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Word Formation
by Elizabeth Potter

Word Families
• Activity 1
• How Are Words Formed?
• What Are Prefixes and Suffixes?
• Activity 2 and 3
• Next in the Series

Word Families

Look at this group of words and decide what they have in common:

ability  disability
disabled enable
inability unable

All the above words are formed from – and are related to – the adjective able. So we can call able the “root word” from which all the other words are developed. Can you guess which word is the root word for this next group?

destroyer destructive
destruction indestructible

All these words are formed from the root word destroy. We call these groups of related words “word families”. Like members of real families, the words that make up a word family share some of the same features: they all share some of the letters of the root word, and their meanings are related too.


Activity 1

Look at the following group of words and try to decide in each case what the root word is. Then try to guess the meaning of each word. Check in the dictionary to see if you are right.

discomfort uncomfortable
comfortable comforting
decision decisive
undecided indecisive
impure purify
purist impurity



How Are Words Formed?

Many English words are formed from combinations of other words, or from combinations of words and prefixes or suffixes. So if you know what each of the parts mean, you will also be able to guess the meaning of a new word.


What Are Prefixes and Suffixes?

A prefix is added to the beginning of a word to make another word. A prefix can be either a short word, or a group of letters that is not a word. An example of the first type is self-. Self- means “yourself” or “itself”, so if you are self-employed, you work for yourself, and if something self-destructs, it destroys itself. An example of the second type is non-, which means “not”. So a non-violent protest is a protest that does not involve violence.

A suffix is added to the end of a word to make another word. A suffix can be either a short word, or a group of letters that is not a word. An example of the first type is –rich, which is added to nouns to make adjectives for describing something that “contains a lot” of something. So oil-rich rocks are full of oil, and vitamin-rich foods contain a lot of vitamins. An example of the second type is –ish, which means “slightly” or “rather”. So greenish water looks slightly green.


Activity 2

Look at the words in bold in the following sentences and see if you can guess what they mean. After you have guessed, you can check the meanings in the dictionary. All the prefixes and suffixes used in these sentence (and shown here in red) have their own entries in the dictionary.

Local residents are calling for the police to crack down on antisocial behaviour by troublemakers, some of whom are as young as ten.

E-commerce now accounts for 84 per cent of the company’s sales.

The machines are very user-friendly and they tell you how hard you are working and how many calories you have used up.

The new district health boards will be required to act in an efficient and businesslike way.

Activity 3

See if you can make some more words using these prefixes and suffixes. Check in the dictionary to see if your words are there.


Next in the Series

In the next issue you can read about compounds and some other ways of forming words in English.