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Potential Problems & Causes in English Morphology and the Way to Overcome Them

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Potential Problems & Causes In English Morphology and The Way to Overcome Them

Every language may not have the same way to form the words. English, for instance, has many different ways to forming words (e.g. singular to plural, present to past, verb to noun, noun to adjective, and so on) from Indonesian language. In English, the way to form words is by adding the affixes that can be categorized into suffix and prefix into the words.

Derivational and Inflectional Affixation

Generally, morphology has two rules of forming the words in English. The first rule is inflection. is the study that deals with syntactically determined affixation processes (Katamba, 1993, p.205). Inflectional morphemes, which are always suffixes in English, simply add a grammatical element to a word without changing its basic part of speech (Celce-Murcia and Larsen-Freeman 1999: 32). Indonesian morphology has little by way of inflectional affixation, i.e. affixation of the type of English plurals or past tense morphemes or third person singular endings. Meanwhile, derivation is the study of how affixes are combined with stems to derive new words (Akmajian, 1995, p.29). It is important to know that in this process, the part of speech of a word may change when it is attached by the affixes. In other words, when a derivational morpheme is added to a word, it “results in either a different part of speech or the same part of speech with a different lexical meaning” (Celce-Murcia and Larsen-Freeman 1999: 31). For example, –ment, as in the word achievement (achieve + ment), makes a noun from a verb, changing both the part of speech and the meaning. In Indonesian, affixes are derivational than inflectional, i.e. given a root, it is not possible to predict with certainty which affixes will go with it. Prefixes and Suffixes

A prefix is a bound morpheme that is attached to the beginning of a stem (Saussure 1986: 186). In English, as is the case with most Indo-European languages (Saussure 1986: 186), prefixes convey only semantic meaning, and not grammatical function. According to The Grammar Book, prefixes usually perform the task of changing the semantic meaning of a word (Celce-Murcia and Larsen-Freeman 1999: 35), such as happy /unhappy, abortion/antiabortion, and use/misuse, though the part of speech usually remains the same. The change often, but not always, produces an antonym of the original word (Thornbury 2006: 8). According to Saussure’s classification, a suffix is a bound morpheme that attaches to the root of a word, forming a stem, or to an existing stem, forming a new stem of a higher degree (1986: 186). Unlike prefixes, suffixes usually don’t change the semantic meaning of a word; rather, they change the part of speech (Celce-Murcia and Larsen-Freeman 1999: 35), such as happy (adj) / happiness (n), hate (n) / hateful (adj), quick (adj) / quickly (adv), apology (n) / apologize (v).


In here, affixation is described in terms of form, meaning, and use.


Regarding form, Indonesian learners’ errors in derivational affixation are mostly limited to spelling. Spelling errors may occur within the affixes themselves, largely because some derivational affixes lack consistent spelling, and the learners may have to guess the spelling in each word. Another type of spelling error occurs because of L1 interference. For example, a misspell words with the suffix –onomy (astronomy) as –onomi (*astronomi) because the suffix is spelled that way in many Indonesian words borrowed from English, and until they learn the suffix clearly, they assume that is it written the same in English.

Meaning There are several common errors of meaning regarding derivational affixation, both receptive and productive. One issue arises when affixes have more than one meaning, such as –in, which can meet “not” or simply “in”. A famous although rare example is flammable and inflammable, which both mean “able to burn”. Although there are few words like this, Indonesian learners, and even fluent speakers of English, frequently don’t know the difference. Next issue, the suffixes in English directly pointed the meaning, but in Indonesian there is no suffixes directly pointed in meaning. For example dislike, dis- means not. Another issue, there are words that appear to have an affix, but in reality do not; that which appears to be an affix is actually part of the stem. The beginning of the word relay may cause the learners to hypothesize incorrectly about the meaning, coming to the conclusion that relay is a verb meaning “to lay something down again.”


