Word Formation Processes in English Linguistics translation jobs
Home More Articles Join as a Member! Post Your Job - Free! All Translation Agencies

Word Formation Processes in English

Become a member of TranslationDirectory.com at just $12 per month (paid per year)


Mohsen Yousefi. photoOne 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.

1. Introduction

Nowadays, 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.

2. Clipping

Clipping is the word formation process which consists in the reduction of a word to one of its parts (Marchand: 1969). Clippings are, also, known as "shortenings."Clipping mainly consists of the following types:

1.     Back clipping
2.     Fore-clipping
3.     Middle clipping
4.     Complex clipping

2.1 Back clipping

Back clipping or apocopation is the most common type, in which the beginning is retained. The unclipped original may be either a simple or a composite. Examples are: ad (advertisement), cable (cablegram), doc (doctor), exam (examination), gas (gasoline), math (mathematics), memo (memorandum), gym (gymnastics, gymnasium) mutt (muttonhead), pub (public house), pop (popular concert), trad (traditional jazz), fax (facsimile).

2.2. Fore-clipping

Fore-clipping or aphaeresis retains the final part. Examples are: phone (telephone), varsity (university), chute (parachute), coon (racoon), gator (alligator), pike (turnpike).

2.3. Middle clipping

In middle clipping or syncope, the middle of the word is retained. Examples are: flu (influenza), tec (detective), polly (apollinaris), jams (pyjamas), shrink (head-shrinker).

2.4. Complex clipping

Clipped forms are also used in compounds. One part of the original compound most often remains intact. Examples are: cablegram (cable telegram), op art (optical art), org-man (organization man), linocut (linoleum cut). Sometimes both halves of a compound are clipped as in navicert (navigation certificate). In these cases it is difficult to know whether the resultant formation should be treated as a clipping or as a blend, for the border between the two types is not always clear. According to Bauer (1993), the easiest way to draw the distinction is to say that those forms which retain compound stress are clipped compounds, whereas those that take simple word stress are not. By this criterion bodbiz, Chicom, Comsymp, Intelsat, midcult, pro-am, sci-fi, and sitcom are all compounds made of clippings. According to Marchand (1969), clippings are not coined as words belonging to the standard vocabulary of a language. They originate as terms of a special group like schools, army, police, the medical profession, etc., in the intimacy of a milieu where a hint is sufficient to indicate the whole. For example, in school slang originated exam, math, lab, and spec(ulation), tick(et = credit) originated in stock-exchange slang, whereas vet(eran), cap(tain), are army slang. While clipping terms of some influential groups can pass into common usage, becoming part of Standard English, clippings of a socially unimportant class or group will remain groap slang.

3. Acronymy

Acronyms and initialisms are abbreviations, such as NATO, laser, and IBM, that are formed using the initial letters of words or word parts in a phrase or name. Acronyms and initialisms are usually pronounced in a way that is distinct from that of the full forms for which they stand: as the names of the individual letters (as in IBM), as a word (as in NATO), or as a combination (as in IUPAC). Another term, alphabetism, is sometimes used to describe abbreviations pronounced as the names of letters.

Examples :

