Inflection in Spelling  

What is inflection in spelling?

Grammatical inflection (sometimes known as accidence or flection in more traditional grammars) is the way in which a word’s spelling is changed in order to achieve a new, specific grammatical meaning.
Verbs are the most commonly inflected words, changing form to reflect grammatical tense and person. Collectively, this is known as conjugation.
The other parts of speech that can undergo inflection are nouns, pronouns, adjectives, and adverbs. Inflection of these parts of speech is known as declension.
Most inflection is done according to consistent spelling rules and patterns, but, as we’ll see, there are also many words that are irregularly inflected.

Conjugation

When we discuss conjugating verbs, we usually refer to ways in which we change a verb’s spelling to reflect tense or grammatical person.
For most verbs, this is achieved by adding various inflectional suffixes, which can be used to form the simple past tense/past participle, the present participle/gerund, and the third-person singular forms. For example:
Suffix
Grammatical Function
Example Words
“-s”
Forms the third-person singular for most verbs.
to end→it ends
to hear→he hears
to run→she runs
to start→it starts
to think→he thinks
write→writes
“-es”
Forms the third-person singular for verbs ending in a sibilant sound (/s/, /z/, /ʧ/, or /ʃ/) created by the endings “-ss,” “-z,” “-x,” “-sh,” “-ch,” or “-tch,” as well as verbs ending in a consonant + O.
to approach→he approaches
to catch→she catches
to do→it does
to go→he goes
to hush→she hushes
to pass→it passes
“-ed”
Forms the past participle of most verbs, used in the simple past tense, past perfect tense, and present perfect tense.
Simple past tense:
  • “I asked him for advice.”
  • “We walked to the pier together.”
  • “She signed up for a three-year contract.”
Past perfect tense:
  • “We had hoped for a better outcome.”
  • “The movie had already ended when I turned on the TV.”
  • “I had never watched a sunset before last night.”
Present perfect tense:
  • “I have lived in Italy for many years.”
  • “He has never worked in this industry before.”
  • “They have closed the restaurant for the weekend.”
“-en”
Forms the past participle of some irregular verbs, used in the past perfect tense and present perfect tense (but not the simple past tense).
Past perfect tense:
  • “I had never been to Spain before last summer.”
  • “We had already eaten something by the time the meal was ready.”
  • “She had already given her two weeks’ notice when they offered her the promotion.”
Present perfect tense:
  • “I’ve ridden on roller coasters before, but never one like this!”
  • “The film has gotten a lot of positive reviews.”
  • “John’s written a number of editorials on the topic in the past.”
“-ing”
Forms the present participle of verbs, used in past, present, and future continuous tenses, as well as gerunds (which function as nouns).
Continuous tenses:
  • “I am building a treehouse for my kids.” (present continuous tense)
  • “I was reading about that in the paper this morning!” (past continuous tense)
  • “We’ll be flying to Denver in the morning.” (future continuous tense)
Gerunds:
  • “I really love hiking.”
  • “Swimming is a great form of exercise.”
  • “We’re very fond of watching classic films.”
It’s important to note that there are also many so-called irregular verbs, which are conjugated in ways that do not follow the patterns we’ve just looked at. We’ll cover these further on in this section.

Declension

The term declension refers to the inflection of the other parts of speech: nouns, pronouns, adjectives, and adverbs. For nouns, adjectives, and adverbs, we usually use inflectional suffixes, much like verbs. For pronouns, however, we usually change the word altogether, depending the grammatical function of the word.

Declension of nouns

Generally, we only decline nouns to mark plurality—that is, whether there is more than one person, place, or thing being discussed. We usually do so by adding an “-s” to the end of the noun, as in books, toys, tables, etc. For nouns ending in “-s,” “-x,” “-z,” or with a cluster of consonants such as “-sh,” “-ch,” or “-tch”, we add “-es” to make it plural, as in buses, taxes, dishes, watches, etc.
There are a few other spelling patterns that apply, which we’ll look at in greater detail in the section Forming Plurals. There are also several irregular plurals, which we’ll look at later in this section.

