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What Is Morphological Analysis?

By Jane Lapham
Updated May 23, 2024
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Within the discipline of linguistics, morphological analysis refers to the analysis of a word based on the meaningful parts contained within. Some words cannot be broken down into multiple meaningful parts, but many words are composed of more than one meaningful unit. The smallest unit of meaning in a word is called a morpheme. Morphemes may be free or bound, and bound morphemes are classified as either inflectional or derivational. Language teachers often use morphological analysis to describe word-building processes to their students.

The technical term used to denote the smallest unit of meaning in a language is morpheme. A morpheme may or may not be equal to a word. Some words are composed of multiple morphemes, while others are only one morpheme long. Words built on multiple morphemes are said to contain a root word to which other morphemes are added. For example, the word "frog" contains only one morpheme, which has the meaning of a small amphibious creature that is green and leaps. The word "frogs" contains two morphemes; the first is "frog," which is the root of the word, and the second is the plural marker "-s."

A morpheme that can stand alone as a word is called a free morpheme. A morpheme that must be attached to another morpheme is called a bound morpheme. Bound morphemes include familiar grammatical suffixes such as the plural -s or the past tense -ed. Prefixes such as the un- in unladylike, or the tri- in tricycle, are also examples of bound morphemes. Some languages make use of infixes, which is a morpheme placed within another morpheme to change the meaning of a word. The term affix can be used to refer to prefixes, suffixes, and infixes as a group.

Within the realm of morphological analysis, two classes of morphemes are defined. The two classes are inflectional and derivational. Inflectional morphemes are those that serve a grammatical function, such as the plural -s or the past tense -ed. Derivational morphemes operate more directly on the meaning of a word. An example of a derivational morpheme is the -able suffix in the word laughable. This suffix adds the meaning "to be able" to the word "laugh," resulting in a new word that means "able to provoke laughter."

Many language teachers find the concept of morphological analysis useful in assisting pupils to improve their language skills. Students who understand how words are formed using roots and affixes tend to have larger vocabularies and better reading comprehension. Although it is rare for a language teacher to describe a word-building exercise as an exercise in morphological analysis, the practice is often employed in class and given as part of a homework assignment.

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Discussion Comments
By Porcupie — On Oct 29, 2014

Latin is really tough at first. Once it clicks for her, it should become much easier. I'm not sure about online tools but you could start with the basics and do flash cards or have her name familiar things? I'm sure a linguist would have better suggestions for you. The article says derivational morphemes focus more on the meaning of a word, rather than the tense. I would start with that? Maybe some parents that home-school will chip in with some advice?

By BronzeEagle — On Oct 29, 2014

My daughter is entering the spelling bee and she's very good. We do a lot of this type of exercise, which helps her know how to spell difficult words with more confidence, but we seem to be having trouble with Latin morphological analysis. I found an online study tool, but you have to enter the Latin name first. Any suggestions for online tools or activities that help?

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