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Inflection

Apple / Apples - we know that one of these words refers to multiple apples, but why? the answer is inflection. Inflection is a morphological process that can highlight a wide range of grammatical meanings and functions, such as when something happened, whether an action is completed, who we're talking about, which things belong to who, how many items we have, and more!

Inflection Definition

Inflection is a form of morphology (word formation process) in which a base word is altered to show grammatical meaning and category, such as tense, aspect, number, mood, or person.

Typically, inflected words go through an affixation process, whereby a letter, or a number of letters, is added to the base word to show the grammatical change. For example, sing - singing - here, the inflexional suffix '-ing' indicates the action is ongoing.

However, there are also several irregular inflections that don't follow the typical affixation process, and the base word is altered in terms of spelling, pronunciation, or remains the same. For example, sheep - sheep. Unlike regular inflections, which typically follow set rules, there are no rules around irregular inflections that need to be remembered.

Inflection, word with affix, StudySmarterHere, inflection lets us know the action is ongoing

Inflection and Grammar

As we mentioned, the most common inflection process is affixation. Before we go any further, let's look at a definition for that slightly scary term:

Affixation is a morphological process (word formation process) whereby affixes (e.g., prefixes and suffixes) are added to base words to alter their meaning, word class, or grammatical meaning.

So, affixation refers to the process of adding letters to a base word, but not all affixation is inflectional. Inflection is unique in that it must show a change in grammatical meaning.

Let's take a look at two different words that have gone through the affixation process: one is an example of inflection, and one isn't.

1. Imaginable - Unimaginable

2. Eat - Eaten

In example 1, we can see that the prefix 'un-' has been added to the base word 'imaginable' to change its semantic meaning from something positive to negative.

Example 2, on the other hand, uses the suffix '-en' to show either the perfect aspect (e.g., I have eaten two sandwiches today) or the passive voice (e.g., The sandwiches were eaten by me), both of which are grammatical changes.

Types of Inflection

Inflection can happen across several word classes, such as verbs, nouns, pronouns, and adjectives. The inflection of verbs is most common and is called conjugation, whereas the inflection of all other word classes is called declension.

Conjugation

The term conjugation refers to the inflection of verbs to show grammatical tense, aspect, mood, voice, and person. When discussing verbs, we usually start with their base form, e.g., to sing, to run, to drive; we then add inflections to the base to show grammatical meaning, such as when the action happened, who completed it, the complete status of the action, and more.

Tense

There are two tenses in English that can be created by inflections: the past and the present. We can create the past tense by adding the inflection '-ed' / '-d' to the end of the verb and the present tense by adding '-s'.

Today, he works from the office.

Yesterday, he worked at home.

Remember, there are many irregular inflections in English, and these rules don't always apply!

Many linguists state that the future tense isn't a real tense in English as it cannot be represented with inflected verbs. Instead, we use the present tense with auxiliary verbs (e.g., will) to discuss the future.

Aspect

The grammatical aspect refers to how an action/event extends over time. There are four main aspects in English; simple, progressive, perfect, and progressive perfect.

The simple aspect presents facts, i.e., things that are always true. We don't inflect the verb based on aspect but instead follow the same rules of the tense. E.g., "The baby sleeps every day." or "The baby slept all day."

The progressive aspect lets us know the action/event is ongoing and not yet completed. For the verb inflection, we add '-ing' to the end of the main verb. E.g., "The baby is sleeping."

The perfect aspect is used for actions/events that are completed. We use past participles (i.e., Verb 3) for the perfect aspect. The verb inflection for past participles is most commonly the suffix '-en'; However, there are many irregular verb inflections for the perfect aspect. E.g., "I have eaten already this morning." and "I have written 500 words today already."

The perfect progressive aspect uses the verb inflection '-ing' on the main verb coupled with the auxiliary verbs had/have been. E.g., "I had been working all day."

Voice

Grammatical voice shows the relationship between the subject or object in a sentence and the verb. The two grammatical voices are active (where the subject completes the action) and passive (where the object is acted upon). To show the passive voice, we inflect the main verb, again turning it into a past participle. E.g., "The picture was drawn by me."

Person

In grammar, the term person is used to describe either who is talking (1st person), who is being spoken to (2nd person), and who is indirectly being spoken about (3rd person). We show the 3rd person singular (i.e., he, she, it, and not they) by adding the inflection '-s' to the main verb. E.g., "He walks to school every day."

Inflections, especially conjugations, are more common in other languages, such as French, Spanish, and Italian. The English language underwent a simplification process and dropped many of its inflections during the transition from Middle English to Modern English.

Declension

Declension refers to the inflection of all word classes except verbs. It can be used to describe plurals, possessives, comparative and superlative adjectives, and more.

Nouns

Nouns are typically inflected in two ways: to show number and possession (aka the genitive case).

To express number (i.e., plurals), we typically add the inflection '-s' / '-es' to the end of the noun.

Apples, shirts, foxes, boxes

However, not all words follow the rule (this is the English language, after all!), and the inflected noun changes its spelling, pronunciation, or even remains the same - we call these irregular inflections.

Mice, geese, sheep, fish

Inflection, Image of mice, StudySmarter'Mice' is an irregular inflection

We also use the '-s' inflection to show possession, except this time, we accompany the '-s' with an apostrophe, i.e., 's.

The coffee is Lily's.

The tree's leaves are brown.

