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Word Formation
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 it means.

• Prefixes and Suffixes
• Common Types of Prefix and Suffix
• Compounds
• Other Processes

Prefixes and Suffixes

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, for example:
green + -ish ("slightly" or "somewhat") = greenish ("slightly green")


Common 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:

rent-a-, uber-, -athon, -buster, -busting, -fest, -friendly, -gate, -impaired, -meister, -ville

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-, video-

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, -mania, -phile, -seeking

Example: she's sports-crazy (=very enthusiastic about sports)

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 or harmful)

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-, quasi-, semi-

Example: a semi-independent region (=partly but not completely independent)

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.

, arch-, ever-, extra-, hyper-, -intensive, -infested, mega-, multi-, oft-, poly-, pan-, -rich, super-, ultra-, -ridden

Example: an ultra-successful product (=one that is extremely successful)

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, -style, -wise

Examples: a Mexican-style restaurant, 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, -hearted, -legged,
, -lipped, -minded, -necked, -skinned, -sleeved,
-tongued, -waisted

Example: two 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, mailbox);
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.


Other Processes

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)

These words are sometimes called blends or portmanteau words.

Some words are new spellings of other words or informal pronunciations. For example:

gonna (going to)
FX (effects)
pix (pics/pictures)

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)

They are sometimes called acronyms if they are pronounced as words, rather than as series of letters.