Word structure

The study of word structure is called morphology. Understanding word structure helps us:

  • improve spelling
  • expand vocabulary

In studying word structure, we start by looking at a few key concepts first:

  • root words
  • prefixes
  • suffixes

Root words are words, or parts of words, that can usually stand alone. The following are all root words:

  • elbow
  • fast
  • nudge

Most root words can be changed in various ways by adding additional elements to them:

  • elbows
  • faster
  • nudged

Each of the examples above has been altered by adding an element at the end. The elements at the end, namely -s, -er, and -ed, cannot stand alone. These elements are called suffixes.

Sometimes, elements are added to the beginning of a word:

  • exposeunderexpose
  • appeardisappear
  • takeovertake
  • eventnon-event

The elements added to the beginnings of the words above cannot stand alone, and are called prefixes.

Sometimes, when we add a prefix or suffix to a word, we create a new word. This process is called derivation.

  • appearappearance

The two words above are definitely two different words - the first is a verb, the second a noun. Their meanings and uses in sentences are different. In a dictionary, we would have to look them up separately, even though they have a common root word.

Sometimes, when we add a suffix, we don't create a new word at all. This process is called inflection.

  • catcats

In the above example, we really have just one word - the first is singular, the second plural. In a dictionary, we might look for cat, but we wouldn't look for a separate entry for cats.

When words are built from a common root word, or a common ancestor in history (often a Latin word), we call the group of words a word family.

  • grammar, grammatical, grammatically, ungrammatical, ungrammatically

The terms above are all built from a common root word, grammar. This word family includes a noun, adjectives, and adverbs.

The terms below are built from a common ancestor, the Latin word spectare, meaning 'to look':

  • inspect, spectacle, spectacular, inspection

This word family includes verbs, nouns, and adjectives.

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