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Topic 10 – The lexicon. Characteristics of word-formation in english. Prefixation, suffixation, composition

This topic is about word-formation in English and its characteristics so, in order to explain clearly, I will divide my presentation into three different parts. The first one will be about the main characteristics of the English language regarding it lexis; the second one will deal with the main concepts that have to be taken into account when dealing with word-formation in English. Finally, the third section of my presentation will be about the processes of word-formation in English, which are compounding, affixation (prefixation and suffixation), clipping, conversion, backformation, blending, formation of acronyms, and eponymy.

Let’s begin by looking at English lexis. It is often said that what most immediately sets English apart from other languages is the RICHNESS of its vocabulary. Webster’s Third New International Dictionary lists 450.000 words, and the revised Oxford English Dictionary has 615.000, but that is only part of the total. Technical and scientific terms would add millions more. Altogether, about 200.000 English words are in common use, more than in German (184.000) and far more than in French (a mere 100.000). The richness of the English vocabulary and the wealth of available synonyms mean that English speakers can often draw shades of distinction unavailable to non-English speakers. Spanish, for example, does not differentiate a chairman from a president. On the other hand, other languages have facilities English lacks (Spanish, for instance, has the word rincón, and esquina whereas English has only corner, and would have to use in the corner to mean en el rincón and on the corner to mean en la esquina as well as, for instance, Eskimo has nine words for snow).

A second commonly cited factor in setting English apart from other languages is its FLEXIBILITY, which is especially noticeable in the fact that many words function both as verbs and nouns, such as drink, sleep, look and so on. English also tends to be very CONCISE, compared to other languages. Fewer words may be necessary to express something in English.

For instance, “Best Before____” in Spanish would be “Consumir preferentemente antes de ___”.

But, perhaps, the most notable characteristic of English is its deceptive COMPLEXITY. Nothing in English is ever quite what it seems. Take the simple word what. We use it every day -indeed, every few sentences. However, it takes the OED five pages and almost 15,000 words to explain its meanings. Another example is the word fine: it has 14 definitions as an adjective, 6 as a noun and 2 as a verb.

Yet, despite this richness of vocabulary, lexicographers suggest that the average well-read person has a vocabulary of about 20,000-30,000 words, and probably uses about 1500 to 2000 in normal week’s conversation.

Once I have dealt with the first section regarding the characteristics of the English language as far as it lexis is concerned, I am going now to step to the second section of my essay, which deals with the main concepts to be taken into account when studying word-formation in English. I am going to speak a little bit about what are words in English, what morphemes are, and finally, I will speak about Morphology, just to go on to explain the ways in which words are formed in English.

Firstly, providing a definition of what a word is might seem trivial -after all, surely words are those things we write with space between them. But in fact it is not always easy to define words in this way. First, many languages (such as most in India) do not put spaces between words when they write. Second, there are many languages that do not have a written form and speech does not have “gaps” like written words do. Well, you only have to try listening to a language you do not understand and you will not be able to decide where each word ends. Even in languages like English, which do write words with spaces between them, there can be difficulties: Is lawn-mower two words, or is it only one word –lawnmower-? One of the reasons why it is difficult to define “word” is that we use the term to mean several different things. Linguists distinguish between these different uses. An “ORTHOGRAPHIC WORD” is the thing we write with a space at either end. A PHONOLOGICAL WORD is something pronounced as a single unit, identified by phonological criteria. There is not necessarily a one-to-one correspondence between a meaning and a single word. Meanings can be represented by multiple words (e.g. to give up the ghost = die). On the other hand, LEXICAL TERMS or LEXEMES are those items which are listed in dictionaries as separate words, and (more importantly for linguists) are stored mentally as individual items. Thus, mow, mows, mowing and mowed would all be considered the same lexical item: MOW. An idiom such as kick the bucket would also be considered a single lexical item, because it must be listed separately along with its unpredictable meaning: “die”.

