Morphological characteristics of English words. Word building


Morphological structure of the English word. Types of morphemes
Structural types of English words
Word Building
Check your understanding + Quiz
Further reading
Practical tasks and exercises

Morphological structure of the English word. Types of morphemes

Morpheme is a speech element having a meaning or grammatical function that cannot be subdivided into further such elements.

The traditional classification of morphemes takes into consideration the relative contribution of a morpheme in the meaning of a word.

Fig. 4 Traditional classification of morphemes










Root is the common element of words within a word-family.

e.g. -heart- is the common root of the following series of words:

heart, hearten, dishearten, heartily, heartless, hearty, heartiness, sweetheart, heart-broken, kind-hearted, whole-heartedly, etc. (They are derivates or derived words—the words which consist of a root and an affix(-es))

An affix is a morpheme that is attached to a word stem to form a new word.

There are two main types of affixes: prefixes which precede the root in the structure of the word (e.g. unwell, re-read) and suffixes which follow the root (e.g. teacher, curable). (see more information about prefixes and suffices in the Affixation section).

Lexical (or word building) suffixes have lexical meaning and are used to build new words. Grammatical suffixes (or inflections) have abstract grammatical meaning and are used to express different grammatical categories such as tense, mood, voice, aspect, person, number, gender and case (e.g. dogs, worked)

Another classification defines the types of morphemes on the basis of the degree of their self-dependence.

Fig. 5 Free and bound morphemes







A bound morpheme appears only as part of a larger word. All affixes are bound morphemes. A free or unbound morpheme can stand alone. Most roots in English are free morphemes (for example, dog, work).

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Structural types of English words

A structural type of a word depends on the quantity and character of root morphemes as well as absence or presence of word-building suffixes.

  •  Derivative and non-derivative words

Derivative words are produced by affixation, such as “competition,” “competitive.” Non-derivative or root words consist only of a root (e.g. “compete”).

  •  Simple and compound words

Simple words consist of one root, such as “board.” Compound words consist of several roots, such as “blackboard.”

  • Full words and contracted words

Contracted words are shortened or abbreviated words, such as “bike, USA.” Some contracted words are composed of two or more word forms with shortened morphs. (e.g. “cineplex”).
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Word Building

Main types of word building:


Affixation is making a new word by adding an affix or several affixes to some root morpheme.

An essential feature of affixes is their combining power. It is the possibility of a particular stem to take a particular affix depending on phono-morphological, morphological and semantic factors.

e.g. The suffix -ance/-ence, for instance, occurs only after ‘b, t, d, dz, v, l, r, m, n’ (disturbance, insistence, independence), but not after ‘s’ or ‘z’ (condensation, organisation).

Affixes can be classified according to the part of speech they tend to form. Thus, we can distinguish:

  • Noun-forming affixes: -er, -ness, -dom, -hood…
  • Adjective-forming affixes: —ful, -less, -ish ….
  • Verb-forming affixes: —en, -some, -ize
  • Adverb-forming affixes: —ly, -ward

Affixes have different origin, so we can classify them into native affixes (-ish, -ness, -ly…) and borrowed affixes (-able, -ment…).

Productive affixes take part in deriving new words in this particular period of language development (e.g. ‘-ish, -ness, -er, -un-, re-‘ are often used to make neologisms). Non-productive affixes may occur in words frequently, but they are no longer used in work-derivation (e.g. -ant, -ent, -al)

Prefixes modify the lexical meaning of the stem, but seldom affect its basic lexico-grammatical component. Therefore, both the simple word and its prefixed derivative mostly belong to the same part of speech.

The prefix ‘mis- for instance, when added to verbs, conveys the meaning ‘wrongly’, ‘badly’, ‘unfavourably’; it does not suggest any other part of speech but the verb. ‘

e.g. behave : : misbehave,

inform : : misinform,

lead : : mislead

(exceptions: be-/en-  belittle, enable)

The semantic effect of a prefix may be termed adverbial because it modifies the idea suggested by the stem for manner, time, place, degree and so on.

e. g. »mis-» is equivalent to the adverbs »wrongly» and »badly»; »pre-» and »post-» refer to time and order

historic :: pre-historic,

pay :: prepay,

view :: preview. 

Back formation

Back formation (reversion) is the process of creating a new lexeme, usually by removing actual or supposed affixes.

e.g. Verb «edit» from «editor»

Verbs «euthanase» or «euthanize» from the noun «euthanasia».

