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Describing language
Describing language

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2 Verbs and morphemes

A top down shot of a table containing a broad range of foods from around the world. People are reaching in from all angles to share the food.
Figure 2 To eat or 吃

You learned in Week 1 that in English we can use bound morphemes to change the meaning (or function) of a word: walk becomes walked or walks. But not all languages work in this way. In some languages (Mandarin Chinese, for example) the words don’t change from the form you’ll find in the dictionary. Virtually all the words in Mandarin Chinese are free morphemes and you don’t add bound morphemes (like -ing or -ed) to them to make new words.

eat in Mandarin Chinese is chī,

This word is used in all cases, whereas in English we would change the word form depending on who was eating (I eat, she eats) and whether the action happened in the past (I eat becomes I ate).

In other languages (German, for example) words change their endings in many ways, much more than English does. German nouns change to show they are plural (like in English: door > doors), but nouns and adjectives (and the equivalent of the) can change to show who is ‘doing’ the verb and who is having something done to them.

der schwarze Hund beißt den dummen Mann

(the black dog bites the silly man)

der dumme Mann beißt den schwarzen Hund

(the silly man bites the black dog)

English has fewer changes than German, but it does have some. You saw last week that many nouns can be made plural by adding an -s, but verbs can also change too. For example, to show that a verb is referring to something in the past you add the bound morpheme ‑ed (or -d) to the dictionary form of the verb (live > lived; want > wanted). You can add the morpheme -ing to a verb to form what is known as the present participle (discussed in Section 3) (live > living; want > wanting). Even though this terminology might be new to you, chances are, you’re still able to decide what morpheme you need to convey your message.

Activity 3 Add the missing piece

Timing: This activity should take around 10 minutes
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  1. -ed
  2. -s
  3. -ing
  4. -
  5. -ed
  6. -ing (dropping the ‘e’ > ‘phoning’)
  7. -
  8. -ing

You may not yet know the rules you are following, but it should be possible to choose the correct morpheme (or none, if one is not required). If you puzzled over any of them, or got the wrong answer, try to imagine someone saying the relevant sentence in a natural context. Which version are you most likely to hear? In some cases, especially if your experience of English is as a second language speaker and/or you speak a particular dialect or variety of English, you may have opted for different answers. For now, just to keep things simple, you’ll focus on the forms that would be expected in (standard) British English.