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:

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:

These two parts are of different types:

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:

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:

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

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:

Another example is hopeful:

Other processes for forming words include the following:

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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