Verb “burgle” from noun “burglar” 


Conversion is making a new word from an existing word by changing the category of a part of speech, with the morphemic shape of the original word remaining unchanged.

e.g. This newspaper is a nice read (noun from a verb)

All the years he was sick my mother had nursed him (verb from a noun)

A word made by conversion has a different meaning from that of the word from which it was made though the two meanings can be associated.

e.g. to dog (verb from noun): 1) to pursue or follow after like a dog; 2) to trouble; 3) to chase with a dog or dogs

Conversion may be full and partial.

By partial conversion the word acquires only some grammatical features of the new part of speech.

e.g. The noun ‘criminal’ was formed from an adjective, and it is fully converted.

The substantivized adjectives which indicate a class of persons (e.g. “the poor”) are partially substantivized—they are used only with the definite article, are plural in meaning and take a plural verb (e.g. The old receive pensions).


Composition is making a new word by combining two or more stems.

Syntactical types of compound words:

  • Neutral compounds have no linking elements between roots.

e.g. blackbird, shop-window

lady-killer, golden-haired

TV-set, G-man

  • In some compounds roots are connected by a morpheme

e.g. statesman, Anglo-Saxon

  • Roots can connected by a linking element (preposition, article, conjunction)

e.g. lily-of-the valley, mother-in-law

Semantic types of compound words:

  • The meaning of a compound can be made up by the meaning of its elements (non-idiomatic compounds)

e.g. bedroom, dancing hall

  • The meaning of one or both components can be slightly shifted

e.f. football, lady-killer, lazybones, good-for-nothing

  • In idiomatic compounds the process of deducing the meaning of the whole from those of the constituents is impossible.

e.g. ladybird, bluestocking, man-of-war


Contraction is shortening.

There are several types of the contraction process:

  • By clipping a new word is made from a syllable (rarer, two) of the original word.

e.g. hols = holidays

ad = advertisement

  • Blending (creation of so called ‘portmanteau words’) means combining two or more sounds or morphemes of several words. They typically combine both form and meaning. Many neologisms are examples of blends.

e.g. brunch = breakfast + lunch

smog = smoke + fog 

  • An acronym (abbreviation, initial clipping) is a word made from the initial letters of a word group.

e.g. UNO – United Nations Organization, ltd (graphic acronym) – limited

Latin acronyms remained in English from the time when Latic was the universal academic language in Europe i.e. (= id est = that is)

Minor types of word-building:


Onomatopoeia is sound imitation.

e.g. wow, howl


Reduplication is making new words by doubling a stem, either without any phonetic changes.

e.g. chi-chi (chic=girl), ping-pong, walkie-talkie.
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What is the smallest speech element which has a meaning and/or grammatical function?

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What is the basis from which a word is derived by phonetic change or by extension?

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What is a morpheme that is attached to a word stem to form a new word?

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What do we call an affix which appears before the stem?

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What do we call an affix which appears after the stem?

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What do we call a suffix which changes the lexical meaning of a word?

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Lexical/derivational suffixes

What do we call a suffix which is used to express grammatical categories of a word?

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Grammatical/inflectional suffix

Which word below has a grammatical suffix?

«Establishment – mannequins – broaden»

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mannequins (-s shows the grammatical category of number)

What kind of words are derivative words?

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The words produced by affixation.

What are root (non-derivative) words?

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They consist only of a root.

Which of the following words is a derivative word?

Bitter – equality – human — artifact

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equality (‘equal’ is a root word)

What do we call a linguistic process which consists of forming words by adding affixes?

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What do we call a linguistic process of creating a new lexeme  by removing actual or supposed affixes?

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Back-formation (reversion)

What do we call a linguistic process in which a word of one grammatical form becomes a word of another grammatical form without any changes to spelling or pronunciation?

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What do we call a linguistic process in which a new word is made by combining two or more stems?

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What do we call a word formed by dropping one or more syllables from a polysyllabic word?

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Clipped word

What do we call words which are comprised of parts from two other words?

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Blended/portmanteau words

What do we call a word formed from the initial letters of a compound term?

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What do we call the process of the naming of a thing or action by a vocal imitation of the sound associated with it?

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What do we call a linguistic process in which the root or stem of a word (or part of it) is repeated exactly or with a slight change?

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Additional reading

Антрушина Г. Б. и др. Лексикология английского языка. М., 1999 and other editions – CHAPTER 5 How English words are made. Word-building.

