Meet the Mighty Morpheme!

Oct 20, 2020 | Posted by Jennifer


In addition to teaching Structure and Style writing to co-op classes and individual tutored students, I also work as a reading and spelling tutor, employing a structured literacy approach. To say that I enjoy my work would be a major understatement. I love my work: the students, the subjects, and even the challenges. Not just a vocation, working in literacy is my calling. I can’t imagine doing anything else.

One aspect of language that intersects with all of the various components of my work is teaching morphology. What is morphology? Let’s take a look at the roots that make up the word morphology. Morpho- means “shape,” and -logy means “study of.” Taken together, morphology means the study of the structure of language.

A morpheme is the smallest meaningful part of a word. It could be an affix, either a prefix or suffix, or it could be a base word that is formed from a root. Every word has at least one morpheme, and some morphemes are as small as one letter! If you invest a little time learning some of the Greek and Latin roots, you will start to notice something interesting. Frequently larger words are simply made up of more than one morpheme. If you know the meaning of the morphemes in the word, you can use that knowledge to help you uncover the meaning of the new word.

Let’s take a look at an example to play around with: jacio/jactum. This Latin root means “throw.” There’s a long backstory to how the root enters English as <ject>, but knowing that <ject> hails back to Latin (from the infinitive, iacere) and means “throw,” tosses out several interesting words: eject, interject, reject, and object, to name just a few.

All of these words have the connotation of throwing. If you have additional background information to understand the prefixes that accompany the words, you gain more understanding. E- is related to ex-, and it means “out.” Exit, for example, is a word that uses the same prefix. If a football player is ejected from a game due to a personal foul, he is kicked out of the game and must exit the field. Inter- means “between” or “among.” If you interject your thoughts about something, you are “throwing your thoughts between or among other thoughts as an aside or interruption.” To reject something means to send something back, which makes perfect sense if you know that re- means “back” or “again.” The verb object has the prefix ob-, which means “against.” So if you object to something, you are throwing your ideas against someone else’s.

Things get even more interesting if you play around with suffixes. While prefixes can change the meaning of a word quite a bit, suffixes tend to operate more subtly. You can have a single objection (-ion makes it a noun), or you can have multiple objections, with the additional suffix of -s making the noun plural. You can currently be ejecting someone from the football game, or perhaps the referee ejected the player last Saturday. A difference between the two is the suffix, which determines when something happened. And when that happened, it is likely that the coach of the offending player found the call objectionable. -Able means that the coach was able to make the objection. Incidentally, it also functions as a different part of speech, an adjective.

Aren’t morphemes fun? Morphemes are most certainly mighty; they work together to infuse new words with bits of their own personalities. It is so beneficial to become a morpheme detective. It will increase your comprehension, develop your spelling acuity, and enhance your enjoyment of the English language.


Jennifer Mauser has always loved reading and writing and received a B.A. in English from the University of Kansas in 1991. Once she and her husband had children, they decided to homeschool, and she put all her training to use in the home. In addition to homeschooling her children, Jennifer teaches IEW classes out of her home, coaches budding writers via email, and tutors students who struggle with dyslexia.

Live Chat with IEW