I have been receiving so many great questions that I want to share here since I arrived at my new (and lovely!) temporary home in California. I was about to respond by email to the questioner and a small group, and decided to just share my response here since this question is so central to understanding how to analyze  the spelling-meanings of words. 

My friend Michael emailed me from Jakarta after helping with PD for teachers there. (I'm so excited to be returning there this fall for one of my few trips this year!).

Micheal explained that as he responded to questions about how bases and affixes carry meaning, he found some uncertainty in his thinking. From his email it was clear that he had a good understanding of the fact that these morphemes carry, convey or represent meaning (I'm not sure which of those descriptors is more precise) in different ways. At first he tried to distinguish them by saying that affixes don't "stand alone" with meaning on their own like bases do, but that they "change/alter/adjust the meaning of hte word" when added to bases or stems. 

I'm sure that this is pretty close to how I used to talk about this issue. But then hew was given an excellent challenge by the teachers in his session who pointed out that bound bases like <rupt> don't stand alone either. 

With that, I'll just paste in the response I was about to send to Michael and a small group. As you'll see, like Michael, I'm seeking to refine how I understand/describe this issue. So I'm hoping that the conversation will continue here in this public forum Matt Berman has provided so that such questions deepen the understanding of a wider community of scholars!

Hey Michael, 
Your question is an extremely rich one. It's wonderful that by working with teachers who are trying to understand that you found this area of your own understanding that needs refinement. This is a place you get to share your own on-going learning, just like they are doing. My point -- don't worry about making and sharing "mistakes" as that is exactly what we ask kids to do -- because it is a necessary step in learning.
Here's my current way of articulating the difference between how bases and affixes carry "meaning". Note that I regularly use quotation marks around the term "meaning". This is because that term is too vague without providing added precision/context. And that issue is basically the source of the question, and focus of my response!
Only bases (free or bound) have an underlying orthographic denotation. You find this "meaning" when you find the root of that base and the meaning that word had in its original language. So when you look up <eruption>, <rupture> or <interrupt> you find the Latin root rump(ere) for "to burst out, break". That is the "orthographic denotation" of any word that shares that root. The meaning of the current English base element <rupt> that builds those words will be echoed in the connotation of any of the words it builds. In <rupture> we perceive more of the 'break". In <eruption> more of the "burst out". 
I think of denotations as definite concrete "meanings" that don't change over time. The connotation of a word, however, changes. The meanings we throw on words can shift greatly over time -- but that connotation will always have a line echoing back to the original denotation. Perhaps my favourite example of that is what you find when you investigate the word <fan> as in "soccer fan," which is a clip of the word <fanatic>. If you follow the trail of these words (pausing along the route at <profane>) you may be able to make sense of the underlying denotation "temple" that these words share. It is not that a "soccer fan" means "temple". But the connotation we have for the words <fan> and <fanatic> are linked to an underlying denotation "temple" that helps English speakers perceive a subtle difference between being called a "supporter" or a "fan" of a given team. 
Returning to your question, my understanding is that only bases have orthographic denotations -- an unchanging underlying meaning we find in the etymological root of a word.

My favourite description of how to think of how affixes convey meaning is that they "carry a semantic force" on the base or stem to which they are fixed. This is very much in line with what you told yoru teachers.

A base element carries the core underlying meaning of the word in which it is found.

An affix has a semantic force on the word in which it is found. 

I think we can see that my current understanding is mainly an attempt at refining my earlier understandging that was much like Michael's. Like Micheal, I would appreciate and suggetions for how to refine my current thinking! 

Also, if anyone out there is game, I find the words <connotation> and <denotation> very useful words for perceiving the semantic force of affixes combined with the orthographic denotations of bases. Anyone want to take a shot at that? 

Cheers,

Pete

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One more follow up on the original post...
It was brought to my attention that this same issue of "orthographic denotation" featured in Old Grouch's comment on the inaugural post of 2015 in the always scintillating "Word Nerdry" blog by Ann Whiting and her Grade 7 students. Here is an extract from OGs comment...

"One concept that you might like to play with is the notion that only base elements have orthographic denotation. Matrices should signal the orthographic denotation of their base element – a meaning that will be present, however faintly, in any of the derivations that the base might generate.

Affixes have sense or ‘force’ that can be derivational, grammatical and various other nuances. But not denotation.

One concept that you might like to play with is the notion that only base elements have orthographic denotation. Matrices should signal the orthographic denotation of their base element – a meaning that will be present, however faintly, in any of the derivations that the base might generate.

Affixes have sense or ‘force’ that can be derivational, grammatical and various other nuances. But not denotation."

Now do yourself a favour and explore the amazing post by Ann and her students that prompted this synergistic discussion of orthographic denotation at THIS LINK!

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Thanks Gail. My understanding of the importance of the concepts of "connotation" and "denotation" increases every year. As to your question about how to describe the "meaning" of inflectional suffixes, I don't think it's a "rather than" situation. My understanding is that having a grammatical force is a type of semantic force. So by saying "semantic force" I include the conveying of grammatical information.

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I love what you said about connotation and denotation here, Pete, and I think the history of <fan> is a great example.

I'm wondering whether some affixes, particularly inflectional suffixes such as <ing> and <s> might be described as having a grammatical rather than a semantic force.

Comment was last edited about 3 years ago by Gail Venable Gail Venable
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