2017 Steve Campsall

a grammar hierarchy

So, with morphology, syntax, phrases and clauses done, dusted and out of the way, you're all but finished! Well, not quite. In fact, not at all. It was a joke... But you are on your way, well on your way. By now you should be getting the g-e-n-e-r-a-l idea of these grammatical terms and units. Maybe a little revision would be worthwhile before moving on? Can you, at this early stage, now say what grammar is? What non-standard grammar is? What an 'ungrammatical' sentence is? What is syntax? Morphology? A phrase? A clause? A Main clause? An independent clause? A subordinate clause... a relative clause? You can? Well...


The 'Hierarchy' of Grammar

Grammatical units exist in a kind of hierarchy, with the smallest unit grammar deals with being given the name of a morpheme. A morpheme is either a whole word (but which has to be a root word), or, more often, is a meaningful part of a word.

Morphemes combine to create words, and words combine to create phrases, which themselves combine to make... clauses. Clauses - but never phrases - can exist singly to be called a sentence or can be combined with other clauses to make a different kinds and longer sentences.

The Morpheme

As you have just read, a morpheme can be either a root word or a meaningful part of a word (i.e. an affix such as a prefix or suffix). An individual morpheme will always be, if not the whole word, then the smallest meaningful part of a word.

  • Morphemes are labelled as free morphemes when they are whole words or bound morphemes when they exist only as parts of longer words.

Free Morphemes
Free morphemes are always root words, e.g. 'faith'.

Bound Morphemes
Bound morphemes can only exist as meaningful parts of words.

  • If you think you've found a morpheme, you will have found a single letter or a group of letters that, if it's not a whole word, must be able, by itself, to change the grammatical function or the meaning of its word.

  • An example is the suffix, '-ful', in the word, 'faithful': the abstract noun 'faith' becomes the adjective, 'faithful'.

  • The suffix '-ed' is another common morpheme. When added to a verb, this bound morpheme changes the grammatical tense of its word from present to past. This is a change of grammatical function (similarly, the verb 'cook' becomes... 'cooked'.

  • Another example, the bound morpheme '-s' can be used to form the grammatical plural of many words that function as nouns. Hence, the free morpheme, the root word, 'book' becomes the plural noun 'books'.

The Phrase

You've met these already - but more later!

The Clause

You've met clauses, too, but let's take a closer look at four important types of clause:

Independent and Main Clauses
An independent clause stands alone as a sentence, e.g. 'I ate the jelly'.

  • The central clause in a longer sentence is called a main clause.

  • There are two main clauses (in bold) in this sentence:
                              I ate the jelly; it wasn't Jo

Subordinate or dependant clauses
These add information to a main clause (on which they are dependant for their meaning), e.g.

She ate the cake because she is greedy. 

In the above sentence, the subordinate clause, 'because she is greedy' is linked to its main clause by the subordinating conjunction, 'because', the existence of which prevents the clause being a main clause.

There are many subordinating conjunctions in English, some are single words, others are small phrases. Can you find a subordinating conjunction in this next sentence?

'He hit him even though he was his friend'

He hit him

even though he was his friend.



The Relative Clause
Another common dependent clause functions like an adjective to add more information to a noun. This is the relative clause, so called because the information they give relates to the main clause's subject.

  • Relative clauses are introduced by 'who', 'whom', 'which' or 'that'.