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Word formation

from English Grammar Today

There are four main kinds of word formation: prefixes, suffixes, conversion and compounds.


We add prefixes before the base or stem of a word.



monorail, monolingual

mono- means ‘one’

multipurpose, multicultural

multi- means ‘many’

post-war, postgraduate

post- means ‘after’

unusual, undemocratic

un- means ‘not’ or ‘opposite to’


We add suffixes after the base or stem of a word. The main purpose of a suffix is to show what class of word it is (e.g. noun or adjective).



terrorism, sexism

-ism and -dom are used to form nouns

employer, actor

-er and -or are used to form nouns to describe people who do things

widen, simplify

-en and -ify are used to form verbs

reasonable, unprofitable

-able is used to form adjectives

unhappily, naturally

-ly is a common suffix used to form adverbs


Conversion involves the change of a word from one word class to another. For example, the verbs to email and to microwave are formed from the nouns email and microwave:

Can you text her? (verb from noun text, meaning to send a text-message)

They are always jetting somewhere. (verb from noun jet)

If you’re not careful, some downloads can damage your computer. (noun from verb download)

OK, so the meeting’s on Tuesday. That’s a definite. (noun from adjective)

It’s a very big if and I’m not at all sure we can afford it. (noun from conjunction, meaning ‘it’s not at all certain’)

All companies have their ups and downs. (nouns from prepositions)

We also use conversion when we change a proper noun into a common noun:

Has anybody seen my Dickens? (copy of a book by Dickens)


When we use compounding, we link together two or more bases to create a new word. Normally, the first item identifies a key feature of the second word. For example, the two bases back and ache can combine to form the compound noun backache, and the two bases post and card combine to form the compound noun postcard.

Compounds are found in all word classes. The most common types of compounds are: Nouns: car park, rock band

Adjectives: heartbreaking, sugar-free, airsick

Verbs: oven-bake, baby-sit, chain-smoke

Adverbs: good-naturedly, nevertheless

It is sometimes difficult to know where to put hyphens in words that are compound ed. It is also difficult to know whether to separate words (e.g. post box) or to join the words (e.g. postbox). In such cases, it is best to check in a good learner’s dictionary.


Abbreviation involves shortening a word. We do this in three main ways: clipping, acronyms and blends.

We use clipping when we shorten or ‘clip’ one or more syllables from a word. We also commonly clip proper names for people:

ad: advertisement, advert

lab: laboratory

Matt: Matthew

Acronyms are a type of abbreviation formed when the initial letters of two or more words are combined in a way that produces consonant and vowel sequences found in words. Acronyms are normally pronounced as words:

RAM: random access memory (RAM is a term used to describe a computer’s memory.)

Initials are similar to acronyms but are pronounced as sets of letters, not as words:

WHO: World Health Organisation, pronounced W–H–O

CD: compact disc, pronounced C–D

We form blends when we combine parts of existing words to form a new word:

blog: blend of web and log

motel: blend of motor and hotel

smog: blend of smoke and fog


We form words with back-formation when we remove part of a word, usually something which we think is a suffix (or occasionally a prefix). We do this commonly when we form verbs from nouns.

For example: to liaise (back-formed from the noun liaison); to intuit (back-formed from the noun intuition), to enthuse (back-formed from the noun enthusiasm):

Can you liaise with Tim and agree a time for the meeting, please?

She’s always enthusing about her new teacher.

Loan words and new words

Loan words

Loan words are words that are borrowed from other languages. Some recent loan words for food taken from other languages include: sushi, tapas, chapatti, pizza. When we use loan words, we do not normally change them, though we do sometimes inflect them if they are singular countable nouns (pizzas, chapattis). We also sometimes pronounce them more like English words, instead of using their original pronunciation.

New words

Some prefixes are commonly used to create new words. In modern English the prefix e- is used to create new words that are connected with the Internet and the use of the Internet:

e-bank, e-cards, e-commerce, e-learning

Almost any noun may potentially combine with any other noun to form new noun compounds (e.g. computer virus, carbon footprint, quality time).

(“Word formation” from English Grammar Today © Cambridge University Press.)
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