Inflection or Inflection?

Inflection or Inflection?

Typically, when most teachers hear or read the word inflection, they think of the change in pitch or loudness of the voice in speech. But when the word inflection is used in the Common Core State Standards, this meaning doesn’t make sense. Let’s look at Kindergarten Language standard 4b:

L.K.4b: Use the most frequently occurring inflections and affixes (e.g., -ed, -s, re-, un-, pre-. –ful. –less) as a clue to the meaning of an unknown word.

From the context of this standard, it’s clear that pitch or loudness won’t help us determine the meanings of unknown words in English. Instead the definition for inflection used in the CCSS is “a type of bound morpheme; a grammatical ending that does not change the part of speech of a word but that marks its tense, number, or degree in English” (Moats & Tolman, 2009).

Let’s take a closer look at this definition.

A morpheme is a unit of speech that carries meaning. So in the word cat, there is one morpheme: cat. The meaning carried by the morpheme cat is a little furry pet that is aloof until you try to walk somewhere then it is always underfoot. But the word cats has two morphemes: cat (the furry pet) and -s, which tells us that there is more than one.

There are two types of morphemes: free and bound. A free morpheme can stand by itself as a word; this is often called a base word. In our example, cat is a free morpheme, but -s is a bound morpheme, which cannot stand alone as a word even though it still holds meaning.

grammatical ending
An inflection is a grammatical ending (aka suffix), so we know that it will be attached to the end of a root or base. A base is a free morpheme that can stand by itself, but a root is a bound morpheme that needs an affix in order to create a word. Teach is a base to which I can add the affix –er to make teacher. However, in the word visible, vis is a root that is not a word by itself until I added the suffix –ible.

does not change the part of speech
There are two types of suffixes: inflectional and derivational. Inflections do not change the part of speech, but derivational suffixes do. Here are some examples of derivational suffixes:
fame (noun) + -ous = famous (adjective)
graduate (verb) + -ation = graduation (noun)
peace (noun) + -ful = peaceful (adjective) + -ly = peacefully (adverb)
identity (noun) + -ify = identify (verb)

Number refers to singular or plural, so the inflections that indicate number are –s and –es. These inflections are added to nouns to make them plural but are added to verbs to make them singular.

Inflections that indicate tense are –ed and –ing.

Finally, degree is used when comparing two or more items. We use the comparative –er when comparing only two items but use the superlative –est when comparing more than two entities. Notice that the word smart is an adjective, and this doesn’t change when I add the comparative or superlative ending: smarter and smartest are still adjectives.

Therefore, when you see the word inflection used in the Common Core State Standards, rather than thinking about the rise and fall of the voice in speech, know that it refers to suffixes that do not change the part of speech of the base word.

Moats, Louisa C., & Carol Tolman (2009). The challenge of learning to read (2nd
edition). Sopris West Educational Services: Boston.