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Language Awareness
Word formation

by Jonathan Marks

Sources of new vocabulary
    • Some common tpes of prefix and suffix
    • Back formation
   • Phrasal verbs, phrasal nouns and phrasal adjectives

English vocabulary is not a stable, finite collection of words. New words and expressions are continuously coming into use, while older ones drop out of use. Additionally, old words often take on new meanings (e.g. mouse, virus, window in computing), and older meanings can simply die out (e.g. the original meaning of computer was a person whose job was to make calculations or do accounts). Words are very rarely invented entirely from scratch. (One example of a completely made-up word is blurb). This article will:

first, briefly describe some of the main processes by which new words enter the language
then focus in more detail on two major types of word formation: affixation and compounding.

Sources of new vocabulary

Many English words are ‘loanwords’ from other languages, such as paparazzi (Italian), and tsunami (Japanese). Many are so familiar that we no longer think of them as borrowings – e.g. bungalow (Hindi), ombudsman (Swedish).

Eponyms are names of people, places, or companies that are associated with a particular product or thing, and that become used as general vocabulary items. Examples include biro, hoover, sandwich, sherry, watt.

Conversion is the process of changing the grammatical class of a word without changing its form. Conversion of nouns to verbs is particularly common in English – e.g. to word a message carefully. More recently, nouns such as Google, email, text, and Skype are also being used as verbs.


Respellings often represent the way we pronounce certain words in informal situations – e.g. gonna (going to), pix (pics, pictures), sleb (celebrity). Sometimes, they develop different meanings from the original versions: for example, the word wannabe is a respelling of the phrase want to be, but it is used as a noun meaning someone who wants to be famous or successful.

A blend is a combination of parts of two words, usually the beginning of one and the end of another – e.g. glocalization (global + localization), guesstimate (guess + estimate), netiquette (net + etiquette).

An acronym is an abbreviation in which a sequence of letters is pronounced as a word – e.g. AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome), laser (light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation).

In clipping, the beginning or ending of a word is cut off – e.g. demo (demonstration), goss (gossip).



Many words are formed by adding affixes (prefixes and suffixes) to existing words. If you know the meanings of the original word and the affix, you can often guess the meaning of the new word. Prefixes are added to the beginning of a word, and suffixes to the end.


Some common types of prefix and suffix

The following affixes appear in the Macmillan English Dictionary as headwords. The words that they help to create may only be used a few times in a particular context, or may be used often enough to become an established part of English vocabulary, in which case they appear in the dictionary.

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

Example: an entertainment-meister (=someone who is an expert in entertaining people).

The following prefixes are used in words connected with computers, technology, and the environment:

audio-, bio-, cyber-, e-, eco-, geo-, radio-, techno-, tele-, video-

Example: a big increase in cybercrime (=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:

-aholic, -crazy, -hungry, -loving, -mad, -mania, -phile, -seeking

Example: she’s sports-mad (=very enthusiastic about sports).

The following affixes produce negative or opposite meanings:

a-, contra-, counter-, de-, dis-, non-, un-, -free, -less

Examples: non-toxic chemicals (=not poisonous), a fatfree diet (=consisting of food without any fat).


The following prefixes are used in words that suggest that something is partly true, or is not what it appears to be:

crypto-, demi-, half-, mock-, near-, neo-, part-, pseudo-, quasi-, semi-

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

The following affixes mean ‘having a lot of something’, ‘to a large degree’, or ‘always’:

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

Example: an ultra-successful product (=extremely successful), a crime-ridden neighbourhood (=full of criminal activity).


The following suffixes mean that something is done in a certain way, or is like a certain thing:

-fashion, -like, -ly, -shaped, -style, -wise

Example: moving spider-fashion (=moving the way a spider moves).

The suffix –ly is, of course, the most common way of forming an adverb from an adjective: e.g. slowly, confidently, angrily.