Indicating gender in nouns

We can also decline certain nouns to reflect grammatical gender. While this is very uncommon in English, when it does occur, nouns are almost always inflected with suffixes to become feminine, the most common of which is “-ess” (used primarily to identify a professional, noble, royal, or religious title of a woman). For example:
  • stewardess
  • waitress
  • actress
  • abbess
  • countess
  • duchess
  • princess
The other suffix most commonly associated with feminine nouns is “-ette,” as in:
  • suffrageette
  • bachelorette
  • brunette
Other than the above examples, though, “-ette” is more commonly used to refer to non-gendered items that are small or diminutive, such as cigarette, kitchenette, novelette, launderette, cassette, and so on.
Uniquely, there is one word that is inherently feminine that can take the suffix “-er” to become masculine: widow (meaning a woman whose spouse has died) becomes masculine by adding “-er”—widower (a man whose spouse has died).
There are other nouns that are inherently gendered in English (such as king and queen), but we won’t go over them here because they do not follow specific spelling patterns or have their spellings changed to reflect their gender.

Declension of pronouns

For the most part, only personal pronouns are subject to inflection. We decline personal pronouns based on case (subjective or objective), gender (masculine or feminine), person (first person, second person, or third person), and number (singular or plural).

Case

Personal pronouns change form to reflect the subjective case, the objective case, and the possessive case.
When a personal pronoun is acting as the subject of a verb (that is, it is the person or thing doing the action), it is said to be in the subjective case. For instance:
  • I know that she said that.” (Both pronouns are subjective, as both are agents of their respective actions.)
  • He told her to be quiet.” (Here, only he is in the subjective case; her, the recipient or “object” of his action, is in the objective case.)
A personal pronoun is in the objective case when it is a direct or indirect object of a verb, or else if it is the object of a preposition. For example:
  • “I can’t believe he fired you.” (You is the direct object of the verb fired.)
  • “Please send them a thank you card.” (Them is the indirect object of the verb send.)
  • “You can’t say that to me!” (Me is the object of the preposition to; together they form the prepositional phrase to me.)
Finally, the possessive case (also called the genitive case) inflects a personal pronoun to mark possession. These inflections can be divided into possessive pronouns and possessive determiners, which are similar but have distinct grammatical functions. Possessive determiners function grammatically like adjectives, modifying a noun or nouns. For example:
  • My dad’s glasses went missing.” (My is a possessive determiner that shows the relation of dad to the speaker.)
  • “He said it was his computer.” (His is a possessive determiner that modifies computer.)
Possessive pronouns, on the other hand, are personal pronouns in the possessive case that have the grammatical function of nouns. For example:
  • “I can see mine through the window!”
  • “Jenny seems pretty sure that the book is hers.”

Gender

Personal pronouns are only inflected for gender when they are in the third person and singular—first-person and second-person pronouns (singular or plural) and third-person plural pronouns always remain gender neutral. Here are the gendered pronouns in English:
  • Third-person feminine singular: she, her, hers, herself
  • Third-person masculine singular: he, him, his, himself
The third-person singular can also be neuter (gender neutral). This is used when a personal pronoun represents a thing or an animal. Animals can sometimes take gendered personal pronouns if they are pets or domesticated animals; otherwise, they take the third-person neuter form:
  • Third-person neuter singular: it, its, its own, itself
Remember, when there are multiple people or things, we use the ungendered forms of they:
  • Third-person plural: they, them, their, theirs, themselves

Person

Grammatical person refers to the perspectives of the personal pronouns used to identify a person in speech and text—that is, it distinguishes between a speaker (first person), a person being spoken to (second person), and others beyond that (third person).
First-person pronouns tell what is directly happening to the speaker or narrator:
  • Singular: I, me, my, mine, myself
  • Plural: we, us, our, ours, ourselves
We use the second-person pronouns to indicate those who are being addressed directly by the speaker:
  • Singular/Plural: you, you, your, yours, yourself (singular), yourselves (plural)
Third-person pronouns are used to talk about someone or something that is not the speaker and is not being directly addressed:
  • Feminine singular: she, her, hers, herself
  • Masculine singular: he, him, his, himself
  • Neuter singular: it, its, its own, itself
However, when there are multiple people or things, we use the un-gendered forms of they:
  • Third-person plural: they, them, their, theirs, themselves

Number

Personal pronouns, unlike nouns, have various specific inflections depending on whether they are singular or plural. For the most part, only the first-person and third-person personal pronouns have plural forms; the only plural second-person pronoun is the reflexive pronoun yourselves.
There are no rules or guidelines for how we change the personal pronouns for number because doing so affects all the other forms; we simply have to memorize their various forms. The table below shows a breakdown of all the personal pronouns and their various inflections for number (as well as case, person, and gender).
Person
Number
Gender
Subjective Case
Objective Case
Possessive Determiner
Possessive Pronoun
Reflexive Pronoun
First Person
Singular
Masculine/feminine
I
me
my
mine
myself
First Person
Plural
Masculine/feminine
we
us
our
ours
ourselves
Second Person
Singular/Plural
Masculine/feminine
you
you
your
yours
yourself (yourselves if plural)
Third Person
Singular
Feminine
she
her
her
hers
herself
Third Person
Singular
Masculine
he
him
his
his
himself
Third person
Singular
Neuter
it
it
its
its (own)
itself
Third person
Plural
Neuter / gender neutral)
they
them
their
theirs
themselves

Reflexive Pronouns and Intensive Pronouns

Reflexive and intensive pronouns are identical in appearance, formed by adding “-self” or “-selves” to the pronouns my, our, your, her, him, it, them, or one.
Reflexive pronouns are used when someone or something is both the subject and the object of the same verb. When this happens, the reflexive pronoun is used as the object of the verb to represent the person or thing; a reflexive pronoun can never be used as the subject of a verb.
For example:
  • “I wish you could hear yourselves right now!”
  • “She admitted to herself that she was wrong.”
  • “The vole hides itself beneath the ground for safety.”
  • “The players have really outdone themselves today!”
  • “One should strive to better oneself every day.”
Intensive pronouns look identical to reflexive pronouns, but they are used to add emphasis to a person’s (or thing’s) role in an action. For example:
  • “I told them myself that the report would be finished on time.”
  • “You need to do the work yourselves, or you will never learn the material.”
  • “The president herself will be speaking at the ceremony.”
Reflexive and intensive pronouns are not typically considered inflections of personal pronouns. However, because they are mostly formed from personal pronouns, we have grouped them together here with the other types of personal pronoun declension.

whom and whomever

Finally, two other pronouns that undergo declension are the relative pronouns who and whoever. These can be inflected as whom and whomever, which are in the objective case (that is, they function as the objects of verbs or pronouns). For example:
  • “Mr. Dawson, whom I’ve had as a teacher for three years in a row, is writing a reference letter for my college application.”
  • “It is important that whomever we choose is capable of running the branch without too much oversight.”
However, this is becoming less common in everyday speech and writing, and who and whoever are increasingly being used in every situation.

Declension of adjectives

Adjectives are inflected when we want to form comparisons between two people or things (comparative adjectives), or to identify the person or thing with the highest degree of a characteristic among a group (superlative adjectives).
For instance:
  • “Mike is strong.” (adjective)
  • “I am stronger than him.” (comparative adjective)
  • “Jeff is the strongest of all of us.” (superlative adjective)
The progression of inflection for adjectives is known as the degrees of comparison. The spelling rules that dictate how each degree is formed depend on how the base form (known as the positive degree) of the adjective is spelled.
Adjective spelling
How to modify
Positive degree
Comparative degree
Superlative degree
One syllable, ending in a consonant preceded by one vowel.
Add “-er” for comparative degree or “-est” for superlative degree. Double final consonant.
big
bigger
biggest
One syllable, ending in a consonant preceded by two vowels or another consonant.
Add “-er” for comparative degree or “-est” for superlative degree. Do not double final consonant if preceded by one vowel.
strong
stronger
strongest
One syllable, ending in an “e”
Add “-r” for comparative degree or “-st” for superlative degree.
large
larger
largest
Two syllables, ending in a “y”
Replace “y” with “i” and add “-er” for comparative degree or “-est” for superlative degree.
happy
happier
happiest
Three or more syllables, or two syllables not ending in "y"
Add the words more or less before the adjective to make them comparative, or most/least to make them superlative.
clever
more/less careful
most/least careful

Declension of adverbs

We can also inflect adverbs when we want to compare the degree to which two actions are performed (comparative adverbs), or to identify the highest degree of how an action is performed (superlative adverbs).
For example:
  • “Susan runs fast.” (adverb)
  • “Janet runs faster than Susan.” (comparative adverb)
  • “Betty runs the fastest.” (superlative adverb)
The progression of inflection for adverbs is known (like adjectives) as the degrees of comparison. Again, the spelling rules that dictate how each degree is formed depend on how the base form (known as the positive degree) of the adverb is spelled.
Adverb spelling
How to modify
Positive degree
Comparative degree
Superlative degree
One syllable, ending in a consonant
Add “-er” for comparative degree or “-est” for superlative degree.
fast
faster
fastest
One syllable, ending in an “e”
Add “-r” for comparative degree or “-st” for superlative degree.
late
later
latest
Adverbs ending in a “y”
Add the words more or less before the adverb to make it comparative, or most/least to make it superlative.
carefully
more/less carefully
most/least carefully

