Word structure: Derivation

Derivation is the process of creating new words. The technical term derivational morphology is the study of the formation of new words. Here are some examples of words which are built up from smaller parts:

  • black + bird combine to form blackbird
  • dis- + connect combine to form disconnect
  • predict + -able combine to form predictable

Combination processes are also used to form brand-new words which add to the English vocabulary. Some examples from recent years are speed-dating and smartphone.

We can make a more complex word from a simpler one by adding a short element at the beginning or end. Suppose we start from the word kind. We could add the element un- to from unkind:

  • un- + kind → unkind

These two parts are of different types:

  • Kind can be used as a word on its own. It acts as a root word or lexical base to which we can add other elements.
  • We can’t use un- as a word by itself. It has to be attached to a lexical base like kind.

Elements like un- which are attached at the beginning of a root word are called prefixes. The prefix un- can be added to many different lexical bases, such as happy, pleasant, wise (to give unhappy, unpleasant, unwise, and so on).

Again starting with kind as our lexical base, we could instead add the element -ness to form unkindness:

  • kind + -nesskindness

The element -ness is a suffix. It is not used as a word on its own, but has to be attached at the end of a lexical base. For example, it can also be added to rude or blind to give rudeness, blindness.

Adding a prefix or suffix can change the meaning of a word. For example, unhappy means ‘not happy’, so the meaning change is quite important! There are regular patterns to these meaning changes: unpleasant means ‘not pleasant’, unwise means ‘not wise’, and so on.

Adding a suffix can also change the word class: that is, produce a different type of word which behaves differently when it combines with other words in sentences. For example:

  • Kind is an adjective that fits into combinations like a kind friend.
  • Adding -ness creates a noun, kindness, that fits into patterns like a great kindness.

We can also combine more than one word (or lexical base) to form a more complex word called a compound:

  • head + acheheadache
  • camera + shycamera-shy
  • dry + cleandry-clean

Compounds can be written in different ways: as a single word, with a hyphen, or even as two separate words (e.g. swimming pool). Often there are variant ways of writing the same item (e.g. bus stop, bus-stop).

Another word-forming process is conversion, where a word is shifted to a different word class without adding any elements. This means it is used as a different type of word. For example:

  • Eye is usually a noun: it is found in combinations like an eye, blue eyes to refer to a thing or things.
  • But, through conversion, it can also be used as a verb to indicate an action: She eyed them suspiciously.

Another example is hopeful:

  • This is usually an adjective which indicates a property of something or someone (e.g. a hopeful sign).
  • But by conversion it has also come to be used as a noun, as in these Olympic hopefuls, which refers to a group of people (who are hoping for Olympic success).

Other processes for forming words include the following:

  • clipping, where words are shortened by removing syllables, e.g. laboratory → labChristopher → Chris
  • blending, where two lexical bases are blended together, e.g. breakfast + lunchbrunchgigantic + enormous → ginormous
  • initialisms, made up of the first letters of a series of words: frequently asked question → FAQlaughing out loud → LOL

Some initialisms are pronounced as sequences of letters, e.g. VIP (from very important person). Others are pronounced as ordinary words: for example, NATO (from North Atlantic Treaty Organization) rhymes with the name Plato. Initialisms of this second type are called acronyms.


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