Morphology Cheat Sheet

The scoop on morphemes

Morphology is the study of how words are formed. Words consist of units called morphemes; these in turn consist of syllables, phonemes, and other parts.

Morphemes are defined as the “minimal units of meaning”, analogous to phonemes (units of sound) and graphemes (units in alphabetic writing). Every word consists of one or more morphemes. However, the system is very messy, as we illustrate below. Whether a unit functions as a morpheme depends on the word in which it occurs. The exact number of morphemes in a word is often unclear. And finally, the meaning of a word isn’t a simple combination of the meanings of its component morphemes.

If you’re interested in how language works, morphology is a lot of fun just because it’s how words are formed yet wildly inconsistent. Teachers should understand what morphology is and recognize that morphemes can’t just be treated as building blocks that combine in simple ways.

What do readers need to know about morphology? Not nearly as much. They should recognize that words consist of parts that get used in other words. However, that doesn’t require a lot of explicit instruction. Children learn this from using spoken language. By the time they are 2, toddlers have learned that -ING is a meaningful unit–a morpheme–from experience with words like WALKING, SAYING, SHOWING, etc. They do not have to be taught this. The same happens with beginning readers.

The goal of instruction should be to guide the learner into treating words as consisting of morphological parts. You can promote this by showing some word families: groups of words that share a morpheme, such as all of the tenses of a verb, or words containing HEAD (HEADED, HEADING, HEADACHE, FOREHEAD, etc.). Students can have fun with some of the inconsistencies: a BLUEBERRY is blue and a BLACKBERRY is black, but strawberries don’t have straw, and what is the cran- in CRANBERRY?

Readers do not need to know the word morpheme, or about the different types of morphemes described below. People throughout history have learned to read without knowing what morphemes are. Teaching children about morphemes doesn’t suddenly make learning to read easier. Counting the number of morphemes in words backfires as soon as readers encounter words like CORNER (1 morpheme). MESSAGE (no mess, no age), and DELIGHT (which isn’t about light). Teaching groups of words that overlap in form and meaning: yes, because the words support each other in learning and memory. TAKE-TAKES-TAKING-TAKER-TOOK overlap in spelling, sound, and meaning, in differing degrees. Learning one facilitates learning another. Eventually the similarities among the words allow them to be closely connected in memory. Using similarities across words doesn’t require explicit instruction about morphology.

Is it a morpheme or not?

Every word consists of one or more morphemes.
In the simplest case the word itself is the morpheme, as in RAIN or KANGAROO.
Morphemes contribute to the overall meaning of a word in which they occur. Example:


word consisting of 1 morpheme


prefix consisting of 1 morpheme


2 morphemes. The meanings of DIS and LIKE contribute to the meaning of DISLIKE.

Many words can be analyzed into component morphemes. But many can’t. It’s hard to tell which is which until you know the word.

Whether part of a word “really is” a morpheme is often unclear, even to linguists. It’s not a black-and-white issue. Morphology is highly inconsistent. Sometimes a unit is a morpheme in one word but not another. Sometimes it just isn’t clear.

The key question is whether the unit contributes to the meaning of a word in which it occurs. Sometimes the answer is clear:


word consisting of 1 morpheme


prefix consisting of 1 morpheme


2 morphemes. The meanings of DIS and LIKE contribute to the meaning of DISLIKE.


1 morpheme. Neither DIS nor PLAY contribute to the meaning of DISPLAY.

This happens frequently. DIS is clearly a morpheme in words such as DISLIKE, but not in other words that seem superficially similar, such as DISPLAY.

Morphology is a continuum

The “minimal unit of meaning” definition suggests that morphemes are building blocks that combine in simple ways to form other words. This isn’t accurate.

Think of morphology as a continuum. At one end are morphemes that follow the simple definition “minimal unit of meaning”. RAIN consists of one morpheme. DISLIKE consists of 2 morphemes, each morpheme clearly contributes to the meaning of the word. Then there are all the other in-between cases.

Example: How many morphemes are there in DISCOURAGE? It’s a trick question.


prefix consisting of 1 morpheme in words like DISLIKE


word consisting of 1 morpheme

DISCOURAGE certainly looks like it has two morphemes, because DIS and COURAGE are morphemes in other words. Then there is ENCOURAGE, which seems to consist of EN and COURAGE. The words are also opposites. Two morphemes, right?

Not really. The meaning of DISCOURAGE has nothing to do with having courage. It might have been relevant long ago when the word DISCOURAGE came into the language. But meanings change over time and at present there’s no COURAGE in DISCOURAGE. Or in ENCOURAGE.

