Reverse detail from Kakelbont MS 1, a fifteenth-century French Psalter. This image is in the public domain. Daniel Paul O'Donnell

Forward to Navigation

Grammar Essentials 1: Inflections (Inflectional Morphology)

Posted: Jan 04, 2007 11:01;
Last Modified: Jan 25, 2014 14:01

---

For the most part, English uses word order to indicate the relationship among words in sentences. When I say “The boy bit the dog”, people listening to me know that it was the boy who did the biting because The boy comes first in the sentence. Likewise, they know that it was the dog that was bitten because the dog comes after bit.

If I reverse the positions of boy and dog the sentence changes meaning as well: now the dog is doing the biting:

But not all relationships among words in sentences are indicated by word order. Sometimes we use special forms of a word or add sounds or syllables (known as inflections) as to the end to indicate particular relationships among words1.

For example, if I say “She broke the girl’s hockey stick”, we know that the hockey stick was owned by the girl because the word girl comes before the hockey stick and has an -’s on it2.

Likewise, we know that she—whoever she might be—broke the girl’s stick both because the word comes first in the sentence and, more importantly, because the word is she and not some other form like her; in fact, if I replace she with her, but make no other changes, the sentence will not make sense to most speakers of English3:

Endings such as -s and changes in form such as between she and her are known broadly as inflections. English now uses very few and relies mostly on word order to express such relationships (other languages and earlier stages of the English language rely much more heavily on inflections than does Modern English).

This tutorial looks at English inflectional morphology. That is to say the grammatical endings used in English.

Previous: Introduction | Next: Parts of Speech (Word classes)

The most common inflection by far in Modern English is -s. This is used with or without an apostrophe to indicate any one of a number of relationships, depending on the type of words involved and the context in which they are found.

On nouns (words like boy and music “the boy” and “good music”), for example, -s is commonly used to indicate

On verbs (words like run in “he runs quickly”), s is used to indicate that the sentence is taking place in the present and is third person singular (i.e. about something that be described using he, she, or it, rather than I or you).

Another inflection used with verbs includes -ed, which is used with some verbs to indicate that the sentence is happening in the past (e.g., “I loved him” compared to “I love him”). Some verbs use changes in form to indicate the same thing (e.g. “They sang well” compared to “They sing well”). Inflections or changes in form can also be used to indicate whether a statement reflects a real or non-real situation (e.g. “She is a police officer; she is nice”, where the situation described is assumed to be real, compared to “Were she a police officer, she would be nice”, where the situation described is not real—i.e. she isn’t a police officer and isn’t nice).

Many adjectives (words like tall in “the tall girl”) use the inflections -er and -est to indicate comparison: “the taller girl” is more tall than “the tall girl” and “the tallest girl” is the most tall of all.

The words that show the most complete set of inflections, however, are the pronouns (words like he, them, _her, she, and its). Here, different forms of the word are used to indicate a number of different types of relationships whether something is the subject or object of a verb (I in “I hit Dave” against me in “Dave hit me”), singular or plural (he against they), or possessive singular against possessive plural (her against their).

Paradigms

As the above suggests, inflections found on different types of word can mean different things. The -s on runs in “he runs quickly”, for example, means something different than the -s on girls in “The girls went to the game”. Likewise, similar types of words can sometimes use different inflections or changes to indicate the same type of relationship. While car and church both use -(e)s to indicate plural, for example, child uses -ren (children) and sheep uses nothing at all (“one sheep, ten sheep”). Sometimes, different versions of English can use different forms for the same word. North American and British people, for example, differ in whether you should say “I dove into the water” or “I dived into the water.” Often these differences reflect forms from earlier stages of the language or are the result of changes in the history of the language.

The following tables are known as paradigms. These lay out information about inflections for each type of word.

Because this is an introductory tutorial, I have only presented the most common examples of each type of word. An exercise at the end asks you to come up with some more unusual examples.

Pronoun Inflections

Pronouns are words like I and them that can stand for nouns in sentences (for example: “This is my sister. She is the tallest woman I know,” where she in the second sentence stands for sister in the first sentence). Pronouns have the most detailed inflectional system in English: depending on the specific example, they can show distinctions to indicate whether a word is singular or plural, the subject or object of a sentence, or singular or plural possessive.

The most complete set of pronouns is found in the first person (i.e. I and we) and the third person singular masculine (i.e. he) and plural (i.e. they). The other pronouns all have more overlap or unchanging forms.

Number Function in sentence Form
Singular
(i.e. one)
Subject I you he she it
Object me you him her it
Possession my your his her its
Plural
(i.e. more than one)
Subject we you they
Object us you them
Possession our your their

Noun Inflections

Nouns (words like girl, woman, child, and sheep: a more complete definition is given in the next tutorial) have next most complete system. For most nouns (there are some exceptions), we can distinguish singular against plural and between possession and all other functions. Note how in the noun paradigm, the same form of each noun appears for the subject and the object:

Number Function in sentence Form
Singular Subject or Object girl woman child sheep
Possession girl’s woman‘s child’s sheep’s
Plural Subject or Object girls women children sheep
Possession girls’ women’s children’s sheep’s

Adjective Inflections

Adjectives (words like blue, quick, or symbolic that can be used to describe nouns) used to have many of the same inflections found on the nouns and pronouns. In Modern English, however, the only inflections that remain are used to indicate degree of comparison and not all adjectives can show even this: while most short adjective can use -er and -est, longer adjectives use more and most before the word in question:

Degree Form
Positive blue quick symbolic
Comparative bluer or
more blue
quicker more symbolic
Superlative bluest quickest most symbolic

Verb Conjugations

Verbs are words like [he] loves, [I] think. Inflections on verbs indicate tense (past vs. present: he loves vs. he loved), number (singular vs. plural: he loves vs. they love), and person (first vs. second vs. third: I think vs. you think vs. she thinks or the boy thinks).

