Вы находитесь на странице: 1из 9


Derivational Morphology in English Words

Mengzi Cai

Colorado State University


Mengzi Cai
Morphology paper

Derivational Morphology in English Words

Selfie has become a popular word recently and this word a good example to explain
complex words. We add suffixes like –ie to the noun self and we gain a new word which has a
different but related meaning. This meaning is a photo of yourself that you take, typically with a
smartphone or a webcam, and usually put on a social networking site. Complex words are
formed from a root and a suffix, prefix or both of them. There are about 850 derivational affixes
in English (Stein 2007) and they give new meanings to the base word. Therefore, there are more
complex words than simple words in English. It is necessary to study the morphology because
there are more complex words than simple words. This paper focus on derivational morphology.
It makes sense that vocabulary is a part of English language teaching. Words play an
important role in learning English. It is necessary for English learners to pay attention to word
learning. As a significant part of word learning, morphology awareness exerts influences on the
understanding, memorization and use of English words. I want to pay attention to derivational
morphology which is vital in word formation. These are three main points within derivational
morphology: the meaning of the derivational morpheme, the sequence of the derivational
morphemes in a word and the change in part of speech when adding derivational morphemes to a
word. The paper will start with a brief introduction to morphology in order to introduce the
elementary knowledge of morphology, which includes the terminology and part of results in the
study of form. Because of the importance of derivational morphology in English, it is necessary
for us to study it and it is helpful for a teacher to use the knowledge of derivational morphology
in class.

Brief Introduction to Morphology

A morpheme is the smallest unit that forms a word or a word segment that can’t be
divided into smaller meaningful parts. Morphemes are classified as free morphemes and bound
morphemes. Bound morphemes include inflectional morphemes and derivational morphemes,
which are the focus in this paper. In the study of morphology, the term “derivational
morphemes” means that affixes are added to a word to form a new word. The functions of the
derivational morphemes are that they could change the grammatical categories or the semantic
meaning of the original word. According to Hamawand (2011, p.27), some inflectional endings
have the same form as derivational morphemes, such as -ed, -en, -er and -ing. Take one example,
-er means the comparative form as an inflectional morpheme. The word hotter is used to
describe higher temperature. As a derivational morpheme, it is attached to a root to create a new
noun, such as employer and freighter.


This paragraph talks about the prefixes, suffixes and combing forms which are important
points in morphology. In a corpus study, the productivity characteristics of 80 common affixes in
English are shown in Hay and Baayen’s (2002) research. The conclusion of their research is that
the number of suffixes is about twice the number of prefixes, 54 suffixes to 26 prefixes.
Nevertheless, under the comparison among prefixes, suffixes and combing forms, Stein (2007)
points out that the number of prefixes is around twice the number of suffixes because there is a
huge number of word-initial morphemes. There is a controversial issue of whether combining
forms should be regarded as affixes, such as prefixes, suffixes or bound roots, and the
neoclassical combining forms come from Greek Latin lexemes. Historical origins offer an
expanded range of meanings and they might be regarded as more like elements of compound
words than complex words (Lehrer 1998; Prć ić , 2005, 2008; Stein 2007). Bauer et al. (2013)
state that this is because the first element could be seen to modify the second one. That is, the
left-hand element changes the right, e.g., photo-cell. This leads to a problem in categorizing
since the same neoclassical element could be classified as an affix or a combining form in
different words, like arch-angel or mon-arch. There is a question about whether an element
could be regarded as a permanent affix in English. The classification of a morpheme as a prefix,
suffix or combining form is managed by the elements to which it is added. Take -logue as an
example. In the word travelogue, it is a suffix. In the word monologue, it is a combining form.
On the other hand, in the word monorail, mono- is prefix but it is combining form in monologue
because -logue is not a base word.
The focus of this paper is on derivational affixes. Derivational affixes play an important
role in morphology and are commonly added close to the base where they reform the original
word with the specific meaning that the affix has. Derivational affixes can be classified into 2
types. One type is class-changing which means that the word class will be changed when
derivational affixes are added. The other is class-maintaining which implies that there is no
change in word class but a difference in the meaning of a word. For example, change is a verb.
When adding the suffix –able, the original word turns to changeable which is an adjective.
Alternatively, neighbor is a noun and when -hood is added, it changes to neighborhood which
has a different meaning, but it is still a noun.

The Sequence, Meaning and Grammar of Derivational Morphemes

Level-ordering is an approach to explain a number of aspects of the behavior of affixes

by distributing each to a specific category. One aspect is sequence of affixes. Take “un-compan-
ion-able” as an example. It is obvious that affixes can possibly be connected together. However,
the sequence of these processes is unclear. Level-ordering tends to tell us the principle that un-
and -ion should be attached to the base rather than –able but it is wrong to explain the relative
ordering of un- and –ion. The level-ordering might be related to the phonology and historical
Greek Latin lexemes but normally several ways could be applied to explain the ordering. Firstly,
there are some affixes which are found more peripherally (away from the base), so it seems to be


