Types of Morphemes: Free versus Bound Morphemes

"They call it a relation "ship" because it so often sinks."

Morphemes -- the minimal building blocks of meaning -- are not to be perceived as a homogeneous group; quite differently, the rather vast group of morphemes differs from each other in a number of characteristics crucial to delineate briefly in this context. In the chapters to follow, you will be introduced to a variety of word-building elements. The knowledge you will gain by working through these sections then allows you to do a morphological analysis on your own.

Linguists most generally distinguish between two major types of morphemes: free morphemes on the one hand and bound morphemes on the other.

Let us clarify this more finely grained distinction with some examples.

"To successfully manage a huge law firm requires both determination and authority.”

"The well-paid management of the company failed fatally."

"Preparing the text on syntax for next week is easily manageable. Isn't it?"

Based on these three examples above, we can come up with a first broad distinction between these two types of morphemes.

  • There are free morphemes that can occur on their own without any morphemes necessarily attached to them. As such, free morphemes can stand by themselves as single, thoroughly independent words, e.g. manage as in management, mother as in motherhood or words such as pen, tea, and man. Free morphemes can further be subcategorized into content words and function words.

  • Bound morphemes, in obvious contrast, only appear in combination with other in most cases free morphemes, that is, these morphemes are bound in the very sense that they cannot stand alone and are thus necessarily attached to another form. For instance, “-ment” as in management or "un" as in unhappy“'' are bound morphemes.

Additionally, free morphemes, including manage as in management or friend as in friendship are further technically termed because they serve as the basis for attaching other, usually bound, morphemes.

Hierarchical overview of different morphemes: Attach:morphemes:overview.pdf