Арнольд И.В. Лексикология английского языка. М., 1973; Флинта, Наука, 2012 and other editions – Chapter 5. Morphological Structure of English Words. Affixation.   Chapter 6. Compound Words. Chapter 7. Shortened Words and Minor Types of Lexical Oppositions. Chapter 8. Conversion and Similar Phenomena

D.Crystal. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. Cambridge University Press, 1995 and other editions – Part II English Vocabulary. 9 – The sources of the lexicon. Lexical structure


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Exercise 1

Split the following words into morphemes and define their type.


un- prefix, bound morpheme

divid(e)- — root, free morpheme

-ed — grammatical suffix, bound morpheme


1)    shorten

2)    power

3)    immovable

4)    criticized

5)    secretaries




Exercise 2

 Make a proper word to fill in the blank.

Affixes to be used in the word:

-men     -hood     -is     -les     -lik     -able     -proof      -ed     -ly     dis-   



1)    He was remembering a story heard in his __childhood____. (period of life when a person is a child)

2)    She is very ______ and selfish. (immature)

3)    Thousand of ______ couples come to this doctor with a hope. (having no children)

4)    She looked at me with big, ______ eyes. (with appearance of a child)

5)    A medicine chest should be secure and ______. (ensuring that children cannot access it)


  1. I’ve gone out of my way to be ______ to my boss. (pleasant and trying to please other people)
  2. All the government members are ______ that something should be done about the situation. (being of the same opinion)
  3. We can’t go on unless we have his ______ .(same opinion, joint decision)
  4. Orange juice seems to ______ with some babies (makes to feel unwell)
  5. The taste is bitter and ______ sour. (of unpleasant quality)


Exercise 3

Fill each space in the sentences below with the correct form of the word in bold print about it. .

E.g. decide

(a)    We must come to a _____ very soon.

(b)   We beat them_____  . We won 7:0.

(c)    He can never make up his mind. He’s very_______.



(a)   decision            (b)   decisively             (c)   indecisive


1      beauty

(a)    She is very _____ .

(b)    She’s training to be a _____ .

(c)    They’re going to_____ the town with more trees and parks.


2      pay

(a)    To buy this car I made a monthly _____ of £280 for two years.

(b)    Please make your cheque _____ to John Watson.

(c)    The person a cheque is made out to is called the _____ .


3     receive

(a)    She works as a _____ . at a hotel inScotland

(b)    Ask for a_____ when you buy something, in case you need to return it.

(c)    I made several suggestions to improve production, but the management was not very _____ to my ideas.


4      hero

(a)    He received a medal for his_____ .

(b)   They fought _____ in the war.

(c)    She was described as a______.


5      produce

(a)       _____ of the new sports car has been halted by a strike.

(b)    Chinais one of the world’s leading _____ of rice

(c)    I’m afraid the talks were totally _____. We didn’t reach agreement on anything.


6     explain

(A)    An _____ leaflet is given to all purchasers of the machine.

(b)    His disappearance is very strange, in fact quite_____.

(c)    I think you owe me an _____ for your behaviour.


7     compare

(a)    This is _____. better than that. In fact, there is really no _____.

(b)    Scientists have made_____ tests on the new drugs.


8      advise

(a)    Until the situation has settled down, it is _____ to travel to that country.

(b)   The government set up an _____ body on the use of drugs in sport.

(c)    I doubt the _____ of drinking alcohol while undergoing that medical treatment


9      admire

(a)    She was a pleasant, attractive girl, always surrounded by _____ .

(b)    I am full of_____ for what she has achieved.

(c)    I approve of him wholeheartedly. He is an _____ man.


10    stable

(a)    To _____ the boat in rough sea, we redistributed the weight.

(b)    Between 1860 and 1900 the country had a number of revolutions and uprisings. It was a time of great _____ .

(c)    The exchange rate is going up and down dramatically. It’s very _____ at the moment.


11    economy

(a)    We’re spending too much. We must _____.

(b)    This car uses a lot of petrol. It’s terribly _____.

(c)    The Chancellor (Minister of Finance) is responsible for_____ affairs.


12    reside

(a)    This is the President’s official _____.

(b)    There’s no industry or entertainment nere. It’s a _____ district.

(c)    All _____ of the neighbouring houses were warned of the gas leak


13    comfort

(a)    In that tense situation I found the good news very _____ .

(b)    I felt rather _____, so I put a soft cushion behind me.

(c)    She sat in terrible _____ on the hard chair for over an hour


14    dead

(a)    The increasing number of _____ in traffic accidents is alarming.