Irregular Inflection

While most words that can be inflected in English follow predictable and reliable patterns, there are a huge number of irregular inflections across the various parts of speech. The most notorious of these are irregular verbs, but there are also irregular plurals, irregular adjectives, and irregular adverbs. (Pronouns have such unique inflections that they could all be considered irregular in their own right.)

Irregular verbs

Verbs present the greatest challenge when it comes to learning about regular and irregular inflection. A huge variety of verbs are irregular, which means they have past simple tense and past participle forms that defy the normal conventions. That means that every irregular verb has three unique conjugations that must be memorized. In addition, the verb be is known as being highly irregular, because it has six irregular conjugations in addition to its base and present participle form—eight in all!
We’ll briefly look at the rules for conjugating regular verbs and then look at some common irregular verbs below. (Note that all verbs, whether regular or irregular, conjugate the same way to form present participles, taking “-ing” at the end of the base form. Because of this, we won’t include the present participle form in the breakdowns below.)

Conjugating regular verbs

The majority of verbs take the ending “-d” or “-ed” to their base form (the infinitive of the verb without to) to create both the past simple tense and past participle. There are some instances in which the verb’s spelling must change slightly to accommodate this, but these rules are straightforward and consistent. Here are some common regular verb inflections:
Base Form
Past Simple Tense
Past Participle
play
bake
listen
approach
gather
climb
chop
copy
panic
played
baked
listened
approached
gathered
climbed
chopped
copied
panicked
played
baked
listened
approached
gathered
climbed
chopped
copied
panicked

Conjugating irregular verbs

Irregular verbs do not have spelling rules that we can follow to create the past simple tense and past participles. This means that the only way of knowing how to spell these forms is to memorize them for each irregular verb individually. Here are a few common examples:
Base Form
Past Simple Tense
Past Participle
see
grow
give
think
throw
drive
ride
run
swim
sit
saw
grew
gave
thought
threw
drove
rode
ran
swam
sat
seen
grown
given
thought
thrown
driven
ridden
run
swum
sat

Conjugating be

As we mentioned above, the verb be is unique among verbs for having a huge variety of conjugations. Not only does it have irregular inflections for the past simple tense and past participle, but it also has specific forms depending on plurality and grammatical person (first person, second person, and third person). The table below shows a breakdown of all the different ways we conjugate be.
Grammatical person
Base form
Present Tense Singular
Present Tense Plural
Present Participle
Past Tense Singular
Past Tense Plural
Past Participle
n/a
be
being
been
first person
I am
we are
I was
we were
second person
you are
you are
you were
you were
third person
he/she/it is
they are
he/she/it was
they were

Irregular plurals

While the vast majority of nouns are made into plurals by adding “-s” or “-es,” there are quite a few that have irregular plural forms that defy this convention. These are completely unique words that, for the most part, do not follow any rules or conventions for how they are spelled. Here are some of the most common irregular nouns:
Noun
Irregular plural form
person
people/persons*
mouse
mice
goose
geese
child
children
foot
feet
man
men
woman
women
(*Persons is also a plural form of person, but in modern English it is usually reserved for more formal, bureaucratic, or legal language, as in, “Any such persons found to be guilty of shoplifting will be prosecuted.”)

Adding “-ves” instead of “-(e)s”

With some nouns that end in “-f,” “-fe,” or “-lf,” we replace the endings with “-ves” to make them plural. Here are some common examples:
Noun
Irregular plural form
life
lives
wife
wives
loaf
loaves
leaf
leaves
knife
knives
thief
thieves
calf
calves
half
halves
wolf
wolves

Words from Latin or Greek

There are also nouns taken from Latin or Greek that maintain their original plural forms. While following the established patterns of their original language, these plurals are different from the standard plural forms in English. However, as we’ll see, some of these words have begun shifting toward more conventional plural forms, which are now used in addition to their original spellings.
For example:
Noun
Irregular plural form
index
indices
(indexes is now also acceptable)
appendix
appendices
(appendixes is now also acceptable)
fungus
fungi
criterion
criteria
nucleus
nuclei
syllabus
syllabi
focus
foci
cactus
cacti
(cactuses is now also acceptable)
thesis
theses
crisis
crises
phenomenon
phenomena