  • pronounced as a word, containing only initial letters:
    • FNMA: (Fannie Mae) Federal National Mortgage Association
    • laser: light amplification by the stimulated emission of radiation
    • NATO: North Atlantic Treaty Organisation
    • scuba: self-contained underwater breathing apparatus
  • pronounced as a word, containing non-initial letters:
    • Amphetamine: Alpha-methyl-phenethylamine
    • Gestapo: Geheime Staatspolizei ("secret state police")
    • Interpol: International Criminal Police Organization
    • radar: radio detection and ranging
  • pronounced only as the names of letters
    • BBC: British Broadcasting Corporation
    • DNA: deoxyribonucleic acid
    • LED: light-emitting diode
    • OB-GYN: obstetrics and gyn(a)ecology or obstetrician and gyn(a)ecologist
  • shortcut incorporated into name
    • 3M: (three em) originally Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company
    • : (e three) Electronic Entertainment Exposition
    • W3C: (double-u three cee) World Wide Web Consortium
  • recursive acronyms, in which the abbreviation itself is the expansion of one initial (particularly enjoyed by the open-source community)
    • GNU: GNU's Not Unix!
    • HURD: HIRD of Unix-Replacing Daemons, where "HIRD" stands for "HURD of Interfaces Representing Depth"
    • VISA: VISA International Service Association
    • XNA: XNA's Not Acronymed - Microsoft's new game development framework
  • pseudo-acronyms are used because, when pronounced as intended, they resemble the sounds of other words:
  • multi-layered acronyms:
    • GTK+: GIMP Tool Kit, i.e. GNU Image Manipulation Program Tool Kit, i.e. GNU's Not Unix Image Manipulation Program Tool Kit
    • GAIM: GTK+ AOL Instant Messenger, i.e. GIMP Tool Kit America OnLine Instant Messenger, i.e. GNU Image Manipulation Program Tool Kit America OnLine Instant Messenger, i.e. GNU's Not Unix Image Manipulation Program Tool Kit America OnLine Instant Messenger
    • VHDL: VHSIC Hardware Description Language, i.e. Very High Speed Integrated Circuits Hardware Description Language

4. Blending

A blend is a word formed from parts of two other words. These parts are sometimes, but not always, morphemes.

A blend is different from a portmanteau word in that a portmanteau refers strictly to a blending of two function words, similar to a contraction.

4.1. Formation of blendings

Most blends are formed by one of the following methods:

1.     The beginning of one word is added to the end of the other. For example, brunch is a blend of breakfast and lunch. This is the most common method of blending.

2.     The beginnings of two words are combined. For example, cyborg is a blend of cybernetic and organism.

3.     One complete word is combined with part of another word. For example, guesstimate is a blend of guess and estimate.

4.     Two words are blended around a common sequence of sounds. For example, the word Californication, from a song by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, is a blend of California and fornication.

5.     Multiple sounds from two component words are blended, while mostly preserving the sounds' order. Poet Lewis Carroll was well known for these kinds of blends. An example of this is the word slithy, a blend of lithe and slimy. This method is difficult to achieve and is considered a sign of Carroll's verbal wit.

When two words are combined in their entirety, the result is considered a compound word rather than a blend. For example, bagpipe is a compound, not a blend,

5. Back-formation

Back-formation refers to the process of creating a new lexeme (less precisely, a new "word") by removing actual or supposed affixes. The resulting neologism is called a back-formation. Back-formations are shortened words created from longer words, thus back-formations may be viewed as a sub-type of clipping.

For example, the noun resurrection was borrowed from Latin, and the verb resurrect was then backformed hundreds of years later from it by removing the -ion suffix. This segmentation of resurrection into resurrect + ion was possible because English had many examples of Latinate words that had verb and verb+-ion pairs — in these pairs the -ion suffix is added to verb forms in order to create nouns (such as, insert/insertion, project/projection, etc.).

Back formation may be similar to the reanalyses of folk etymologies when it rests on an erroneous understanding of the morphology of the longer word. For example, the singular noun asset is a back-formation from the plural assets. However, assets is originally not a plural; it is a loan-word from Anglo-Norman asetz (modern French assez). The -s was reanalyzed as a plural suffix.

5.1. Back-formation in the English language

Many words came into English by this route: Pease was once a mass noun but was reinterpreted as a plural, leading to the back-formation pea. The noun statistic was likewise a back-formation from the field of study statistics. In Britain the verb burgle came into use in the 19th century as a back-formation from burglar (which can be compared to the North America verb burglarize formed by suffixation).

Even though many English words are formed this way, new coinages may sound strange, and are often used for humorous effect. For example, gruntled or pervious (from disgruntled and impervious) would be considered mistakes today, and used only in humorous contexts. The comedian George Gobel regularly used original back-formations in his humorous monologues. Bill Bryson mused that the English language would be richer if we could call a tidy-haired person shevelled - as an opposite to dishevelled.

Frequently back-formations begin in colloquial use and only gradually become accepted. For example, enthuse (from enthusiasm) is gaining popularity, though it is still considered substandard by some today.