In the same way as sentences are made up of combination of words, so words are made up of combinations of smaller units known as morphemes. A morpheme is defined as the smallest meaningful unit of grammatical analysis in which a lexeme is segmented. The word unlikely, for example, is made up of three morphemes, the “prefix” un-, the “stem” or “root” like, and the “suffix” -ly. Each of these morphemes also occurs in other English words (like unzip, dislike or quickly). Thus, I can say that MORPHEMES are the smallest elements of a language that have a distinct meaning.

Words may consist of just a single morpheme (such as map or like), in which case they are known as MONOMORPHEMIC. Words which are made up of more than one morpheme (such as dislike, or un-help-ful-ness) are known as POLYMORPHEMIC. Linguists often classify morphemes according to whether they are FREE (able to occur as words in their own right, such as like), or BOUND (not able to occur unless attached to another morpheme, such as un- or -ly).

Morphemes are sometimes also classified according to whether they have a “grammatical” function (like -ness, which turns an adjective into a noun), or a “lexical” function (they carry word meaning, like man or help).

A single morpheme may be pronounced differently in different words, such as the past tense morpheme in slept (/t/), minded (/id/), and smiled (/d/). In some cases it can be very difficult to decide how to split a word into morphemes. For example, “cats” contains two morphemes: the stem cat and the plural morpheme -s. Likewise, the word feet must also contain two morphemes: the stem foot and the plural morpheme, but these do not appear as separate parts of the word.

Finally, to end with the second section of my presentation, as far as morphology is concerned, I should say that it is the branch of linguistics that studies questions such as this about the internal structure of words. There are two main branches: DERIVATIONAL MORPHOLOGY and INFLECTIONAL MORPHOLOGY. Derivational morphology deals with processes that change a word with one part of speech or meaning into a word with a different part of speech or meaning. For example, there is a regular derivational process in English which creates a noun from a verb by adding -er (so walk becomes walker). Another example is the process which adds un- to an adjective to derive another adjective of opposite meaning (so like becomes unlike).

Inflectional morphology, on the other hand, deals with processes that alter the form of a word without changing either its part of speech or its meaning. An example is the regular -s inflection in English which creates plural forms of nouns (so rat becomes rats).

It turns out that derivational processes always apply before inflectional processes. Compounding -the process which joins two words together to form a new word- is like a derivational process in that it must always occur before any inflectional processes. We cannot add the plural inflection -s to rat before we compound it with, for instance, infest, so we cannot get rats-infested*. Mice, however, is an irregular plural which is not formed by an inflectional process (it is just a separate word that we have to learn as the plural of mouse). We can thus form either mouse-infested or mice-infested.

Once I have dealt with the most outstanding characteristics about the English language in my first section, and with the main concepts about word-formation in the second section of my presentation, it is time for me to go on with the third part of my presentation: the way words are formed in English

According to Bauer (1983), it can be said that there are different ways of word-formation in English. These are the following: compounding, affixation (prefixation and suffixation), clipping, conversion, backformation, blending, formation of acronyms, and eponymy. Let’s see them separately.

Firstly, as far as COMPOUNDING is concerned, I should say that it is the way in which two or more existing words are stuck together, as it happens in girlfriend, takeover, bittersweet or couchpotato. Compounds may be written as two independent words (washing machine), as two words joined by a hyphen (tax-free), or as one word (toothache). Often the three forms of the same compound exist side by side. The meaning of a compound cannot always be deduced from the separate meaning of the individual elements (hot dog).

Secondly, as far as AFFIXATION (also known as DERIVATION) is concerned, I should say that it involves the addition of morphemes that do not have word status, that is to say, it involves the addition of prefixes, suffixes and infixes. Prefixes precede the root morpheme (un-happy), and suffixes attach to the end of the root (happi-ness). On the other hand, infixes are inserted within the word, but in English they do not really exist. The inclusion of prefixes and suffixes, as said before, change the word in the sense that they can even give the opposite meaning or transform it into a different word type, so giving a list of prefixes and suffixes would be a never-ending task since there are hundreds of them. It must be pointed that affixation is the most productive way of creating new words in English. Good examples can be seen in the following table:


