to the Editor
in a word?
Professor Michael Hoey
considers the consequences
of changes in lexicography
False Friends between
Spanish and English
Read about cognates, false friends
and unreliable friends
Common processes of
word formation in English
word of the month
Compounds and blends
Tips for the CD-ROMs
Using the CD-ROM for
by Dr Rosamund Moon
This article explains some of the common processes
of word formation in English.
Many words are formed from combinations of other words,
or from combinations of words and prefixes or suffixes. It is often possible
to see a connection between the meaning of a combination and the meanings
of its parts. So if you find a new word, you may be able to guess what
Prefixes and suffixes
Common types of prefix
Prefixes are added to the beginning of
a word, for example:
un- ('not') + clear = unclear ('not clear')
Suffixes are added to the end of a word,
green + -ish ('slightly' or 'rather') = greenish
types of prefix and suffix
Here are some groups of prefixes and suffixes that are
used to create particular types of meaning. If you do not know what these
prefixes and suffixes mean, look them up in the dictionary, and then see
if you can find words in which they are used.
The following prefixes and suffixes are found a
lot in recent English:
Example: an entertainment-meister
(= someone who is an expert in entertaining people)
The following prefixes are used in words that contain
ideas to do with computers and technology or the environment.
audio-, bio-, cyber-, e-,
eco-, geo-, radio-, techno-, tele-,
Example: a big increase in cyber-crime (=crime
involving the use of computers)
The following suffixes are used in words that refer
to people who really want or like a particular thing, or are trying
hard to get it.
-aholic, -crazy, -hungry, -loving,
-mad, -mania, -phile,
Example: she's sports-mad (=very enthusiastic about
The following prefixes and suffixes are used to
make words negative or to make words with opposite meanings. The
most common prefixes in this group are un- and non-.
a-, contra-, counter-, de-,
dis-, il-/im-/in-/ir-, mis-,
non-, un-, -free, -less
Example: non-toxic chemicals (=that are not poisonous
The following prefixes are used to create words
that suggest that something is partly true, or that something appears
to be one thing but is really something else.
crypto-, demi-, half-,
mock-, near-, neo-, part-, pseudo-,
Example: a semi-independent region (=partly but not
The following prefixes and suffixes are used in
words that contain meanings such as having a lot of something, large,
to a large degree, everywhere, or always.
all-, arch-, ever-, extra-, hyper-,
-intensive, -infested, mega-, multi-, oft-,
poly-, pan-, -rich, super-, ultra-,
Example: an ultra-successful product (=one that is
The following suffixes are used in words that mean
that something is done in a particular way or is like a particular
thing. The most common suffix of this type is -ly, which
is added to adjectives to form words like slowly and politely.
The others are usually added to nouns.
-fashion, -like, -ly, -shaped,
Examples: moving spider-fashion (=moving the way a
spider moves), a heart-shaped box of chocolates (=in
the shape of a heart)
New adjectives are often created by combining a
word with a participle, or with a noun and -ed. The following
suffixes are used in adjectives that describe someone's clothes,
appearance, or personality. Not all of these suffixes are in the
dictionary, but it is easy to guess what they mean.
-boned, -cheeked, -chested,
-clad, -coated, -eyed, -haired,
-faced, -handed, -hatted, -headed,
-limbed, -lipped, -minded, -necked,
Example: straw-hatted girls (=wearing straw hats)
Compounds are formed by combining two, or sometimes three
or more, other words. Some are written as single words (basketball,
some as a series of words (big business, point of view);
and some with hyphens (fifty-fifty, laid-back).
Many compounds have obvious meanings: an apple tree
is a tree that produces apples, and a computer game is a game played
on a computer. Others are more complicated: big-ticket items are
expensive items, and heavy metal is a type of loud rock music played
with electric guitars.
There are many other ways in which words are formed. Here
are some that you may notice:
Some words are formed by joining part of one word
with part of another. For example:
biopic (biography + picture)
brunch (breakfast + lunch)
camcorder (camera + recorder)
These words are sometimes called blends or
Some words are shorter forms of other words. For
latte (caffè latte)
The longer forms are usually more formal or more
Some words are new spellings of other words or informal
pronunciations. For example:
gonna (going to)
wannabe (want to be)
These new words are often informal or slang, or
have special meanings.
Some words are formed from the first letters of
the words in a compound or phrase. For example:
Aids (Auto-Immune Deficiency Syndrome)
FAQ (Frequently Asked Question)
NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization)
They are sometimes called acronyms if they
are pronounced as words, rather than as series of letters.