The immense celebrations in Britain at the news of the relief of the Siege of Mafeking briefly created the verb to maffick, meaning to celebrate both extravagantly and publicly. "Maffick" was a back-formation from Mafeking, a place-name that was treated humorously as a gerund or participle.

6. Derivation

Derivation is used to form new words, as with happi-ness and un-happy from happy, or determination from determine. A contrast is intended with the process of inflection, which uses another kind of affix in order to form variants of the same word, as with determine/determine-s/determin-ing/determin-ed.

A derivational suffix usually applies to words of one syntactic category and changes them into words of another syntactic category. For example, the English derivational suffix -ly changes adjectives into adverbs (slowslowly).

Some examples of English derivational suffixes:

  • adjective-to-noun: -ness (slowslowness)
  • adjective-to-verb: -ize (modernmodernize)
  • noun-to-adjective: -al (recreationrecreational)
  • noun-to-verb: -fy (gloryglorify)
  • verb-to-adjective: -able (drinkdrinkable)
  • verb-to-noun: -ance (deliverdeliverance)

Although derivational affixes do not necessarily modify the syntactic category, they modify the meaning of the base. In many cases, derivational affixes change both the syntactic category and the meaning: modernmodernize ("to make modern"). The modification of meaning is sometimes predictable: Adjective + nessthe state of being (Adjective); (stupidstupidness).

A prefix (writere-write; lordover-lord) will rarely change syntactic category in English. The derivational prefix un- applies to adjectives (healthyunhealthy), some verbs (doundo), but rarely nouns. A few exceptions are the prefixes en- and be-. En- (em- before labials) is usually used as a transitive marker on verbs, but can also be applied to adjectives and nouns to form transitive verb: circle (verb) → encircle (verb); but rich (adj) → enrich (verb), large (adj) → enlarge (verb), rapture (noun) → enrapture (verb), slave (noun) → enslave (verb). The prefix be-, though not as productive as it once was in English, can function in a similar way to en- to mark transitivity, but can also be attached to nouns, often in a causative or privative sense: siege (noun) → besiege (verb), jewel (noun) → bejewel (verb), head (noun) → behead (verb).

Note that derivational affixes are bound morphemes. In that, derivation differs from compounding, by which free morphemes are combined (lawsuit, Latin professor). It also differs from inflection in that inflection does not change a word's syntactic category and creates not new lexemes but new word forms (tabletables; openopened).

Derivation may occur without any change of form, for example telephone (noun) and to telephone. This is known as conversion. Some linguists consider that when a word's syntactic category is changed without any change of form, a null morpheme is being affixed.

7. Borrowing

Borrowing is just taking a word from another language. The borrowed words are called loan words. A loanword (or loan word) is a word directly taken into one language from another with little or no translation. By contrast, a calque or loan translation is a related concept whereby it is the meaning or idiom that is borrowed rather than the lexical item itself. The word loanword is itself a calque of the German Lehnwort. Loanwords can also be called "borrowings".

7.1. Loanwords in English

English has many loanwords. In 1973, a computerized survey of about 80,000 words in the old Shorter Oxford Dictionary (3rd edition) was published in Ordered Profusion by Thomas Finkenstaedt and Dieter Wolff. Their estimates for the origin of English words were as follows:

However, if the frequency of use of words is considered, words from Old and Middle English occupy the vast majority.


Biology, boxer ,ozone from German

Jacket,yoghurt,kiosh from Turkish

Pistl,robot from Czech

8. Coinage

Coinage is the invention of totally new words. The typical process of coinage usually involves the extension of a product name from a specific reference to a more general one. For example, think of Kleenex, Xerox, and Kodak. These started as names of specific products, but now they are used as the generic names for different brands of these types of products.

9. Compounding

A compound is a lexeme (a word) that consists of more than one other lexeme. An endocentric compound consists of a head, i.e. the categorical part that contains the basic meaning of the whole compound, and modifiers, which restrict this meaning. For example, the English compound doghouse, where house is the head and dog is the modifier, is understood as a house intended for a dog. Endocentric compounds tend to be of the same part of speech (word class) as their head, as in the case of doghouse. (Such compounds were called karmadharaya in the Sanskrit tradition.)