Class(es) of word to which affix applies

Nature of change in meaning


Prefix ‘non-‘

Noun, adjective


Noun: non-starter
Adj.: non-partisan

Suffix ‘-ity’


Changes to noun


Prefix ‘un-‘


Reverses action
opposite quality

tie/untie, fasten/unfasten
clear/unclear, safe/unsafe

Suffix ‘-ous’


Changes to adjective

fame/famous, glamor/glamorous

Prefix ‘re-‘


Repeat action

tie/retie, write/rewrite

Suffix ‘-able’


Changes to adjective;
means ‘can undergo action of verb’

print/printable, drink/drinkable

Thirdly, as far as CLIPPING (or ABBREVIATION) is concerned, I should say that it is the process through which a word is shortened in English, as in bro from brother, pro from professional, fax from facsimile, flu from influenza or veg from vegetate (as in stay all day in front of TV).

Fourthly, as far as CONVERSION is concerned, I should say that it is the process through which a word transfers from one word class to another, as in the verb to refill to the noun a refill. It is also called ZERO DERIVATION, because it changes the word class without the addition of any suffixes. Other examples of conversion are the transformation from a hammer to the verb to hammer, or the adjective dirty to the verb to dirty.

As far as BACKFORMATION is concerned, it is the process through which new words are made by removing affixes from old ones. For instance, editor was adapted to form the verb to edit, and surrealist led to surreal. However, there is sometimes a false assumption that it brings about new words. For instance, beef-burger and later chicken-burger or vege-burger were back-formed from hamburger, which was not a “burger” made of ham, but a dish named after the city of Hamburg.

As far as BLENDING is concerned, I should say that it is the process through which two or more existing words are merged into one, as in ginormous (giant+enormous), brunch (breakfast+lunch) smog (smoke+fog) or motel (motor+hotel), Telethon (television+marathon), or even the language our future students tend to speak: Spanglish (Spanish+English).

As far as the formation of ACRONYMS is concerned, it is the process through which a word (an acronym) is formed from the initial letters of other words as in nimby (not in my back yard), NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration). And even nowadays, with the wide spread of written communication via internet in forums and chats, more acronyms have been created such as iawtc (I agree with the commenter) and so on, that help speed communication.

And finally, as far as EPONYMY is concerned, it is the process through which a new word is created from a person’s name (often the person who popularised or invented it). A very remarkable example of eponymy can be found in the word leotard from the acrobat Jules Leotard. However, most of the words created by eponymy do not tend to last in the language; they are usually NONCES (temporary words that never properly enter the language). They are often created to solve an immediate communication problem or to play on current affairs. It is extremely difficult to predict which new words will be seized upon and soon enter the dictionaries, and which will never be heard again. For example, the eponym coined in the early 90’s: TO BOBBITT was coined from the über-famous case of Lorena Bobbitt and her husband, and the newspapers came up with the verb to Bobbitt meaning something like to “vengefully remove one’s husband’s penis”. A the time, no one could have known if this word was to be a nonce that would disappear as fast as it had been coined or whether it would stay with us and enter the dictionaries. As it turns out, the word is still alive. It is used literally and figuratively (meaning something like “to remove status from”), and looks like a strong candidate for dictionary inclusion.

All in all, I can conclude by saying that this topic has dealt with word-formation in English, and to explain it, I have started by giving a brief description of some of the characteristics of the English language regarding its lexis, I have gone on to continue by giving a brief account of the main concepts to take into account when studying word-formation in English, and I have finished by describing and giving examples of the main ways of word-formation in English which are Compounding, Affixation (Prefixation and Suffixation), Clipping, Conversion, Backformation, Blending, Formation of acronyms, and Eponymy.

As a final word I would like to mention that word formation plays an important role in the teaching of English. We should try to make our learners aware of the processes of word formation so that they can expand their vocabulary. By analysing the ways in which new words are created, they may become aware that there is what is known as the “grammar of vocabulary”, that is, that certain patterns related to word formation are repeated again and again. By becoming aware of these processes, the acquisition of vocabulary may become easier, and our learners may venture to try to guess how certain words would be in English by applying processes of word formation to words they already know.

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