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Morphology and Syntax

Language is comprised of sounds, words, phrases and sentences.  At all levels, language is rule-based. At the sound level, phonology refers to the rules of the sound system and the rules of sound combination.  At the word level, morphology refers to the structure and construction of words.  Morphology skills require an understanding and use of the appropriate structure of a word, such as word roots, prefixes, and affixes (called morphemes).  Strong knowledge of grammatical morphemes, such as use of ing for a present progressive verb, /s/ to indicate a plural form and correct use of verb tense, is necessary in order to have well developed morphology skills.  Syntax refers to the rules of word order and word combinations in order to form phrases and sentences.

Solid syntactic skills require an understanding and use of correct word order and organization in phrases and sentences and also the ability to use increasingly complex sentences as language develops.

Children with morphology and syntactic deficits experience difficulty learning and using the rules that govern word formation (morphemes) and phrase/sentence formation (syntactic structures).  At the word level, these children may not correctly use plural forms or verb tenses.  At the phrase or sentence level, children with syntactic deficits might use incorrect word order, leave out words, or use a limited number of complex sentences, such as those that contain prepositional clauses.  Children with disorders of motor speech control are likely to have concomitant difficulties with morphology related to impaired speech control.  For example, a child with a motor speech disorder may not be able to produce /s/ and /z/ and therefore does not mark plural forms.  Disorganized and/or immature language in phrases and sentences is also seen frequently in children with motor speech disorders, as words may be omitted or sentences simplified due to difficulty with speech production.  At Children’s Speech and Language Services, therapists will assess a child’s skills of morphology and syntax and develop a treatment plan tailored to the needs of the child.  Children will work on developing an understanding and use of age appropriate morphemes and syntactic structures during interactive therapy activities.  For children with co-occurring disorders of motor speech control, target words and phrases are developed to both improve motor speech control and improve the use of grammatical morphemes and syntax.

How does difficulty with morphology and syntax present in a child?

A child with morphology and syntax deficits may:

  • Demonstrate inconsistent or incorrect word order when speaking
  • Use a limited number of grammatical markers (e.g. ing, a, the, possessive s, be verbs)
  • Have difficulty understanding and using past, present and future verb tenses
  • Show limited understanding and use of plural forms
  • Struggle with story retell tasks

How should my child’s morphology and syntax develop?

By age twenty-four months:

  • Consistent word order is in place
  • Expressive language contains few grammatical markers and speech is “telegraphic”

By age thirty months:

  • -ing and plural /s/ begin emerging
  • Use of negatives between subject and verb (e.g. Mommy no go) appears
  • Rising intonation is used to indicate a question

By age thirty-six months:

  • Overgeneralization of past-tense verb forms is in place (e.g. runned)
  • Use of negatives between subject and verb (e.g. Mommy no go) appears
  • Rising intonation is used to indicate a question
  • Present tense auxiliaries have emerged (e.g. Daddy is eating; Bunny does hop)

By age forty-two months:

  • Auxiliary verbs are being ordered correctly in questions and negatives (e.g. What is he doing? versus What he is doing?)
  • Grammatical markers have emerged including: possessive ‘s, articles a, the, and irregular past tense

By age forty-eight months:

  • A variety of early complex sentence types emerge including compound sentences (e.g. My shirt is blue and green), full prepositional clauses in sentences (e.g. I put away the toys in the toy box), and simple infinitives (I want to draw).

By age forty-eight to sixty months:

  • Later developing morphemes are acquired, including Be verbs, regular past, and third person /s/

 By age five to seven years old:

  • Passive sentences are understood and used

For more information on the development of morphology and syntax, please visit, Speech Language Therapy.


Paul, R (2001). Language Disorders from Infancy through Adolescence: Assessment and Intervention 2nd Edition. St. Louis, Missouri: Mosby, Inc.

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