In English we have these words:

  • create
  • created
  • creates
  • creating
  • creator
  • creation
  • creationism
  • creativity
  • creative

I am unsure which one is an inflection, and which one is a new word. Created and creates clearly are inflections, unless it's an adjective created perhaps. Creation is a thing, so that seems like not an inflection, but a related word.

So does English have a clear boundary between inflections and relations? Or is it nebulous? How should a dictionary ideally associate words in this scenario?

  • 1
    In English, it's usually the shortest entry. But what you're talking about is called the lemma in lexicography -- it's the basic root that links all the words together. In your example, it's create. But not all those other words are "inflected" -- inflection refers to a special kind of marking (in English, always an ending). Most of the endings and prefixes on related dictionary entries are not inflected but derived. English doesn't have many inflections left.
    – jlawler
    Oct 7 at 21:05
  • 2
    Are you aware of the linguistic term derivation? What you call "relations" or "related words" are usually called "derivations" or thought to include "derivational morphemes." Derivational vs. inflectional morphology is really the distinction you're looking for, and there are a lot of materials you can probably find about the difference - one important factor is that inflection typically creates a word with the same part of speech as the lemma while derivation creates a word in a different part of speech.
    – Graham H.
    Oct 7 at 22:19

2 Answers 2


In general, inflection does not change the word class:

creates, created, creating: all verbs car, cars: both nouns

Inflection expresses certain features of the word, such as tense, person, number; these depend on the word class, of course.

However, derivation usually just changes the word class itself:

create, creation : Verb > Noun
quick, quickly : Adjective > Adverb
tender, tenderise: Adjective > Verb

As Graham H said in his comment, look at derivational morphology vs inflectional morphology.

  • 1
    But "creating" doesn't act syntactically like a V.
    – Draconis
    Oct 9 at 16:14
  • "Often" rather than "in general". More important, inflections are paradigmatic and regular, while derivations are irregular and don't occur in paradigms.
    – jlawler
    Oct 9 at 19:26
  • 1
    @Draconis It does in the continuous_I am creating a thing_; Participles are different, true. Oct 10 at 8:56

I think it would help to first focus on "part of speech". You are relying on traditional philosophical categorization (elementary school grammar slogans like "person, place or thing", so I guess you surmise that "creates" is a verb because it isn't a person, place or thing. You guessed right that "creates" involves an inflectional suffix, but is that really self-evident, or is that just a subconscious and in this instance correct calculation – based on what?

Part of that process involves classifying words in terms of part of speech, which we do not by intuiting meaning properties, rather we look at distribution in sentences. This is the classic frame analysis done in intro syntax, i.e. "He ___ a car", "They ___ a car"... We identify nouns, verbs and adjectives based on where they can appear in various sentential slots.

One property taken to define the distinction between "inflection" vs. "derivation" is that adding an inflectional morpheme does not change change part of speech. Accordingly, there are at least two homophonous affixes -ed, one for adjectives (you can call it something else if you want) as in "a created paradox" versus a verb in the past ("he created a paradox"). Everybody knows that there are multiple -s morphemes, which happen to be inflectional.

Another criterion relevant to inflection vs. derivation is murkier, namely whether the function of the affix is "more syntactic" versus "more semantic". The considerations that lead you to think "more syntactic" are basically sentential co-occurrence, for example "He create-s a mess", "I create-Ø a mess", but *"He create-Ø a mess", *"I create-s a mess".

The suffix -ing might therefore be called inflection, because it appears in a syntactically-defined frame (copula __ verb-whatever) as in "He is creating a mess", so it could be an instance of a general verbal inflectional concept "tense-aspect", but then you can also say "I hate his singing", and not *"I hate his sings", so it isn't always a verb inflection. Therefore, there are at least two affixes -ing.

Once you step outside English and/or Indo-European, the distinction becomes even less tenable, and doesn't play a particular big role in grammatical theory. What does seem to matter is "agreement", that a verb may have to "agree" with other words in certain properties, which is a fundamental syntactic fact that a grammar should capture.

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