival and adverbial concerns.

This is a morphological process of joining BOUND MORPHEMES to FREE MORPHEMES to form other lexical items.   An affix is, therefore, a BOUND MORPHEME that is joined before, after, or within a root . There are many affixes in English, among which are prefix, infix, suffix, suprafix, simulfix, and circumfix. At this level, let us consider only the PREFIX and SUFFIX.

This is a BOUND MORPHEME which comes in front of a root. Examples are UNhappy, DISlike, PRO-democracy, DISorganise, MISinform, MISmanage, and IRrational.

This is a BOUND MORPHEME that comes at the end of a root. Examples are useLESS = use as the root + less as the suffix, happiNESS = happy as the root + ness as the suffix, economIC = economy as the root + ic as suffix. Morphemes can also be classified as INFLECTIONAL and DERIVATIONAL.

This is a suffix that changes the form of a word but does not change the class of the word. This implies that in spite of the additions or inflections the word will experience, it will still belong to its original Word Class in all forms. For example, if the word is a noun, it remains a noun, notwithstanding the additions or inflections. A practical example can be seen in the word ‘BOY’ which remains a noun, when we add the suffix ‘S’ to it to make it plural – ‘BOYS’. Also, when inflectional suffixes are added to the verb ‘ANSWER’ it remains a verb but with changes in forms such as ‘ANSWERS’ (present simple), ‘ANSWERING’ (present continuous), ‘ANSWERED’, (past simple), ‘ANSWERED’ (past participle). So, the INFLECTIONAL MORPHEMES used are: ‘S’, ‘ING’, AND ‘ED.

English has eight inflectional morphemes:  s–plural (BOYS) and s– possessive (Kataale’s) are noun inflections; s–3rd-person singular (writes), -ed – past tense (solved), -en–past participle (written), and –ing – present continuous (writing) are verb inflections; -er – comparative (harder) and -est – superlative (hardest) are adjective and adverb inflections. For better understanding, lets us use the morphemes in sentences:

Boys: The boys in this class are disciplined.
Kataale’s: Kataale’s car is new.
Writes: Rosemary writes French books.
Solved: Atampugre’s suggestion solved the problem yesterday.

Written: Azindoo and Azinpaga have jointly written a grammar book.

Writing: Kofi and Abena are writing journalism notes.

Harder: A stone is harder than a stick.
Hardest: The iron is the hardest object.
This is a suffix that helps users to derive words from other Word Classes. This means that a derivational morpheme changes the meaning or the Word Class of a word or both.  Since derivational morphemes often create new words, they include units like: – FUL, – AL, – TH, – MENT, – ISE/IZE, -ER, -IC, -LY. Derivational morphemes are many in English because of their ability to create new words. Some examples of derivational morphemes are: Drive (verb) + er = driver (noun), learn (verb) + er = learner (noun), resist (verb) + ance = resistance (noun), beauty (noun) +ful = beautiful (adjective), rational (adjective) + ise = rationalise (verb), happy (adjective) + ly = happily (adverb), type (verb) + ist = typist (noun).


There is no doubt that morphemes play important roles in sentence construction. They help maintain unity and coherence in sentences. Besides, mastery of morphemes enhances our understanding of NUMBER and CONCORD, which are fertile grounds of errors to many speakers and writers. Furthermore, morphemes help us avoid AMBIGUITY, FRAGMENTS and RUN-ON SENTENCES – areas of failure to many users of English. Finally, morphemes serve as a guide to proper understanding of sentence structure and usage.

Summing up, we observe that morphemes are seemingly simple but relatively confusing when learners are not very careful. However, one thing about morphemes is clear: they are fascinating when one understands them well. Because morphemes appear confusing, constant revision and breaking long words into FREE and BOUND morphemes are some of the suggested techniques of avoiding the confusion. Fellow learner, you may try to break the following interesting words into FREE and BOUND morphemes: CONSTITUTIONALISM, LIBERALISM, EDUCATION, COMPARTMENTALIZATION, DEMOCRATIZATION, ECONOMICS, EXAMINER, FARMER, INFORMATIVE, RESOURCEFUL, EDITOR, PILOTING, AFRICANS. Good luck!

Greebaum, S. (1991). An introduction to English grammar. Harlow: Longman.

Halliday, M. A. K. (2004). An introduction to functional grammar. (3 rd ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wiredu, J. F. (2009). Organised English structure. (3 rd ed.). Accra: Academic Publications Limited.

By Abubakar Mohammed Marzuq Azindoo, Coordinator of Students and University Relations, University of Applied Management (UAM), Germany – Ghana Campus, McCarthy Hill, Accra and Tamale

Email: Tell: 0244755402

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