The most common error Indonesian learners make with derivational affixation is using the wrong prefix or suffix. First of all, English often has multiple affixes with the same or similar meaning (ex. im-, in-, un-), and it is nearly impossible to predict which one is correct. For example, it is acceptable to say incorrect, but not uncorrect, intensity but not intenseness, and so on.


In How to Teach Vocabulary, Scott Thornbury identifies two approaches to dealing with learner errors in word formation:
• rule based approach
• item based approach
(2002: 107)
Both have their advantages and disadvantages, but both are effective means of dealing with the issues.

The Rule-Based Approach

The rule based approach consists of “isolating and highlighting any relevant patterns or regularities” (Thornbury 2002: 107), and sometimes breaking them into smaller categories. In this method, the teacher directs the students’ attention to the prefixes and suffixes themselves, focuses on issues of meaning and form, and directs learners to identify or apply them based on a “rule.”
Furthermore, the rule based approach can be deductive or inductive. With a deductive approach, the teacher might write the following on the board: NOT
In – (insensitive, inaction)
Im – (impolite, impractical)
*im is used before words beginning in “m” “p” or “b”
Following this, the teacher could give the students a handout with 10 or 15 words that take either in- or im-, and have them apply the correct prefix.

The Item-Based Approach

In the item-based approach, “the learning of complex words (i.e. words with affixes) would simply involve the same processes as the learning of simple ones (i.e. words without affixes)” (Thornbury 2002: 109). Thornbury explains that this is basically a “memory task” and “as with any memory task, the quantity of encounters with the items is a critical factor” (2002: 109). Essentially, this means that if a certain affix is targeted (ex. –ize), multiple readings and listenings using words formed with –ize should be presented and reinforced with productive activities that encourage their use. One type of item-based approach focuses not on rules, but on consciousness-raising activities. For example, during readings, teachers can try to elicit the meanings of unfamiliar words (ex. conspire) from students by comparing them to words they already know (ex. connect, conversation, inspire, expire). This approach is most effective in teaching meaning because items are placed in a context, and research suggests that the item-based approach “seems to be the way words are acquired naturally.” (Thornbury 2002: 109) After the meanings are learned and patterns in meaning are identified, the items are “re-categorised according to rules” (Thornbury 2002: 109).

In English, as in other, as in other languages, there are many fixed, identifiable, non-idiomatic phrases, and constructions. Such groups of words are called collocations. Collocations fall into two major groups: grammatical collocations and lexical collocations.

Grammatical Collocation

Grammatical collocations consist of a noun, or an adjective or a verb, plus a particle (a preposition, an adverb, or a grammatical, structure such as an infinitive, a gerund, or clause) (Bahns, 1993:57).
Types of grammatical collocations (Benson, Benson, and Ilson):
• noun + preposition : blockade against
• noun + to + infinitive : it was a pleasure to do it
• noun + that-clause : he took an oath that he would do his duty
• preposition + noun combination : by accident
• adjective + preposition : they are angry at the children
• predicate adjective + to + infinitive : she is ready to go
• adjective + that clause : she was afraid that she would fail her examination
• collocational verb patterns (there are 19 verb patterns) : pattern 1: verb + preposition + object : we adhered to the plan, etc.


Some combinations of grammatical collocation are confusing to Indonesian learners, due to the following problems:
- many English verb + adverbial particle combinations have more than one meaning, such as make up ( to decide and to put on cosmetics), and are often idiomatic. The seemingly endless list of such combinations with their various meaning is kind of confusing for the learner.
- Indonesian learners tend to transfer the preposition of their L1 phrasal verbs to English ones. This transfer may cause mistakes because of the different concept between the L1 prepositions and the English. For example, Indonesian expression tertarik dengan is literary transferred to English as interested with. It supposed to be translated as interested in but it is difficult for the learners to remember because preposition in is equivalent with Indonesian di.
- The fact that there is sometimes no direct equivalent in the L1 (Bahasa), some phrasal verbs can give Indonesian learners more difficulties in understanding their meanings, such as “I am done in.”

