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Term Definition

An inflection is a change in the form of a word to express a grammatical function or attribute, such as a tense, mood, or person/ gender. Inflections are word elements that indicate grammatical relationships (among the words in a sentence).  Inflection refers to the specific changes in letters and spellings that occurs as a result of this. For example, a noun inflected in the plural form often has an "-s" or an "-es" added to the end of it; and a verb inflected in the past tense often has an "-ed" added to the end of it (as a suffix).

What is an inflection?

In how many different forms might you encounter the word "write?" You could construct it as a verb, noun, or adjective—write, writer, writerly—and you could also turn the verb "sing" into the noun "song." In linguistics, that is the process known as derivation.

In the case of the words examined above, something that you "write" could actually be something that you "wrote" or have already "written", while something that you "sing" you might have already "sung." This is known as inflection.

Another class of alteration can occur in which there are no changes to a word's category: noun to verb; adjective to noun, etc. Instead, conjugations occur that change a word's number, tense, or gender.

The use of inflections

Practice: In the following paragraph, how many forms of the word "jump" qualify as inflections?

Jenny jumped over a very high rock on a jumpy, bumpy trail. I have to say that I admire her jumping skills, since I can't even jump half that high. If I was half the jumper that she is, I'd be jumping my way into fame and fortune. Trouble is, I've never done many jumps in my life, because the terrain where I'm from is not really jumpable.

Answer: Of the eight variations of "jump," there were three unique inflections (jumped, jumping, and jumps) and three unique derivations (jumpy, jumper, and jumpable). Of the inflections, the first two were of the verb "jump," while the last was an inflection of the noun.

Relation to tenses

Inflections were, throughout history, applied to certain words in order to differentiate a subject's gender. Examples include the following nouns: actor/actress, waiter/waitress, and steward/stewardess. For help with nouns and their endings, follow this link.

A common mistake that beginning writers make is to lose track of verb tense inflections when writing a story. For instance, a narrator might start out depicting something in the past tense, but slip into present tense later in the story.

Terry arrived in Los Angeles with everything planned in advance. Having booked a storage space, he unloads all his belongings into his reserved unit and proceeds from there into Hollywood. But when he arrives at the hostel, the receptionist tells him they're booked for the summer. 

In above passage, Terry seems to have "arrived" in L.A. on the same day that he "unloads" his belongings and the receptionist "tells" him they're booked. The writer here would need to decide if Terry "arrives" on this day, or whether our hero "unloaded", "proceeded" to and "arrived" at the hostel, where he was "told" the bad news instead.

Writers who use inflections correctly in their essays and other writings will help the reader to understand meaning.

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Synonyms: inflection

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