(b)    Be careful! That’s a _____ poison!

(c)    The doctor gave him an injection to _____ the pain.


15    demonstrate

(a)    The _____ marched through the streets chanting slogans.

(b)    Grandfather rarely showed the affection he felt for his family. He was a very _____person.

(c)    What you say is_____ false. Let me show you the facts.


Exercise 5

Compound Adjectives

Warm-hearted means kind, considerate.

Can you match the correct words from the first two columns, and then match the compound adjective with its definition from the column three?

1 2 3
tight- minded mean (with money)
two- sighted bossy
narrow- skinned good at planning
thick- headed obstinate
high- fisted hypocritical
pig- faced insensitive
far- handed intolerant


What semantic and syntactic type do these compound adjectives belong to?

Exercise 6


Rewrite each of the sentences below, forming a compound adjective from the two words in italics and making any other changes necessary.

E.g.             The journey took ten hours. —  It was a ten-hour journey.

They make these chocolates by hand. — These chocolates are hand-made.

                    Her hat caught everyone’s eye. —  She wore an eye-catching hat.

The doctor was trained in Germany. — He’s a German-trained doctor.

                   The memory was both bitter and sweet. — It was a bitter-sweet memory.


(a)    That thing looks dangerous.

(b)    Mr Reed is an accountant who was born in London.

(c)    She always dresses very smartly.

(d)    It was painted red like the colour of bricks.

(e)    She had eyes like a cat.

(f)     It was an occasion which was happy and sad at the same time.

(g)    The tower has a shape like a mushroom.

 (h)    He was famous all over the world.

(i)    We had to write a composition of 200 words.



(a)    The meal tasted awful.

(b)    Only planes with a single engine can land here.

(c)    A building of five storeys suddenly collapsed.

(d)    We walked along a corridor which had a red carpet.

(e)    This machine is operated by hand.

(1)     The new director is an economist educated at Oxford.

(g)    He has very broad shoulders.

(h)    She’s always very satisfied with herself.

(i)      My sister is very conscious of dress.


(a)    We’ll have a guide who speaks French.

(b)    The walls were as blue as the sky,

(c)    I looked at the sea, which was rather blue but also rather green.

(d)    The ship sailed with a crew of eight men.

(e)    She had fair hair.

(f)     The new machinery, built in America, will arrive next month.

(g)    I heard a voice that sounded strange.

(h)    These tigers eat men.

(i)      He always has a bad temper.


 (From B.J. Thomas Advanced Vocabulary and Idiom)



Exercise 7

Conversion is the derivational process whereby an item changes its word-class without the addition of an affix. Conversion is particularly common in English because the basic form of nouns and verbs is identical in many cases.


Find cases of conversion in the following sentences. Indicate the part of speech of the words derived by conversion and guess their meaning.


  1. The Army would radio the location to the nearest airstrip.
  2. We summered inKashmir.
  3. They pensioned him off when they found a younger man for the job.
  4. You aren’t down. Nothing will down you.
  5. It doesn’t interfere with your own likes and dislikes.
  6. When did you get the invite, Mother?
  7. It has been quite a wait before he heard her voice.
  8. The detectives tailed the thief to the station.



Exercise 8

Many of the words in the English language are shortened forms of longer words. For instance, the word «modem» is the shortened form of «modulator-demodulator.» Guess the full form of the words from which the following clipped words were formed.


  1. pants
  2. movie
  3. limo
  4. math
  5. flu
  6. auto
  7. burger
  8. ad
  9. varsity
  10. lab
  11. lunch
  12. memo
  13. mum
  14. typo





The standard linguistic term for this type of word is a blend. It was Lewis Carroll in Through The Looking Glass who coined the word portmanteau to describe them. In the book Humpty Dumpty explains that: «Well, ‘slithy’ means ‘lithe and slimy’. ‘Lithe’ is the same word as ‘active’. You see, it’s like a portmanteau — there are two meanings packed into one word.» Among several other words Carroll created chortle (a combination of ‘chuckle’ and ‘snort’) and galumph (a combination of ‘gallop’ and ‘triumph’).


So, a portmanteau or blend word is one derived by combining portions of two or more separate words. Interestingly, portmanteau itself is a blend word, originating from the French portemanteau, a compound formed from porter (to carry) and manteau (cloak).


Exercise 9

Now guess the full form of the words from which the following portmanteau words were formed.