Lexical Collocation

Benson, Benson, and Ilson stated, “The lexical collocation in contrast to grammatical collocations, normally do not contain prepositions, infinitives, or clauses. Typical lexical collocations consist of nouns, adjectives, verbs, and adverbs.” There are 10 patterns of English lexical collocations which are similar to patterns of Indonesian lexical collocations, namely:

Patterns of English Lexical Collocations Patterns of Indonesian Lexical
V + N
e.g. get training, apply technique, ignore ultimatum, reduce workload, etc V + N
e.g. menjaga kehamilan, menghirup oksigen, memberantas korupsi, meniadakan pajak, dll
e.g. competent teacher, good teacher, etc ADJ + N
e.g. dekat gedung parlemen, dekat kantor, dll

N + V
e.g. talk opens, talk starts, etc N + V
e.g. dokter jaga,kamar belajar, dll
e.g. very warm, rather weak, etc ADV + ADJ
e.g. jangan sombong, jangan takabur, dll
e.g. use carefully, thank sincerely, etc V + ADV
e.g. meyakini benar, memperlihatkan betul – betul, dll
V + V
e.g. decide to test, attempt to test, etc V + V
e.g. kerja paksa, bangun tidur, dll
N + N
e.g. toy department, toy library, etc N + N
e.g. pelajaran agama, rangkuman pelajaran, dll
e.g. firmly warn, clearly warn, etc ADV + V
e.g. jangan melibatkan, terus terkontaminasi, dll
e.g. be traumatic, become traumatic, etc V + ADJ
e.g. angkat berat, kerja kasar, dll
N1 + OF+ N2 OR N UNIT + N
e.g. a vote of thanks, tone of voice, etc N1 + OF+ N2 OR N UNIT + N
e.g. segerombolan sapi, seikat bayam, dll

There are 3 patterns of Indonesianvlexical collocations which do not exist in English lexical collocation patterns, namely; (i) N + ADJ, (ii) ADV + V, (iii) N + ADV.

- Indonesian learners tend to transfer L1 verbs into English Verb + Collocation. For example, the learners usually think make a conclusion is the only acceptable word combination because in Bahasa membuat kesimpulan is an acceptable collocation. They will hesitate to adopt to draw a conclusion.
- Lower level Indonesian learners will likely use clean or more acceptable verb tidy up to express the same meaning, but will hesitate to use make the bed.
- The transfer of L1 adjectives that collocates with noun. For example, Indonesia learners will likely find the equivalent of the adjective kental from kopi kental with thick or heavy, whereas strong coffee is the acceptable English collocation.
- Adjectives with similar meaning and or opposite meanings are also often confusing to Indonesian learners when they have to combine them with particular nouns: should they choose weak dish or mild dish when their intention is that the food id not spicy.
- Most English adverbs that precede adjectives have the same meaning of sangat in Bahasa which is equivalent to English very, therefore Indonesian learners will likely play safe by avoiding using adverb but will overuse adverb very with most adjectives.

- Teachers should not forget to introduce the combinations as lexical units, not as individual word. Usually teachers are very well aware of giving the grammatical collocation of phrasal verbs or prepositional phrases as lexical units, however they might be introducing a part of the combination or do not emphasize the collocationality of the word combination. It is very important for teachers to raise their advanced-level students’ awareness and sensitivity of word collocationality.
- When students look up new words in their dictionary, they should be encouraged to also look at words that usually go with the word in question.
- Learners should always be encouraged to check the expression in the monolingual L2 dictionary with good collocational entry.


Munaf, Kamalita. 2009. A Contrastive Study Between English and Indonesian Suffixes. University of Sumatera Utara: Medan

Cornell, John U. Wolff. 1986. Formal Indonesian. Southeast Asia Program chapter1.pdf

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