Inflection refers to the way we change the form of a word to show different parts of grammar such as voice, person, number, gender, mood, tense or case.
A simple example is when we change I to me depending on where it is used in a sentence. The person remains the same, the word changes.
I love you.
You love me.
Although some languages are highly inflected with complex inflection systems, English is fairly simple in this regard. For example, sometimes we add a possessive apostrophe to a word to show possession or an -s to a word to show it is plural.
John > John‘s
car > cars
Other times we add -ing to a word to make a different form of a verb:
feel > feeling
run > running
However, we’ll look at these in more detail below.
Note that when the inflection is on a verb, we refer to it as conjugation while the inflection of nouns, adjectives and pronouns is called declension.
In English, we can find the most common inflections in pronouns which are declined for number (singular or plural) and case (whether they are subject or object, etc). They’re set out in this table:
Singular/Plural – Subject – Object – Reflexive – Possessive
singular– I – me – myself – mine
singular – you – you – yourself – yours
singular masculine – he – him – himself – his
singular feminine – she – her – herself – hers
singular neutral – it – it – itself – its
singular ngs* – they – them – themself – their
singular ngs* – one – one – oneself – one’s
plural – we – us – ourselves – ours
plural – you – you – yourselves – yours
plural – they – them – themselves – theirs
See the main article to read more about Personal Pronouns.
Aside from pronouns, we have these types of inflection in English:
- Possessive Apostrophe (‘s)
- Plural –s (houses, boys, churches, schools)
- Third person singular –s (He goes; She visits)
- Past tense –d, –ed or –t
- Negative participle –not/never
- -ing form of verbs (coming; going; walking; doing)
- Comparative –er (better; sooner; healthier)
- Superlative –est (best, soonest, healthiest)
More About Inflection
The grammarian Greenbaum explains inflections like this (from The Oxford English Grammar. Oxford Univ. Press, 1996):
Inflections are morphemes that signal the grammatical variants of a word; the inflectional -s at the end of ideas indicates that the noun is plural; the inflectional -s at the end of makes indicates that the verb is the third person singular, so that we say she makes but I make and they make. In addition, some affixes signal the part of speech to which a word belongs: the prefix -en in enslave converts the noun slave into a verb, and the suffix -ize converts the adjective modern into the verb modernize.
in other words…
Inflectional morphemes show grammatical information such as number, tense, possession, etc. For example:
child – children
tense (verb form)
walk – walked
However, there is no fundamental change in meaning when a word is inflected.
Where’s the Inflection?
Inflections in English are only found in suffixes (at the end of the word stem) and they are always attached to completed words. For example:
Note that in many other languages inflection occurs in prefixes (before the stem of the word) and sometimes in infixes (within the stem of the word).
In the early days of English the language was much more highly inflected. This inflection was used to show who was speaking and what they were talking about. However, over the years English has lost much of its inflection.
Nowadays what remains is still used to help us understand meaning. For example, inflection helps us to distinguish the subject-verb agreement so that we write:
Everyone knows her and says that she is extremely smart.
Everyone know her and say that she is extremely smart.
Inflection also makes sure that person and number agree. For example, native speakers quickly recognize that The child are playing is incorrect since the subject is singular and the verb is plural, while The children are playing is correct.
Inflection & the TEFL Classroom
As you can see, inflection is an important part of language learning since conjugations and declensions can have a great impact on the meaning of an utterance and mistakes in inflection are easily noted.
However, this does not mean that it’s necessary to teach students inflection as such. It is probably better to simply teach the various rules as and when they arise in class. For example when students begin to study plurals you can explain that we make plurals in English simply by adding -s to the end of the singular word. There is certainly no need to go into what this -s is called (a morpheme) or anything deeper.
Likewise using the word declension in class is probably not called for.
In fact, the only word your class might benefit from knowing is conjugation.
Conjugation in English – more on conjugation in English