Students understanding the complexity of language

Chapter 12.1: Morphemes


Chapter 12.1: Morphemes

A morpheme is the smallest unit of grammatical or semantic meaning in a language. A morpheme is distinct from a phoneme because although a phoneme is the smallest meaningful unit of sound in a language, by itself a /p/ or /m/ does not have grammatical or semantic meaning. It must be combined with other phonemes into a morpheme to have such meaning.

Consider the following words:

  • the
  • boy
  • runs
  • unlucky

The first two of these examples—the and boy —are morphemes because it is impossible to divide them into smaller units of grammatical or semantic meaning. For example, we cannot divide boy into smaller units such as b- or -oy. The same is true of the.

The word runs, however, can be divided into two smaller units: run and –s. Each of these has a distinct meaning. Run has the semantic meaning “to move quickly on foot” and –s has the grammatical meaning “3rd person singular present tense verb.” Therefore, runs is made up of two morphemes, run and –s. The word unlucky can be divided into three morphemes: un-, luck, and –y.

Note: Although all words in the English language are constructed from morphemes, words and morphemes are not the same. A word can be made up of a single or multiple morphemes. A syllables is also not the same as a morpheme. Syllables are units of sound used for pronunciation. Some words may divide syllable by syllable into morphemes, like unlucky, but others, like runs, contain two morphemes in a single syllable.