Does DIS contribute to the meaning of DISCOURAGE? Yes. DIS has negative connotations that carry over into DISCOURAGE, and the opposite happens with ENCOURAGE. So how many morphemes does DISCOURAGE have? It can’t be 2 because COURAGE isn’t a morpheme here. It can’t be 1 because DIS- is a prefix that contributes to meaning. It’s in-between. This in-between, neither one morpheme nor two, happens in a lot of words.

Analyzing words into component morphemes is often misleading

It will be hard to find a morphological pattern that is completely consistent. Exceptions are everywhere. Consider these examples, which are typical.


type of baked food made with corn. CORN + BREAD, 2 morphemes


person who bakes. BAKE +ER, 2 morphemes


more large. LARGE + ER, 2 morphemes


Unrelated to meanings of CORN, -ER, 1 morpheme

What about these?

2 morphemes

Intermediate cases: between 1 and 2















Don’t be misled by orthography: The word BOAT is one morpheme. It contains the spellings of the words OAT and BOA, which are morphemes in isolation. They are not morphemes in BOAT: they do not contribute to the meaning of BOAT. TRAIN does not contain the morpheme RAIN, BLESS does not include LESS, etc.

Take-home message: Words do consist of morphemes that combine to form other words. But they are not Lego-like building blocks for two reasons:

1. Whether a spelling/sound unit is a morpheme depends on the word in which it occurs. As in DIS in DISLIKE vs. DISPLAY.

2. The exact number of morphemes often cannot be established because the components only partly fit the “minimal unit of meaning definition of morpheme. As in DISCOURAGE. Whether a pattern is a morpheme is a matter of degree.

Instructional implication: Readers should recognize that words consist of parts that are re-used to form other words. You can use clear cases and word families/neighborhoods to plant this idea. But, this is another area, like phonics, where there are too many patterns to teach them all, and too many inconsistencies, irregularities and unclear cases. These properties of the language weighs against teaching a lot of explicit morphological rules or broad generalizations.

Types of morphemes

English has two types of morphology: inflectional and derivational. 1. Inflectional morphology: refers to morphemes added to the ends of nouns and verbs to indicate number and tense, as required by English grammar. This is a closed set of words: new forms cannot be created.


girl girls


walk walks walked walking

N-V agreement:

The girl walks. The girls walk.

There are numerous exceptions to these grammatical rules, such as:

irregular plurals:

child/children, goose/geese, leaf/leaves, ox/oxen

irregular past tenses

take/took, see/saw, sing/sang, throw/threw

These irregular forms are usually treated as 1 morpheme, because the base and inflection have been combined: TAKE + ED → TOOK

2. Derivational morphology: refers to combining morphemes to form other words, using prefixes, suffixes, and compounding. This is an important source of new words.


happy/unhappy, write/rewrite, like/dislike


happy/happiness, event/eventful, dictate/dictation


houseboat, boathouse, lifeguard, baseball, airmail

These are the clear cases. There are numerous intermediate cases and exceptions, as explained above.

The meaning of a word isn’t just a simple combination of the meanings of the component morphemes.

Example: A bookcase is a thing, a place to keep books. A bookworm is a person who likes books a lot. A bookstore is a place where you buy books.

A houseboat is a boat that is like a house. A boathouse is a place for storing boats. A dreamboat is a person. A household is a family.

The same is true for prefixing and suffixing. DEFUSE means to prevent something from exploding. DELIGHT means to enjoy something greatly, not removing a light. DERIDE means to express contempt for someone. You have to know the word to figure out its morphology.

Big Picture

Morphemes aren’t discrete building blocks. The “minimal unit of meaning” idea doesn’t explain all the variations that occur.

Whether something is a morpheme is a matter of degree. The clear, ideal morphemes are ones where a combination of spelling, sound and meaning occurs in many words. BOOK is a clear and distinct morpheme because the same spelling-sound-meaning pattern occurs in many words: BOOKS, BOOKCASE, BOOKWORM, etc.

Many words vary from this ideal. So, even though we know words consist of morphemes, we may not be able to identify exactly what they are!

We want readers to learn that words have morphological relatives. Clear cases can be used to bring their attention to this property of language. Inflectional morphemes are good for this purpose: all of the forms of the word WALK, for example, are related. People can be highly skilled readers without knowing what a morpheme is or the difference between inflectional and derivation morphology. It may be helpful for you, the teacher, to understand this component of language and build morphology into instructional materials. That doesn’t mean children need to be explicitly taught about it.

-- Mark Seidenberg