Morphemes are the smallest meaningful and grammatical units in a word.  A morpheme ‘cannot be divided without altering or destroying its meaning’ (Longman Dictionary of Teaching and Applied Linguistics, p.375). For example, phones contains two morphemes – phone and s; helpless contains two morphemes – help and less; table contains only one morpheme. Many morphemes are suffixes or prefixes, but there are also grammatical morphemes in English such as 3rd person singular s,  past tense –ed, and –ing in a gerund or present participle.


In many vocabulary books you can find activities on word formation that in fact are based on morphemes e.g. deciding on the right prefix, matching parts of compound words, making opposites by adding the correct suffix.

Further reading

Carter, R. and McCarthy, M. (2006). Cambridge Grammar of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Longman Dictionary of Teaching and Applied Linguistics (2010). Harlow: Pearson.



» ELT terms - defined and referenced!