Inflections can also be used to distinguish forms of the verb that are used in different kinds of contexts: for example, adding -ing to a verb makes a form that can be used as a noun or an adjective (compare “I fight” against “the fighting ended today” or “the fighting schoolteachers were pulled apart by the principal”). This form can also be used with forms of the verb to be to indicate that the verb is describing something on-going (compare “I walk” with “I am walking” and “I walked” with “I was walking”). This difference is known as aspect.

A similar form can be built using either -ed or -en with a change in the form of the verb (e.g. “loved” and “driven”)4. Forms like “loved” or “driven” can be used as adjectives (e.g. “the loved child” and “the driven snow”) or, when combined with forms of to be, to indicate that the subject was the acted upon rather than acting (compare “I drove the team to the game” against “I was driven by the team to the game“—in the first the subject I was in control of the car; in the second, it was in a car controlled by the team). This contrast is known as voice: “I drove the team” is active voice, “I was driven by the team” is passive voice).

driven and loved, driving and loving are known as participles. driven and loved are past participles (because they refer to the past) and living and driving are present participles because they refer to the present,

The participles, both past and present, are known as non-finite forms of the verb. They are called this because they do not have subjects when they are used in sentences5. Non-finite forms can be contrasted, therefore, to finite forms of the verb, such as (I) drive, (we) drove, (Bob and Henry) thought, (Martha) wins. These are finite because they do agree with subjects.

There is one more non-finite form of the verb, the infinitive. This is the “dictionary form” of the verb (i.e. the form you would look under if you wanted to find out what drive means). In English, it appears in two forms, with and without to: “I want to drive” and “I can drive very well, thank you!”.

As the difference between I love : I loved and I drive : I drove shows, most verbs in English can be placed in one of two main categories: verbs that change into the past by adding -ed (like love) and those that change into the past by changing the form of their stem (like drive). These two types of verbs are known as regular verbs (like love) and irregular verbs (like drive)—though it is not really true to say that drive is irregular, as other verbs follow similar patterns:

Finite vs. Non-finite Tense Number Person Form
Finite Present Singular First and Second
(I / you)
love drive
Third
(he / she / it / the woman)
loves drives
Plural All
(we / you / they / women)
love drive
Past Singular and
Plural
All
(I / you /he / she / it / the woman /
we / you / they / women)
loved drove

 

Finite vs. Non-finite Grammatical Form Tense Form
Non-finite Participle
(i.e. can be used as adjective or noun)
Present loving driving
Past loved driven
Infinitive
(to) love (to) drive

Exercises

The following exercises test you on your ability to apply the above material. The real test of your knowledge of grammar is not whether you are able to memorise terms and definitions, but whether you can supply examples and describe real-life sentences.

1. Give examples of four different inflections in sentences. Make sure you can give show on a verb, one on a noun, one on an adjective, and one on a pronoun.

2. How many different ways can -s (with or without an apostrophe) be used as an inflection in English? Give one example in a sentence for each.

3. Give an example in a sentence of a noun that does not use -s to indicate plural

4. Indicate the third person singular present word or words in the following sentence:

Snow White sees the seven dwarves, but they don’t know that she knows who they are.

5. Give an example of an “irregular” verb like drive.

6. What is the plural of these?


Notes

1 I say sounds and syllables because I am thinking of how we speak. In writing, of course, we add letters and other symbols (like apostrophes) to do this. In speaking it is sounds.

2 Actually, if I say “She broke the girl’s hockey stick” there isn’t really an apostrophe—there is just an -s on the end.

3 Some speakers of particular types of English might be able to say a sentence like her broke the hockey stick in informal use, but you would not expect to see it in writing in an international or educated context.

4 Although it doesn’t look like there has been a change in the form of the verb between drive and driven, there has been: the sound between dr and v is different. In drive it sounds like the i in bite; in driven like the i in bit. Other verbs make the change more obvious: e.g. speak vs. spoken.

5 You might think that driven does have a subject in the sentence Martha was driven on a train; Martha is the person who was driven after all! Martha is the subject, but not of driven: she is the subject of was. You can test this by trying it in the present: “I am driven” vs. “she is driven“—driven doesn’t change to reflect the change in subject, but look at am vs. is.

Previous: Introduction | Next: Parts of Speech (Word classes)

----  

Comment [2]

  1. megbeht (Fri Feb 9, 2007 (12:13:30)) [PermLink]:

    what are the fore different types of noun give a exaple

  2. Richard C (Sun Jan 10, 2010 (13:53:50)) [PermLink]:

    Ok, Google didn’t help me – Is there a plural of “these” and what is it…?

Commenting is closed for this article.

Back to content

Search my site

Sections

Current teaching

Recent changes to this site

Tags

anglo-saxon studies, caedmon, citation, citation practice, citations, composition, computers, digital humanities, digital pedagogy, exercises, grammar, history, moodle, old english, pedagogy, research, student employees, students, study tips, teaching, tips, tutorials, unessay, universities, university of lethbridge

See all...

Follow me on Twitter

At the dpod blog