Word structure

The study of word structure is called morphology. Understanding word structure helps us:

In studying word structure, we start by looking at a few key concepts first:

Root words are words, or parts of words, that can usually stand alone. The following are all root words:

Most root words can be changed in various ways by adding additional elements to them:

Each of the examples above has been altered by adding an element at the end. The elements at the end, namely -s, -er, and -ed, cannot stand alone. These elements are called suffixes.

Sometimes, elements are added to the beginning of a word:

The elements added to the beginnings of the words above cannot stand alone, and are called prefixes.

Sometimes, when we add a prefix or suffix to a word, we create a new word. This process is called derivation.

The two words above are definitely two different words - the first is a verb, the second a noun. Their meanings and uses in sentences are different. In a dictionary, we would have to look them up separately, even though they have a common root word.

Sometimes, when we add a suffix, we don't create a new word at all. This process is called inflection.

In the above example, we really have just one word - the first is singular, the second plural. In a dictionary, we might look for cat, but we wouldn't look for a separate entry for cats.

When words are built from a common root word, or a common ancestor in history (often a Latin word), we call the group of words a word family.

The terms above are all built from a common root word, grammar. This word family includes a noun, adjectives, and adverbs.

The terms below are built from a common ancestor, the Latin word spectare, meaning 'to look':

This word family includes verbs, nouns, and adjectives.

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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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Word structure: Inflection

Inflection is the process by which a single word takes different forms. For example, if we have the noun cat, we can add a plural ending to it to create cats. This is known as inflecting a noun and the ending we add is called a suffix.

What are the plural forms of the following nouns?

Can you see a pattern in how these plurals are formed? All these words take the regular plural ending -s or -es, though in some cases there is also an adjustment in the spelling:

What about the following nouns? What are their plural forms?

You will have noticed that it’s not always as straightforward as adding an -s or -es suffix. Some words have special (‘irregular’) patterns for forming the plural:

The last item (formulae) is an example of a foreign plural: a noun borrowed from a foreign language (Latin, in this case) which changes in the plural according to the original language. Sometimes a regular plural is used instead, for example formulas instead of formulae.

Most nouns have singular and plural forms, and we use the different forms in different grammatical patterns. Here are some examples:

The different patterns work with other nouns as well, e.g. this knife, these knives. Try them out with some other nouns, such as guitar, tooth, mistake.

Noun plurals are just one example of inflection. Verbs also have different inflectional forms, as shown in the following example:

Here we see various forms of the verb turn, formed by adding different suffixes (-ing, -ed, -s). Verb inflections help to express when a situation occurs and how it unfolds. The different verb forms are explained further in the resources on verbs.

Many adjectives also take different inflectional forms. An adjective such as small has a comparative form which adds an -er suffix and a superlative which adds an -est. The plain form has no added inflection (My room is small). The comparative and superlative forms are used in comparisons:

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Word structure: Compounds

Compounds are combinations of root words, i.e. words that can occur on their own, to form a new established combination. They are sometimes spelt as one word, but also with a hyphen or as two words.

In English compound nouns, e.g. bookcaselaptopsmartphone, and compound adjectives, e.g. dripping wettax-free, are very common.

Look at the following words. Can you see some patterns of relationship among them? Can each word be broken down into meaningful parts?

You may have noticed the following elements appearing several times:

These are called combining forms. They are meaningful elements drawn from Greek and Latin, which can combine with other elements to form words. Words that contain a common combining form like this are members of the same word family.

Words formed in this way are called neoclassical compounds. This term is used because the word elements were taken from the classical languages (ancient Greek and Latin) and were combined in new ways in English (the element neo- comes from the Greek for ‘new’). Neoclassical compounds are an important part of the more scholarly vocabulary of English, including scientific terminology.

Many of the combining forms, like socio-, are unable to stand alone as words and are found only as parts of larger words. Although we are calling these larger words (like sociology) compounds, they are different from the more typical type of compound (like girlfriend) where each part can stand alone as a separate word.

However, some of the combining forms do occur as separate words. For example, phobia occurs in words like technophobia, homophobia and xenophobia, but is also a word in its own right, with a more general meaning.

Also, some of the combining forms have given rise to informal independent words through the process of clipping (shortening). For example, psycho has been ‘clipped’ from psychopath, and phone from telephone.

As a further complication, some compounds are made up of one combining form and one element which is a normal independent word. For example, sociolinguistics combines socio- and linguistics; biodegradable combines bio- and degradable.

In these ways, the combining forms make important contributions to the richness of English vocabulary. It can be very helpful to know about these forms and their meanings, as you can often use this knowledge to make sense of words you are encountering for the first time.

For example, you might have noticed that -logy or -ology is found in many words for different branches of knowledge or areas of study, like these:

If you then come across the word volcanology, you can probably make a confident prediction about its meaning, and work out what a volcanologist does.

Or suppose you learn that the combining form neuro- means ‘relating to nerves or the nervous system’ (the nervous system includes the brain, spinal cord and all the nerves in the body). This will help you to understand numerous words, such as these:

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