  1. advertainment
  2. Beatles
  3. bionic
  4. bit
  5. blog
  6. camcorder
  7. docudrama
  8. email
  9. fanzine
  10. freeware
  11. malware
  12. pulsar
  13. Spanglish
  14. sitcom
  15. webinar






Exercise 1

1)    short — root, free; -en — derivational suffix, bound

2)    power — root, free

3)    im- — prefix, bound; mov(e) — root, free; -able — derivational suffix

4)    critic — root, free; -ize — derivational suffix, bound; -ed — inflectional suffix

5)    secretari(/y) — root, free; -es — inflectional suffix



Exercise 2


1)    childhood

2)    childish

3)    childless

4)    childlike

5)    childproof



1)    agreeable

2)    agreed

3)    agreement

4)    disagree

5)    disagreeably


Exercise 3


1 a) beautiful b) beautician c) beautify

2 a) payment b) payable c) payee

3 a) receptionist b)  receipt c) receptive

4 a) heroism b) heroically c) heroine

5 a) production b) producers c)  unproductive

6 a) explanatory b) inexplicable c) explanation

7 a) incomparably, comparison b) comparative

8 a) inadvisable b) advisory c) advisability

9 a) admirers b) admiration c) admirable

10 a) stabilise b) instability c) unstable

11 a) economise b) uneconomical c) economic

12 a) residence b) residential c) residents

13 a) comforting b) uncomfortable c) discomfort

14 a) deaths b) deadly c) deaden

15 a) demonstrators b) undemonstrative c) demonstrably


Exercise 5

tight-fisted = mean (with money)

two-faced = hypocritical

narrow-minded = intolerant

thick-skinned = insensitive

high-handed = bossy

pig-headed = obstinate

far-sighted = good at planning


Exercise 6

1 a) That’s a dangerous-looking thing, b) Mr Reed is a London-born accountant, c) She is always very smartly-dressed, d) It was painted a brick-red colour. e) She had cat-like eyes f) It was a happy-sad occasion, g) The tower is mushroom-shaped, h) He was world-famous, i) We had to write a 200-word composition.

2 a) It was an awful-tasting meal, b) Only single-engine/single-engined planes can land here, c) A five-storey building suddenly collapsed ) We walked along a red-carpeted corridor, e) This machine is hand-operated, f) The new director is an Oxford-educated economist, g) He is very broad-shouldered, h) She’s always very self-satisfied i) My sister is very dress-conscious.

3 a) We’ll have a French-speaking guide, b) The walls were sky-blue, c) I looked at the sea, which was blue-green, d) The ship sailed with an eight-man crew, e) She was fair-haired, f) The new, American-built, machinery will arrive next month, g) I heard a strange-sounding voice, h) These are man-eating tigers, i) He is always bad-tempered.



Exercise 7

  1. The Army would radio the location to the nearest airstrip. = verb, ‘to transmit by radio’
  2. We summered inKashmir = verb, ‘to spend summer in some place’
  3. They pensioned him off when they found a younger man for the job. = verb, ‘to retire or dismiss with a pension’
  4. You aren’t down. Nothing will down you. = verb, ‘to bring, put, strike, or throw down’
  5. It doesn’t interfere with your own likes and dislikes. = ‘a favourable feeling, desire, or preference’; ‘feeling of distaste or aversion’
  6. When did you get the invite, Mother? = noun, ‘an invitation.’
  7. It has been quite a wait before he heard her voice. = noun, ‘the act of waiting or the time spent waiting’
  8. The detectives tailed the thief to the station. to follow closely



Exercise 8

  1. pants          pantaloons
  2. movie         moving picture
  3. limo            limousine
  4. math           mathematics
  5. flu              influenza
  6. auto            automobile
  7. burger        hamburger
  8. ad               advertisement
  9. varsity        university
  10. lab              laboratory
  11. lunch          luncheon
  12. memo         memorandum
  13. mum           chrysanthemum
  14. typo           typographical error



Exercise 9


  1. advertainment     advertisement + entertainment
  2. Beatles                 beat + beetles
  3. bionic                  biology + electronic
  4. bit                        binary + digit
  5. blog                     web + log
  6. camcorder            camera + recorder
  7. docudrama          documentary + drama
  8. email                    electronic + mail
  9. fanzine                 fan + magazine
  10. freeware               free + software
  11. malware               malicious + software
  12. pulsar                            pulsating + star
  13. Spanglish             Spanish + English
  14. sitcom                  situation + comedy
  15. webinar                web + seminar

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