Language may seem like a read-made code, but even words can be broken down into smaller units. A morpheme is the smallest unit of language to have meaning. For instance, “rattlesnakes” contains three morphemes: the two that make up the compound noun, “rattle” and “snake,” and the plural suffix “-s.” Morphemes that can stand alone as words are free morphemes; those that cannot are bound morphemes. To analyze a word’s morphemes, break it down into parts based on meaning, not length.

Nouns and Pronouns

If the word is a noun, first determine whether it is compound, like “hedgehog” or “headhunter.” Then examine whether it is plural, possessive or part of a contraction, and whether it has a prefix, like “anti-” or “para-.” Each part of a compound noun and each suffix or prefix is a separate morpheme, which is why “hedgehogs” has three morphemes, two of them free. Both "hedge" and "hog" are free morphemes, because they can act as words on their own. The suffix "-s" is a bound morpheme, because it cannot stand on its own as a word. “Paralegals,” which includes the prefix “para-,” also has three morphemes, but only one of them, “legal,” is free. "Para-" and "-s" are both bound morphemes.

Verbs

Verbs in English have more forms than nouns do, so you should consider tense as well as number. The verb “gathered,” for instance, includes the free morpheme “gather” and the bound morpheme “-ed,” the suffix indicating past tense. In a contraction like “isn’t,” the negative suffix, “-n’t” is a bound morpheme that is a shortened form of the free morpheme “not.” The negative suffix, “-n’t” is bound in this case, because it cannot act as a word on its own in this form.

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Adverbs and Adjectives

These may prove trickier, because of the variety of prefixes and suffixes they can take. Adverbs, for example, are usually another part of speech indicated by the suffix “-ly,” as in the case of “quickly,” which also contains the free morpheme “quick." “Quicker” has the same free morpheme, but it includes the bound morpheme “-er,” showing comparison. Prefixes like “in-” or “pre-” are bound morphemes; “illegally” thus breaks into three morphemes, two of them bound: “il-,” “legal” and “-ly.”

Other Words

In English, contractions, prepositions and interjections rarely change their form, so they are usually free morphemes on their own. “If,” “and,” “yes” and “with,” for instance, are free morphemes.

Why Do We Break Down Words?

Breaking words down into morphemes has a variety of uses. Knowledge of morphemes can help language learners better understand spelling and pronunciation rules. Understanding morphemes can also widen your vocabulary, because morphemes can act like building blocks to form more complex words.

About the Author

Jennifer Spirko has been writing professionally for more than 20 years, starting at "The Knoxville Journal." She has written for "MetroPulse," "Maryville-Alcoa Daily Times" and "Some" monthly. She has taught writing at North Carolina State University and the University of Tennessee. Spirko holds a Master of Arts from the Shakespeare Institute, Stratford-on-Avon, England.