What is the difference in meaning between "morphology" and "structure"?

Coming from a physics background and being a native German speaker, I tend to use "structure" when describing an internal configuration, and to use "morphology" when describing an overall outer appearance.

I wonder if this distinction is correct? I would like to learn about the difference between the two terms in general, in order to decide when to use which.

  • 1
    In linguistics, morphology is the structure of an individual word, and syntax is the structure of a sentence or any multi-word utterance. Morphosyntax covers both. German relies more heavily on morphology to convey meaning, and English more on syntax. Not sure that's specifically what you're asking about, but I thought it worth mentioning.
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Jun 18, 2015 at 11:49
  • 1
    – serenesat
    Commented Jun 18, 2015 at 12:50
  • Welcome to ELL :-) Cross-posting is strongly discouraged on stack exchange - you ought to pick out one website where you think your question fits best and post there. Please see this MSO answer for more information.
    – Lucky
    Commented Jun 18, 2015 at 23:22
  • It would be better if you asked about a specific context rather than in general.
    – user230
    Commented Sep 17, 2015 at 9:56

2 Answers 2


This is tricky one, I'll try and explain my perspective as a native British English speaker. I have a biology background as opposed to physics, so that might come into play as well here.

Some defintions:

Structure: Arrangement of and relations between the parts or elements of something complex or a piece of construction.

Whereas morphology:

Morphology: A particular form, shape, or structure or the study of something's form of shape.

As you can see, they both have one usage where they are near enough synonymous, and another where they are not. In most situations they can be used interchangeably (if you mean the common usage) and you will likely be understood but there are some contexts when the other word would be more correct. I find those cases tend to be when discussing 'natural/developed/formed' vs 'unnatural/constructed' forms/structures. Structure is more about describing the network and geometry of components in an abiotic way.

Some examples:

The animal's morphology or The animal's structure.

In the first sentence you are clearly talking about the macro structure of the animal. You are talking about it's skeleton and muscle arrangement, it's shape and size e.g. it has a tail, it has large eyes, it has pentadactyl limbs.

In the second sentence, if nothing else, as structure has the 'construction / building' noun usage this sentence is ambiguous. You could be refering to something the animal built. Even in context, this wouldn't work as well as 'morphology'. I'd only use this if we were talking about an animatronic animal. Interestingly, if you were talking about the animal's kidney, you could use wither structure or the morphology.

The building's morphology. or The building's structure.

Here, I find 'structure' a much better word.

The earth's internal structure or The earth's internal morphology

Here, you could use either.

  • 'Synonymous' in its linguistic sense is usually defined for words (or phrases, but not senses) as 'being interchangeable in certain contexts with no or insignificant change in meaning'. Commented Jun 18, 2015 at 14:16

In grammar the part that deals with morphology deals with the forms words (verbs, nouns, adjectives adverbs can take). Greek morphé means form.

The second part of grammar, syntax (Greek: putting together) deals with the building of sentences (simple sentences, sentences connected with "and etc", and dependent sentences).

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