McDonald's burgers are the best.

When making a possessive out of the pronoun it, we never use an apostrophe. For example, "The store was ready for its big opening." This is because it would be easily confused with the contraction it's (i.e., it is).

Pronouns

We can inflect pronouns to show the reflexive case by adding the inflection '-self' / '-selves.' We use the reflexive case when the subject and object of a sentence are the same.

himself, herself, myself, themselves, ourselves, itself

Adjectives

We can inflect adjectives in two main ways: to show comparisons and superlatives.

Comparative adjectives are used to show the relationship between one object and another. We typically form comparatives using the inflection '-er.'

Our new apartment is bigger than our last one.

On the other hand, superlative adjectives show that an object or action has a quality that is the greatest or the least. Superlatives express absolutes. We form superlatives using the inflection '-est.'

The Burj Khalifa is the tallest building in the world.'

Inflection Examples

Here is a helpful table containing different wording classes and their possible inflections and grammatical meanings.

Word Class Grammatical MeaningInflection Example inflected wordsExample sentences
Verb Past tense '-ed' / '-d'Walked, Jumped, ClosedHe closed the shop yesterday.
Verb Present tense '-s'Walks, Jumps, Closes She walks to work every day.
Verb Perfect aspect '-en' / '-n' / '-ed'Eaten, Written, WalkedI have never eaten meat.
Verb Progressive aspect'-ing'Eating, Writing, Walking I am writing my assignment.
Verb Passive voice '-en' / '-ed'Eaten, Written, WalkedThe book was written by Charles Dickens.
Noun Number '-s' / '-es'Books, Boxes, Trees I have hundreds of books.
Noun / PronounGenitive Case '-s'Hannah's, ItsThat's Hannah's bag.
PronounReflexive Case '-self' / '-selves'Himself, Herself, ThemselvesShe handled the situation herself.
Adjective Comparative '-er'Smaller, Stronger, FasterMy cat is smaller than his.
Adjective Superlative '-est'Smallest, Strongest, FastestMy cat is the fastest on the street.

Inflected Words Without Affixation

As we briefly mentioned, not all inflected words go through the affixation process. Irregular inflected words change spelling or pronunciation to show grammatical meaning, such as find - found or mouse - mice. On the other hand, some words stay exactly the same, such as sheep - sheep.

Inflected Words List

Now we will look at some base words with all their inflected forms:

  • Walk - walks, walked, walking

  • Drink - drinks, drinking, drank, drunk

  • Tree - trees, tree's

  • Grow - Grows, growing, grew, grown

  • Find - finds, found

Inflection - Key Takeaways

  • Inflection is a form of morphology (word formation process) in which a base word is altered to show grammatical meaning.
  • Inflected words typically go through an affixation process whereby a letter, or a number of letters, is added to the base word. However, there are several irregular inflections that do not follow the affixation process, and the spelling changes instead.
  • Inflection is unique from other affixed words in that the process must show a change in grammatical meaning.
  • The term conjugation refers to the inflection of verbs to show grammatical tense, aspect, mood, voice, and person.
  • Declension refers to the inflection of all word classes except verbs. It can be used to describe plurals, possessives, comparative and superlative adjectives, and more.

Frequently Asked Questions about Inflection

Adding the suffix '-ing' to the end of a verb to show the action is ongoing is an example of inflection. E.g., "He is still running."

When we inflect verbs we conjugate them. This means we add or change the base verb to show grammatical meaning, such as tense, aspect, voice, and person. E.g., walked

When we inflect words, we add or change the base word to indicate a change in grammatical meaning. Common inflections include adding '-ed' to verbs to show the past tense and adding '-s' to nouns to show plurality. 

Five examples of inflections include:

  • The plural '-s'
  • The genitive (possessive) '-s'
  • The comparative '-er'
  • The superlative '-est'
  • The progressive aspect '-ing'

Inflection is a form of morphology (word formation process) in which a base word is altered to show grammatical meaning and category, such as tense, aspect, number, mood, or person.

Final Inflection Quiz

Question

True or false, inflection only affects verbs?

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Answer

False

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Question

True or false, inflection must show a change in grammatical meaning?

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Answer

True 

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Question

What do we call inflections that do not follow the typical affixation process? 

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Answer

Irregular inflections 

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Question

What is an affix?

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Answer

A letter or number of letters added to a base word

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Question

Which word is an example of inflection?

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Answer

Walking 

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Question

Which word is an example of inflection?


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Answer

Trees 

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Question

What term is used to describe the inflection of verbs?

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Answer

Conjugation 

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Question

What term is used to describe the inflection of all word classes except verbs?

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Answer

Declension 

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Question

What two ways can we inflect adjectives?

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Answer

To show comparatives and superlatives 

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Question

Name two ways we can inflect nouns

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Answer

To show number (i.e., plurals) and the genitive case (i.e., possession)

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Question

What does the inflection '-ing' tell us?

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Answer

That the action is ongoing 

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Question

How do we show the 3rd person singular?

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Answer

By adding the inflection '-s' to the end of the main verb

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Question

How do we show the present tense?

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Answer

By adding the inflection '-s' to the main verb 

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Question

Name two irregular inflected plurals 

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Answer

Choose from:

Mice 

Geese

Sheep 

Fish 

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Question

How do you form a superlative adjective?

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Answer

By adding the inflection '-est' 

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