Irregular adjectives

The vast majority of adjectives follow the convention of adding “-er” when forming the comparative degree and “-est” for the superlative degree. However, there are a few adjectives that are irregular and have unique forms that do not conform to any spelling conventions. Because of this, they must all be memorized:
Irregular adjective
Comparative degree
Superlative degree
fun
more/less fun
most/least fun
bad
worse
worst
well (healthy)
better
best
good
better
best
far
farther/further
farthest/furthest
little (amount)
less
least
many/much
more
most

Adverbs

Unlike adjectives, which can only be considered irregular when forming the comparative and superlative degrees, some adverbs can be irregular in their basic form (known as the positive degree), which then extends to their comparative and superlative degrees. We’ll briefly look at how regular adverbs are formed, then contrast them with irregular adverbs and their subsequent degrees of comparison.

Regular adverbs

The majority of adverbs are formed from adjectives. The standard way of doing this is by adding “-ly” to the end of the adjective. Sometimes, the adjective’s spelling needs to be altered slightly to accommodate this, but the rules of doing so are fairly straightforward. Here are some common examples:
Adjective
Regular adverb
Spelling rule
beautiful
beautifully
Adjective + “-ly”
enthusiastic
enthusiastically
If the adjective ends in “-ic,” it will change to “-ically.”
happy
happily
If the adjective ends in a “-y,” it will change to “-ily.”
terrible
terribly
If the adjective ends in “-le,” the ending is dropped and is replaced with “-ly.”
due
duly
If the adjective ends in “-ue,” the “e” on the end is dropped and is replaced with “-ly.”

Irregular adverbs

Although most adverbs follow the above rules when they are formed from adjectives, there are a number of irregular adverbs that go against the conventions. Much of the time, irregular adverbs have the same spelling as their adjectival counterparts, but there are no clues in the adjectives’ spelling as to when this is the case; like all irregular inflections, they just have to be memorized. Below are some of the most common irregular adverbs.
Adjective
Irregular adverb
Sources of confusion
fast
fast
Last becomes lastly, but fast becomes fast.
hard
hard
Hardly (ever) is an adverb of frequency, meaning “almost never.”
straight
straight
lively
lively
Lively still exists as an adverb in phrases like step lively; however, it is more often used in the adverbial prepositional phrase in a lively manner.
late (tardy)
late
Lately is a different adverb that means “recently.”
daily
daily
Adverbs of frequency that relate to units of time have the same form as both adjectives and adverbs.
early
early
friendly
no adverb
Can only be used in adverbial prepositional phrases like in a friendly manner.
timely
no adverb
Can only be used in adverbial prepositional phrases like in a timely manner.
good
well
Well is the adverbial form of good; it can also function as a predicative adjective meaning “healthy.”

Irregular degrees of comparison

Just like adjectives, most comparative and superlative adverbs are formed by adding “-er” or more/less (comparative) or “-est” or most/least (superlative).
However, there are some adverbs that have irregular comparative and superlative forms. We can’t rely on the irregular adverbs we looked at above, either, because many of those adverbs are regular in how they inflect to become comparative or superlative, while certain regular adverbs can have irregular inflections. (For instance, the irregular adverb straight inflects regularly as straighter and straightest, while the regular adverb badly inflects irregularly as worse and worst).
As always, we just have to commit these irregular inflections to memory:
Adverb (positive degree)
Comparative degree
Superlative degree
badly
worse
worst
early
earlier
earliest
far
farther/further
farthest/furthest
little
less
least
well
better
best

Learning irregular inflection

As we’ve seen, words that inflect in irregular ways are, unfortunately, unpredictable by nature. Because there are no patterns for how they are formed, it can be very difficult to learn them.
The best way to learn irregular words is to pay close attention when you are reading—if a word looks like it has an unusual spelling compared to other words that are used in the same way, then it is probably an irregular inflection. In these cases, look up the word in a good dictionary and make a note of how it is used, then try to remember it for next time.
Quiz

1. Which of the following parts of speech most often undergo inflection?





2. How are most nouns inflected to indicate plurality?








3. Which of the following can be inflected to indicate gender?





4. Which of the following verbs undergoes irregular inflection?





5. Which of the following is not an inflection of the adjective good?








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