Exocentric compounds do not have a head, and their meaning often cannot be transparently guessed from its constituent parts. For example, the English compound white-collar is neither a kind of collar nor a white thing. In an exocentric compound, the word class is determined lexically, disregarding the class of the constituents. For example, a must-have is not a verb but a noun. English language allows several types of combinations of different word classes:

N + N lipstick , teapot

A + N fast food , soft drink

V + N breakfast , sky-dive

N + V sunshine , babysit

N + A capital-intensive , waterproof

A + A deaf-mute , bitter-sweet

Like derivational rules, compounding rules may differ in productivity. In English, the N + N rule/pattern is extremely productive, so that novel compounds are created all he time and are hardy noticed. By contrast, the V + N rule/pattern is unproductive and limited to a few lexically listed items. Apart from endocentric and exocentric compounds there is another type of compound which requires an interpretation different from the ones introduced so far. Consider the hyphenated words in the examples below:

 a. singer-songwriter




b. the doctor-patient gap

the nature-nurture debate

a modifier-head structure

the mind-body problem

Both sets of words are characterized by the fact that none of the two members of the compound seems in any sense more important than the other. They could be said to have two semantic heads, none of them being subordinate to the other. Given that no member is semantically prominent, but both members equally contribute to the meaning of the compound, these compounds have been labeled copulative compounds (or dvandva compounds in Sanskrit grammarian terms).

Why are the copulative compounds in (a & b) divided into two different sets (a) and (b)? The idea behind this differentiation is that copulatives fall into two classes, depending on their interpretation. Each form in (a) refers to one entity that is characterized by both members of the compound. A poet-translator, for example, is a person who is both as a poet and a translator. This type of copulative compound is sometimes called appositional compound. By contrast, the dvandvas in (b) denote two entities that stand in a particular relationship with regard to the following noun. The particular type of relationship is determined by the following noun. The doctor-patient gap is thus a gap between doctor and patient, the nature-nurture debate is a debate on the relationship between nature and nurture, and so on. This second type of copulative compound is also known as coordinative compound. If the noun following the compound allows both readings, the compound is in principle ambiguous. Thus a scientist-philosopher crew could be a crew made up of scientist-philosophers, or a crew made up of scientists and philosophers. It is often stated that dvandva compounds are not very common in English (e.g. Bauer 1983:203), but in a more recent study by Olson (2001) hundreds of attested forms are listed, which shows that such compounds are far from marginal.

The above mentioned word formation processes are the most frequent or important in the English language, but it is rarely the case that only one process occurs in one word. Words can be loaned and then back formed, later on gaining an affix. There are practically no boundaries to those processes other that human ingenuity.

10. Conclusion

In this paper different word formation processes were explained including derivation, compounding, blending, clipping, acronymy, backformation and conversion, and also different categories of each were explained.


Haspelmath, M. (2003). Morphology. London: MacMillan Press LTD.

Plag, I. (2003). Word-Formation in English. UK: Cambridge University Press.Hans

Katamba, F. (2005). English words. London: Ruotledge.

Bloomfield, L. (1962). Language . London: Oxford press.


Published - May 2009

Submit your article!

Read more articles - free!

Read sense of life articles!

E-mail this article to your colleague!

Need more translation jobs? Click here!

Translation agencies are welcome to register here - Free!

Freelance translators are welcome to register here - Free!

Free Newsletter

Subscribe to our free newsletter to receive news from us:

Recommend This Article
Read More Articles
Search Article Index
Read Sense of Life Articles
Submit Your Article
Obtain Translation Jobs
Visit Language Job Board
Post Your Translation Job!
Register Translation Agency
Submit Your Resume
Find Freelance Translators
Buy Database of Translators
Buy Database of Agencies
Obtain Blacklisted Agencies
Advertise Here
Use Free Translators
Use Free Dictionaries
Use Free Glossaries
Use Free Software
Vote in Polls for Translators
Read Testimonials
Read More Testimonials
Read Even More Testimonials
Read Yet More Testimonials
And More Testimonials!
Admire God's Creations

christianity portal
translation jobs


Copyright © 2003-2023 by TranslationDirectory.com
Legal Disclaimer
Site Map