Adjectives are often formed by combining a word with a past participle, or with a noun + -ed. The following suffixes are used in adjectives that describe someone’s clothes, appearance, or personality:

-boned, -cheeked, -chested, -clad, -coated, -eyed,
-faced, -haired, -handed, -hatted, -headed, -hearted,
, -limbed, -lipped, -minded, -necked, -skinned,
-sleeved, -tongued, -waisted

Examples: straw-hatted girls (=wearing straw hats), a broad-chested young man (=with a large, wide chest).



Backformation is what happens when an affix is removed to form a shorter and apparently more basic word which, however, did not previously exist. In most cases, back-formation involves creating new verbs from existing nouns:

Examples: editor > edit (the new verb, ‘to edit’, is formed from the noun ‘editor’ by removing the –or suffix), babysitter > babysit, enthusiasm > enthuse. The word editor, for example, is some 150 years older than edit.



Compounds are formed by combining two, or sometimes three or more, existing words. There is often a clear connection between the meaning of a compound and the meanings of the original words, so that examining the construction of a compound will often help you to understand its meaning. Some compounds are written as single words (basketball, mailbox); some as a series of separate words (big business, point of view); and some with hyphens (fifty-fifty, laid-back).

Many compounds have obvious meanings: a computer game is a game played on a computer. Others have less obvious meanings: heavy metal is a type of rock music, and a soap opera is a TV series about the lives of a fictional group of characters.


Phrasal verbs, phrasal nouns and phrasal adjectives

The process of combining verbs with particles (words like up, down, and out) produces innumerable new verbs, of two basic types:

verb + particle combinations, written as separate words, such as come over, keep up, live up to, plough ahead. These are usually referred to as phrasal verbs.
particle + verb combinations, written as one word, such as offload, overcome, uphold, withstand.

Many verbs formed in these ways also have corresponding nouns and adjectives, such as:








Often, the meanings of these composite forms are easy to guess. In some cases, the basic meaning of the original verb is extended in various ways:

I’ve been running (a)round all day (=I’ve been busy doing lots of different things).

The play was a runaway success (=a much bigger, more immediate success than was expected).

I’ll just run down the list (=quickly read everything on the list) and see if we’ve forgotten anything.

Time is running out (=there isn’t much time left).

In other cases, the particle has a meaning that appears in many composite verbs of this type, so that we gradually learn its meaning. For example, some of the meanings of out are connected with:

becoming known; discovering or understanding something: figure out, slip out
removing things, especially so that nothing is left: edit out, weed out
ending or disappearing: burn out, fade out
being superior in some way: outnumber, outwit


The particles out, up, and down are particularly common in words that have appeared recently.

talk up (=talk about something or someone in a way that makes them seem more important or better than they really are)

upload (=send documents or programs from a computer to a larger system using the Internet).

dumb down (=make something simpler or easier to understand, in such a way that reduces its quality).


There are also numerous combinations of particles + verb/noun/adjective that are of Greco-Latin origin. If you learn the meanings of some of the common elements they are composed of, it will often help you to understand the meanings of the composite words.

Example: the common element cur or cour comes from the Latin verb currere (meaning ‘to run’) and it appears in words such as:
concourse, concur, concurrent (con =together)
excursion (ex =out)
incursion (in =in)
precursor (pre =before)
recourse, recur (re =back, again)

The same element appears in numerous other English words, such as corridor, courier, course, currency, current, curriculum, cursor and others.If you know that con means together and fluence/ fluent means flow, it will help you to remember that the confluence of two rivers is the place where they flow into one another, and that confluence can also be used to mean a situation in which two or more things come together.

If you know that re means back and tract means pull, it will help you to remember that when a cat retracts its claws, it pulls them back towards itself, or that when someone retracts something they previously said or wrote, they ‘take it back’ and say that it is not true after all.

You will still come across words whose meaning is not easy to guess just from looking at their components. You will also hear and read vocabulary items that are not listed in dictionaries because they are only invented to fit a particular situation. But if you are familiar with the processes of word building described above, and with the commonest meanings of the wordbuilding elements used in English, it will help you to understand a large number of unfamiliar words, and to realize that English vocabulary is more systematic than it sometimes appears.


Next in the series

Next in the Language Awareness series: Lexical Priming