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Sequencing morphemes

An understanding of morphology demonstrates that there is an accepted sequential order for the addition of bound morphemes to free morphemes. So, the following sequences are acceptable.




However, the following constructions are not permitted by the sequential rules governing the placement of bound morphemes.




In other words, re- and dis- may only function as prefixes and -ation may only function as a suffix.

Sequencing words

In just the same way that sequencing rules apply to morphemes, similar sequencing rules also apply at the word level. To illustrate, what does the following word mean?


Two common interpretations would probably be either, ‘without the power of sight’ or ‘a screen for a window’. Now, what does this word mean?


Did you interpret this as meaning ‘a native or inhabitant of Venice’? Perhaps you again considered it to mean, ‘a screen for a window’? But now consider the following.

Venetian blind

Is this the same as the following?

blind Venetian

It should be obvious that a Venetian blind is not the same as a blind Venetian!

This simple example illustrates very well the notion of syntax. It is apparent that the correct sequencing of words is crucial to convey the appropriate meaning. Syntactic rules, then, govern which words can be associated with which other words in a language, and in what order. Failure to follow the rules of syntax can result in meaningless word combinations, e.g.

to colleague not estranged my chose phone I

[cf. I chose not to phone my estranged colleague]

In contrast, an appropriate application of syntactic rules can lead to a variety of utterances, all of which convey the same essential meaning:

  1. The weary ploughman homeward plods his way.
  2. The weary ploughman plods his homeward way.
  3. The homeward ploughman plods his weary way.
  4. The homeward ploughman, weary, plods his way.
  5. The homeward, weary, ploughman plods his way.
  6. The weary, homeward ploughman plods his way.
  7. Homeward the weary ploughman plods his way.
  8. Homeward, weary, the ploughman plods his way.
  9. Homeward the ploughman plods his weary way.
  10. Homeward the ploughman, weary, plods his way.
  11. Weary, the homeward ploughman plods his way.
  12. Weary, homeward the ploughman plods his way.
  13. Weary, the ploughman plods his homeward way.
  14. The ploughman plods his homeward, weary way.
  15. The ploughman plods his weary homeward way.
  16. The ploughman homeward, weary, plods his way.
  17. The ploughman, weary, homeward plods his way.
  18. The ploughman, weary, plods his homeward way.


Now, as you might expect, words also combine to form larger units. Consider the utterance my favorite soccer star scored the first goal. Notice that the words in this syntactically correct structure appear to combine into three units:

  1. my favorite soccer star

  2. scored

  3. the first goal

We can represent this as follows.

my favorite soccer star


the first goal

These units are known as phrases. Phrases represent an intermediate level of organization between the word and what is known as a clause.


We have seen how phrases may combine to construct larger units, e.g. we + are going + to Judy’s + for dinner = we are going to Judy’s for dinner. Such larger units are known as clauses. Clauses may be further combined in spoken language into so-called clause complexes, e.g.

clause complex
clause 1 conjunction clause 2

we are going to Judy’s for dinner


it is Paul’s birthday today

Here, two clauses are combined (conjoined) using the so-called conjunction because.