Syllables vs. Morphemes

5th graders can never remember what perpendicular means…or the difference between mean, median, and mode…or where they left their pencil case. Normal. It happens. I’m not overly concerned with a student’s ability to memorize math terms…which, all too often, seems to be the focus, particularly when learning about shapes, which is a shame.

But what if we really knew what those math terms meant? What if we analyzed the spelling and the structure? Might it help our overall understanding, and possibly our ability to remember the endless stream of terminology we encounter in math and other subject areas?

Most English speakers are exposed to the concept of syllables at some point in their schooling. Either when pronouncing words peh – cue – lee – arr – lee (peculiarly) in attempts to spell them correctly, or when considering how to divide a word at the end of a given line while trying to remain in the margins. Oh, the damage done! This is, of course, why most people incorrectly identify <-tion> as a suffix, and why those same people think “sound” is the primary determining factor in a word’s spelling. Take most dictionaries and you’re sure to find a word’s syllabification.



But let’s analyze the word for meaning and structure, not simply its phonology.


Ok…evidence of a <per-> suffix. Then remove the Latin suffix <-ere> from the root pendere “to weigh, to hang.” Or simply look at the related word pendant. All evidence that the base element is <pend>.

We’ve surely talked about that base before, present in words like depend and suspend. But I’m fairly certain that no one made the connection with perpendicular, including me. We shared hypotheses for word sums, and then I asked the kids to figure out what a “plumb line” is.

plumb line

A tool that “hangs” to help determine if a wall is straight. Meaning connection confirmed! Will that help students remember what perpendicular means? Maybe. But more importantly, one word led to new discoveries and connections, as well as further affirmation that our English language makes perfect sense.

And what about the twin base? Do you know what it is? Let me know…quickly…the suspense is killing me.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *