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Word formation process

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Alireza Sadeghi Ghadi photoNowadays, the terms ‘word formation’ does not have a clear cut, universally accepted usage. It is sometimes referred to all processes connected with changing the form of the word by, for example, affixation, which is a matter of morphology. In its wider sense word formation denotes the processes of creation of new lexical units. Although it seems that the difference between morphological change of a word and creation of a new term is quite easy to perceive, there is sometimes a dispute as to whether blending is still a morphological change or making a new word. There are, of course, numerous word formation processes that do not arouse any controversies and are very similar in the majority of languages. One of the distinctive properties of human language is creativity, by which we mean the ability of native speakers of a language to produce and understand new forms in their language. Even though creativity is most apparent when it comes to sentence formation, it is also manifest in our lexical knowledge, where new words are added to our mental lexicon regularly. In this paper the most comprehensive expositions of word formation processes that speakers of a language use regularly (and unconsciously too) to create new words in their language are presented.



The most common type of word formation is the combination of two (or more) nouns in order to form a resulting noun:

Noun + Noun = Noun

Examples: landmine, wallpaper, toothbrush

The first of the two compounds may be descriptive (i.e. tablecloth, a cloth with which to clean [or cloth] tables), or both compounds may create a whole new meaning altogether (i.e railroad, which is not a "road" in the typical sense of the word.) It is also possible to form words whose components are equally important to or descriptive of its meaning, for example, a washer-dryer refers to an object combining two functions.

There are, of course, many more different ways how compound nouns can be related to each other and how their new meanings can best be explained grammatically. In most cases, however, the nature of these compounds is self-explanantory, and their meanings are quite comprehensible even for those who encounter them for the first time.

Note that compound nouns usually appear as two separate words, only those more commonly used, those found in every-day language, and usually compounds with no more than three syllables are found as one word. Hyphens (-) between the segments of a compound noun are absolutely exceptional. Examples:

windowsill (the sill attached under a window), shopwindow (a shop's window), doorkey (a key for the door), bookpage (a page in a book), silverspoon (a spoon made of silver), waterpipe (a pipe that carries water), dockyard (a yard for docks), fireman (somebody who fights fire), wallpaper ("paper" one glues to walls), Independence Day (anniversary of the Declaration of Independence), office supply (goods for office use), water shortage (shortage of water), labour riot (employees rioting), television set (a set for watching television), headache (an aching head), snowfall (snow falling), answerphone (a phone that answers), air-conditioner (a machine conditioning air), gunfight (a fight carried out with guns)


Here verbs describe what is done with an object or what a subject "does", in short, a new noun is formed, usually referring to something concrete, and the verb defines the action related to it:

Verb + Noun = Noun: draw + bridge = drawbridge.

A drawbridge is a bridge that can be inclined in order to allow ships to pass, or "drawn". Here, the noun is the direct object.

hitman = a man who carries out "dirty jobs", or, who "hits". Here, the word as part of speech is the subject.

Besides that, both segments can be related in other ways, i.e. the noun may stand for a adverb of place: walkway = people walk on the walkway.

The usual rules apply to spelling. More examples:

walkway (a way to walk on), divecenter (a place where one goes diving), runway (a strip of flat land where aircraft start or land ["run"]), filter-paper (paper used for filtering liquids or gases), driveway (a road leading to a garage or a building), payday (the day one receives his or her salary), paycheck (a check used for the payment of wages or salaries),


Nouns and adjectives can also be compounded in the opposite order:

Noun + Adjective = Adjective

Camera + shy = camera-shy (Shy in respect of appearing or speaking before cameras).

In this case, the resultant is an adjective, while the noun explaines the objective.

Another possibility is that the noun supports the adjective, i.e. as an intensifier:

dirt-cheap = cheap as dirt; paper-thin = thin as paper

Those rules do also apply to the linking of nouns and participial adjectives:

English-speaking; soul-destroying; frost-bitten

More common and shorter compounds appear as one word whereas those longer and less common are linked by a hyphen. More examples of all subtypes:

waterproof (proof or resistant against water), seaworthy (a ship withstanding the dangers of the sea), airworthy (an aircraft safely flyable), blameworthy (a person deserving blame), bookworthy (something worth being published), trustworthy (somebody who can be trusted), jet black (deep black), footsore (having a sore foot), heart-sick (a person suffering from heart disease), seasick (being sick from the effects of a stormy sea), home-made (made privately at home), power-mad (mad about or craving power), colour-blind (unable to discriminate colours other than black and white and grey),

Other Compounds

There are various other types of compounds. A selection of which is shown below.


bitter-sweet, deaf-mute, aural-oral, Anglo-Saxon

Adjective + Participle

far-reaching, far fetched, narrow-minded, single-minded, high-climbing, low-yielding, red-painted, bare-handed


In contrast to compounding, affixation links so-called prefixes and suffixes, which are not independent words, to words of all types. The type of affix determines the effect the affixation will have on the word. Here, we discuss supportive and opposing prefixes. They are used to express support for or disapproval of whatever is expressed by the word they're attached to.

Supportive and opposing Prefixes (Prefixes of attitude)

pro = on the side of, supporting: pro-choice, pro-life, pro-market, pro-libertarian; added to: nouns, adjectives of denomination.

anti = against, counteracting: anti-missile, anti-social, antibody, anti-abortion, anti-regulatory; = antagonistic: anti-hero, antichrist; added to: nouns, adverbs, denominal adjectives.

counter = in opposition to: to counteract, counter-revolution, counter-example, counter-espionage, counter-productive; added to: verbs, abstract nouns, adjectives.

contra = contrasting, against: contraception, contraindicate, contraflow, contradistinction; added to: abstract nouns, verbs.

Negative Prefixes

A rough outline of negative prefixes and their usage is given below.

a = not, lacking in, not affected by, devoid of quality: atheist, amoral (not subject to moral standards), asymmetry, apolitical, asexual; added to: adjectives, nouns.

dis = not, absolute opposite of what is meant by the second element: disloyal, distrust, disagree, dislike, disfavour, disadvantage; added to: adjectives, abstract nouns, verbs.

un = not, the opposite of; before words of french origin: in-, il-(before l), im-(before p), ir-(before r). Note: These are the most commonly used prefixes of negation. Examples: unfair, unassuming, unexpected, unproductive, insane, injustice, intolerance, impatience, imperfect, irregular, illegal, incapable, illogical, improper, irrelevant; added to: adjectives, participles (only un-).

non = not, not regarded as: non-stop, non-interference, non-aggression, non-smoker, non-drip (paint), non-person, non-event; added to: varios types of words and expressions, mainly nouns and verbs.

Prefixes of Place (Locative Prefixes)

Locative prefixes determine the place, or relative place, or (relative) direction, of action or objects. Also, abstract nouns and processes or relations are determined in terms of locality. Perhaps a look at the following will provide a clear picture:

ante = before (locally): antechamber, anteroom; added to: nouns.

circum = around: circumnavigate, circumlocution, circumcision; added to: verbs, nouns.

extra = outside, beyond: extramarital, extracurricular, extrasensory, extra-pay; added to: adjectivs, nouns.

fore = in front, front part of: forefinger, foreskin, forecourt, forehead; added to: nouns.

in = inside, into: also il-, im-, ir- ingathering, indoors, in-patient (not impatient); added to: participles, nouns.

inter = between, in between: interracial, international, interdisciplinary, interrace; added to: adjectives, nouns.

intra = inside: intramural, intra-uterine, intravenous; added to: adjectives.

supra = above: supranational, supramundane; added to: adjectives.

sur = above: surtax, surcharge, surtitle; nouns, verbs.

tele = at a distance: telecommunication, television; added to: nouns, verbs.

trans = across: transatlantic, transnational, transsexual; added to: adjectives, geographical names.

ultra = beyond, excessively, extremely: ultra-violet, ultra-sonic, ultra-modest, ultra-thin, ultra-modern, ultra-orthodox; added to: adjectives.

under = below: underground, undercarriage, underclothes; added to: nouns; = too little; undercharge, underpay, undercook, undervalue: added to: verbs; = subordinate: under-secretary, underclass, underling; added to: nouns.

Additional locative prefixes: Prepositions determining direction, both locatively and figuratively applied: to bypass, to upgrade, to downsize, to undergo, to oversee.

Prefixes of Size, Degree and Status

These prefixes determine mostly nouns, and are self-explanatory to a large extent:

arch = highest, worst, chief: archbishop, arch-rival, archangel, archduke, arch-enemy; added to: nouns.

macro = large: macrocosm, macro-economics; added to: nouns.

micro = small: microtransmitter, micro-computer, microsurgery, micro-economics; added to: nouns.

mega = very large: megastar, megastore; added to: nouns.

mini = small: miniseries, minibreak, minicab, miniskirt; added to: nouns

Prefixes of Time and Order

These prefixes determine time and order, their meanings and usage are given below.

ante = before: antenatal, antedate; added to: adjectives.

ex = former: ex-wife, ex-president; human nouns.

fore = before: to foresee, to foretell, foregone; added to: verbs, participles, nouns.

mid = middle: mid-afternoon, midwinter, midnight; added to: nouns denoting points or periods of time.

neo = new, recent form of, revived: neo-colonialism, neo-conservative, neo-fascist; added to: abstract nouns, adjectives.

post = after: post-war, post-modernism, post-structuralist; added to: nouns denoting time, abstract nouns, adjectives denoting periods of time.

pre = before, pre-arranged before the time/period of: prepay, pre-existing, predate, preview, preschool, pre-war, pre-marital; added to: nouns, adjectives.

Prefixes of Number

Numeral prefixes the amount, quantity, or scope.

mono = single, one: monotheism, monorail, monoplane, monotonous; added to: nouns, adjectives.

uni = one: unidirectional, unidimensional, unilateral; added to: adjectives, nouns.

poly = many: polysyllabic, polytheism, polygraph; added to: adjectives, nouns.

multi = many: multi-faith, multinational, multimillionaire, multi-racial; added to: nouns, adjectives.

semi = half, partly: semicircle, semi-automatic, semi-conscious, semi-official; added to: nouns, adjectives.

demi = half, partly: demisemiquaver, demigod; added to:nouns in most cases.

Class-changing and converting Prefixes

The prefixes a-, be-, en- and em- have the primary effect to change the class (or type) of words, or, to convert.

a = added to verbs in order to form predicative adjectives (no synonymical explaination possible): afloat (A ships that's floating is afloat), aloft (An aircraft airborne is aloft).

be = added to nouns in order to form transitive verbs: to besiege (To surround to force into surrender), to beguile (To charm), to bewitch (To put a magic spell on); = added to adjectives in order to form transitive verbs: to becalm (To calm or to make calm), to belittle (To make something or somebody seem unimportant or of lesser value), to befoul (To make foul or dirty; to contaminate); = added to verbs in order to form transitive verbs, and, at the same time, as an intensifying force for verbs: to bedazzle (To bring someone into dazzlement), to becry (To bitterly cry about), to besmear (To make dirty), to bewail (To mourn, or express sorrow over), to bespatter (To cover with spots of dirt), to bespeak (To give evidence of); = added to nouns in order to form participial adjectives: bespectacled (Wearing spectacles), beribboned (Wearing ribbons), bewigged (Wearing a wig), besotted (Hopelessly in love with sb., but only in reference to men [women are infatuated]).

Recent Coinages of prefixed words

Here is a both complementary and concluding selection of current word formations, clarifying the importance of word formations in today's English:

anti-choice, bicultural, co-presenter, counter-culture, deselect, difunctional, disinvest, eco-tourism, Eurosceptic, ex-directory, gigabyte, hypertext, interface, intra-uterine, macrobiotic, maxiseries, megastar, microsurgery, minibreak, multimedia, neo-colonialism, non-proliferation, pan-African, paramedic, postmodernism, preschooler, proactive, reflag, retrofire, supergun, ungreen, unisex, up-market

Note that the usual rule of hyphenizing formations of more than three syllables is not followed in every case; the respective formation has already become received standard, constituting an independant word.


Verb Suffixes

Here, suffixes, which fulfill the function of forming verbs from other word classes, are defined and explained.

-ify = to make, to cause: to simplify, to beautify, to classify, to personify, to countrify, to ladify, to prettify, to Frenchify; added to: nouns (i.e. beauty) and adjectives (i.e. pretty) in order to form (mainly) transitive verbs.

-ize = also -ise = to make, to treat in the way of: to scandalize, to civilize, to organize, to circularize, to mesmerize, to Americanize, to familiarize, to legalize, to nationalize, to soberize, to patronize, to materialize, to popularize, to prioritize, to privatize; added to: adjectives and nouns of romanic origin, but also proper names in order to form mainly transitive verbs. Note that to apologize, to botanize, to sympathize are not word formations in that respect, because the remaining stem wouldn't be an independent English word if "-ize" were taken away.

Adjective Suffixes

-able (also -ible on words of Latin or French origin) - words ending -able have to meaning "that can or deserves to be -ed" (in which "-ed" stands for any past participle); or, "that is able to do this"; or, “that can be done with it”: breakable, eatable, exchangeable, pitiable, readable, reliable, available, objectionable, treasonable, knowledgeable, agreeable, forgettable, unthinkable, intelligible, responsible, audible; added to: chiefly verbs of action. Note that certain combinations like demonstrable (to demonstrate), separable (to separate) or any one based on verbs ending -ate, retain only the stem of the base verb instead of the whole verb. Verbs ending -y change into -i; that, however, does not affect the choice of -able vs. -ible, which is solely determined by the verb's origin. Please beware that these forms are often used with negative prefixes: unthinkable. Also, it is possible to make a noun out of such adjectiv: The reliable (What can be relied on).

-al (also -ial) - meaning "of the nature of", "belonging to": natural, occasional, educational, coastal, tidal, accidental, managerial, musical, criminal, editorial, provisional, continental; added to: nouns in order to form primarily non-comparable adjectives. Note: continual, corporal, individual, royal etc. are not word formations in the English sense; however, they resemble the principles explained above.

-an (also -ian) - meaning "in the tradition of", "coming from", "of the nature of": African, Indian, Elizabethan, Victorian, republican; added to: chiefly proper names, geographical names, well-know personal names (Persons defining eras, ideas, or ideologies).

-less = devoid of: careless, harmless, restless, borderless, merciless; added to: nouns (antonym of -ful).

-like = of the nature of, behaving like: childlike, gentlemanlike, godlike; added to: nouns.

-ly = of the nature of, periodic recurrence: cowardly, kingly, earthly, monthly, daily; added to: nouns, denotions of time. This is not to be confused with the formation of adverbs, which happens when -ly is added to an adjective.

-some = productive of: burdensome, fearsome, quarrelsome, troublesome, tiresome, lonesome; added to: nouns,verbs,adjectives. It is highly advisable to consult a dictionary before forming your own combinations.

-ward = in the direction of: upward, eastward, onward, heavenward, homeward, landward, backward, forward (as from fore); added to: locative adverbs.

-y = of the nature of: funny, rusty, smelly, sleepy, choosy, bony, nervy, headachy, second-classy, catchy, sticky fishy, flimsy (derobitary: fishy character); added to: every concrete noun, some verbs.

Suffixes of concrete nouns

Noun suffixes will form nouns from every type of word.

-ant (as well as -ent) = who / that carries out, agentive and instrumental: informant, claimant, solvent, inhabitant, disinfectant, servant; added to: verbs. Consult your dictionary when in doubt.

-er = also -or in words of latin origin: server, dreamer, cleaner, recorder; added to: verbs. Consult your dictionary when in doubt. These often denote person following their profession: baker, bookseller; = device or object fulfilling the task of: container, locker, boiler, mower; added to: verbs. = object, agency or means performing the task of: fixer-upper, do-gooder; added to: verbal phrases (verb+adverb); = denotion of origin of persons: Southerner, Londoner; added to: geographical names.

-ing = agentive: the working (a definite article is mandatory); added to: verbs; = activity: swimming, gardening, manufacturing; added to: verbs; = result: building, clothing, painting; added to: verbs. The result is either a gerund or a participle, according to the context.

-ee = passive, affected by: employee, interviewee, teachee, trustee, evacuee; added to: verbs. The resulting noun must denote a person.

Adverb Suffixes

Adverb suffixes are, like most of the other ones, class-changing. Note that some adjectives (like friendly) cannot be converted into an adverb; when needed to be applied as such, an inserted paraphrase is neccesary.

-ly = in that way. -ly is the standard way to form adjectives: easy - easily; important - importantly; and so on. -ly is added to: adjectives not ending -ly, phrases (matter-of-factly, full-heartedly, cold-bloodedly). It is also added to some neologisms: transbroomstickally. As for the aforesaid: friendly - in a friendly manner (this applies to all adjectives ending -ly).

-wise = in terms of ..., as far as ... is/are concerned: clockwise, notewise, moneywise; added to: nouns.

- ways = in the manner of: sideways, lengthways; added to: nouns.

Recent Coinages (Suffixes)

Below is a selection of current word formation using suffixes:

microwaveable, actional, gentrification, yuppiedom, finger-dried, faxee, leaderene, bagger, bimbette, additive-free, kissogram, wrinklie, gentrigy, networking, wimpish, ableism, survivalist, recyclability, confrontive, privatize, ecomanie, user-friendliness, returnik, retrophilia


Conversion is the process or shifting a word into a different word class without adding an affix (that would usually be called "derivation"). Next, we'll discuss how to form nouns denoting actions out of actional verbs.

Verbs of action into nouns

The rule: a verb becomes a noun: to swim -> a swim. Spelling does not change, neither is anything added.

The verb giving rise to this word formation must denote an action: to swim, to walk, to run, to read.

The resulting noun denotes a single action, a specific instance ("I had a good read"), instead of the action or activity as such: "I like running" would be correct, if the activity as such were to be considered. There are, however, some exceptions (work = working as such).


to go for a walk, a long run, in the long run (long-term), a good stay, work (denoting the act of working as such), dislike, doubt, to be in the know (to know; only such use), laugh, offer, bore (person or thing that bores), rebel, sneak, drink (what someone drinks), find, reject, cure, polish, wrap, dump (where something is dumped), haunt, stop

Concrete Nouns into Verbs

Here, I'll demonstrate a widely used possibility to employ verbal expressions instead of nominal ones. Concrete nouns, usually denoting things, are converted into verbs meaning something related to the noun, as an action. This definition might sound abstract and weird, but the following examples will make the point clear:

The company´s headquarters really dwarf the other buildings (to dwarf st. = to make st. look small in comparison). Many drivers regularly floor the pedal when driving this road (to floor the pedal = to press it so that it reaches the floor of a car). The satellite failed to deorbit (to deorbit = to leave its path round the earth and return). It is necessary to balance one´s accounts (to balance = to arrange something [i.e. an account] so that things (expenditures/deposits) are in balance).

Other examples: to Xerox (to copy), to fax, to phone, to screen, to water, to fan, to litter, to bridge, to link, to cap, to bottle, to ID.

All of the resulting verbs are transitive.

Adjectives into Verbs

It is also possible, to form verbs from adjectives without altering the word:

The rule: an adjective becomes a verb: faint - to faint (to become faint), idle - to idle (to become idle), slim - to slim (to become slim), calm - to calm (to make calm), clean - to clean (to make clean), smooth - to smooth (to make smooth).

Applications: They consulted a shrink to smooth things out. While suffering for more than two years, he gradually slimmed.

Note that participial adjectives (coloured, broken) may not be converted into verbs in this manner. Rather, you´ll need to reconvert these participles into verbs: to colour, to break.

Remember that some adjectives change their form in order to become verbs: low - to lower, wide - to widen, weak - to weaken, strong - to strengthen, broad - to broaden, smart - to smarten, easy - to ease.

Other Wordclasses

There are still some other ways to change word classes without changing spelling, adding or removing parts:

Adverb into Verb: They tried to out him.

Auxiliary into Noun: That course is a must for someone like you.

Conjunctions into Nouns: Don't give me any ifs or buts.

Adverbs/Prepositions into Nouns: I haven't yet learned the ins and outs of the business.

Verb plus Adverb into Noun: I don't have the know-how.

Participles/Adverbs into Adjectives: The meeting had quite an up-cheering effect on the trustees. The theory is that humans, who are after all only jumped-up animals, ...

Conversions into nouns based on various word classes, especially on sentences and subordinate-clauses: Some local have-nots complained about being associated with do-no-gooders. The goings-on in the country made the president-to-be rethink his taking-care-of-business-approach. An auxiliary army of notorious do-gooders milled about town, pretending to provide help-to-help-oneself to the not-so-well-off, or, as they called them, the less-fortunate. The dowdy and apologetic I'm-a-servant-of-the-proletariat look has gone for good.

Other Word Formations

Concluding, here is an offer of complementary word formations that cannot sensibly be grouped within the context of the previous sections.


Back-formation is the process of deriving words by dropping what is thought to be a suffix or (occasionally) a prefix. It applies chiefly to the coining of verbs from nouns.

Examples: abled (disabled), to explete (expletive), to enthuse (enthusiasm), to liase (liason); to burgle (burglary), to edit (edition, editor), to peddle (peddler), to scavange (scavanger), to sculpt (sculptor, sculpture), to swindle (swindler, the swindle); to air-condition (air-conditioning), to baby-sit (baby-sitter), to brainstorm (brainstorming), to brainwash (brainwashing), to browbeat (browbeating), to dry-clean (dry-cleaner), to house-hunt (house hunter), to sightsee (sightseeing), to tape-record (tape-recorder); to articulate (articulate (a), articulation), to assassinate (assassination), to coeducate (co-education), to demarcate (demarcation), to emote (emotion), to intuit (intuition), to legislate (legislation), to marinate (marination), to orate (orination), to vaccinate (vaccination), to vacation (vacation), to valuate (valuation); to diagnose (diagnosis), to laze (lazy), to reminisce (reminiscene), to statistic (statistics), to televise (television).


Clipping is a shortening of a word by the omission of one or more syllables.

Examples: bike (bicycle), decaf (decaffeinated coffee), fan (fanatic), exam (examination), phone (telephone), fax (facsimile), fridge (refridgerator), hyper (hyperactive), intercom (intercommunication system), lab (laboratory), medic (medical student/doctor), memo (memorandum), mike (microphone), movie (moving picture), photo (photograph), pub (public house), zoo (zoological gardens), maths (mathematics).


Acronyms are another abreviatory device. The usually resulting word class is that of a noun: ECU (European Currency Unit), scuba (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus), email (electronic mail).


Blends are also used for abreviatory purposes. Here, two or more complementing components constitute the basis for the resultant. These components are omitted of one or more syllables before compounded to the blend.

Examples: bit binary+digit, camcorder camera+recorder, contraception contrasting+conception, geep goat+sheep, glitterati glitter+literaty, modem modular+demodulator, motel motor+hotel, smog smoke+fog, transistor transfer+resistor.


Onomatopoeia - words felt to be suggestive of the sounds they refer to: bubble, burp, clatter, hiss, mutter, splash.

Words form proper names: bowdlerize, boycott, breille, caesarean,lynch,pasteurize, platonic, sadist, sandwich.

Movement-depictive: to sliver, to scamper, to skedaddle.

Published - April 2009

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