a rule that –able should be followed by –ion. Some affixes such as –hood may not be allowed to
add subsequent affixation. Secondly, viewing the particular rules of affix attachment to the
specific base word, eg., -ation attaches to verbs, -able to verbs, and –al to nouns. The affixes
which are given to be combined with the stem normally belongs to the same part of speech so
affixes actually have part of speech. A third way is that thinking the order of attachment of
suffixes is semantic. For example, the semantic meaning of the suffix -er is used to describe a
position or a job. If we want to describe a person who dances, we could use the word dancer.
The next option is related to inflection affixes, which will be introduced briefly. The order of
affixes reflects the underlying order of syntactic operations on the base of the word and being
derivable from the syntactic tree underlying the construction (Baker,1985). For instance, a) The
child eats an apple. b) An apple is eaten by the child. The suffix added to “eat” depends on the
There are derivational prefixes and suffixes of morphemes with different functions.
Ordinarily, derivational prefixes do not change the part of speech of a base. Instead, they
commonly create a new meaning of the base word. On the other hand, the word class and
meaning of a word are usually changed because of the derivational suffixes. We are able to add
the derivational morphemes to free morphemes or to other derivational morphemes. For instance,
the verb transform is composed of the base form and the prefix trans-, a derivational morpheme.
It can become the noun transformation by attaching the derivational morpheme -ation. By
adding -al to -ation, it changes to the adjective transformational. (Remson, 2007). Therefore,
class-maintaining derivational affixes are mainly derivational prefixes, such as dis-, un-, re-,
mis-. eg. re+produce®reproduce; un+comfortable®uncomfortable; dis+like ®dislike.
One function of the derivational prefixes is to express the additional information. It could
be primarily categorized into: specifying negation (Non-, un-, dis-, an- e.g. nonadsorbing),
direction (re-, by-, circum-, medi-, e.g. return), intensity (ex-, in-, syn-, e.g. intensify), time
(post-,e.g. postponed), degree (super-, infra-, over-,e.g. overweight), size (micro-, mini-,e.g.
minicar), privation (im-, un-,e.g. impersonal). In addition, allomorphic forms of prefixes exist
depending on the first letter and the pronunciation of the base word which the prefix added
(Nordquist, 2018). For example, the prefix il- in illiterate, im- in impossible and ir- in
irremovable are allomorphs of the prefix in-. The prefix a(n)- could be used as without things
related to the nominal base, e.g., achromatic which means no color or asexual which means
without sex. The prefix a(n)- is also regarded as the opposite meaning of the base word. The
similar prefix anti- has two different meanings. For example, anti-scientific, anti-war, and anti-
abortion are connected to the meaning of against, opposing. Another meaning is that the opposite
of an X or without having the features of an X; The prefix de- adds to verbs and nouns to build a
contrary meaning of the verb, e.g., decolonize, decline, and deselect. The prefix de- + verb®
verbs can be different formations. For instance, it can be de+ adjective®verb, e.g., decaffeinate
which has no verb morpheme. Another example is mis- which can modify the verb or noun
which relates to the meaning of inaccurate or wrong, e.g., misunderstand. The prefix un- can be
attached to verbs or nouns to convey the reverse or negative meaning, e.g. unwind,


uncomplicated, unhappy, unsuccessful. When nouns are added with un-, it usually refers to the
meaning of absence of the noun, such as unbelief. We can also find out that a similar extensive
meaning as anti- and non- which refer to without having the proper characteristics of X, eg.,
Nevertheless, three derivational prefixes can systematically change the class of a word.
These are a-, be- and en-.
a- +noun/verb®adjective (ablaze, abroad, asleep);
be- + noun®verb (befriend, bedeck);
en- +adjective/noun (enlarge, ensure);
Other examples of derivational prefixes: after-, back-, be-, by-, co-, dis-, down-, ex-,
fore-, hind-, off-, on-, out-, post-, pre-, pro-, step-, with-, ambi-, ante-, auto-, bi-, bio-,
circum-, con-, extra-, geo-, heteo-, ideo-, in-, indo-, mal-, meta-, per-, semi-, socio-, sub-,
tele-, vice-, uni-, ultra-, pre-
Derivational suffixes are divided into four types: nominal suffixes, verbal suffixes,
adjectival suffixes, and adverbial suffixes. Nominal suffixes change the word class from verbs
and adjectives to nouns. For instance, -age is a nominal suffix which expresses an activity,
location or entity (e.g. manage). -dom is similar with –hood and –ship, which attaches to nouns
to rebuild nominals. It refers to the meaning of “state of being X”, such as clerkdom. It has
another meaning of collective entities, eg., studentdom. The meaning of denoting domains,
realms or territories can be recognized by the suffix -dom in kingdom and cameldom. The suffix
–(e)ry refer to location. More specifically, the meaning of the suffix –(e)ry is that the place
where the activity is held or the article and service is available, as bakery, pottery and eatery
(Hamawand, 2011). Like cannery, the meaning of these words refers to the meaning of the base.
A word which is derived with verbal suffixes changes to verb word class. Most of the
base words which the suffix –en attaches to are adjectives, e.g., broaden, blacken, ripen.
Moreover, nouns can be found in the base words, like strengthen and lengthen. The meaning of –
en can be defined as “make X”. The suffix–ize expresses a whole extent of related concepts such
as locative, causative and resultative. Locative has the meaning of “putting into X”, e.g.,
computerize, hospitalize. Causative means “making (more) X”, including randomize and
fictionalize. Carbonize and itemize are regarded as resultative.
Adjectival suffixes could be subdivided into relational adjectives and qualitative
adjectives. Relational adjectives are used to relate the nouns and the adjectives. For instance,
algebraic means something related to algebra. Colonial means having to do with colonies.
Qualitative adjectives have a more specific meaning which can be seen with derivative
grammatical rules. –able/-ible could be added to transitive or intransitive verbal base words, such
as deferrable and perishable. It could attach to a noun, such as reasonable, fashionable. The
semantics of –able includes two different meanings. One is the ability to do something, eg.,
breakable, thinkable. Another is the tendency to do something, eg., agreeable, perishable. The
suffix –ing added to a base word tends to change the word to an adjective in the attributive
position, eg., changing and boring. Another suffix –ous derives adjective from nouns


(tremendous, synonymous) (Nordquist, 2019). The last type of derivational suffixes is adverbial
suffixes. The suffix –wise derives adverbs from nouns, which includes two groups.
Manner/dimension adverbs and viewpoint adverbs are the two subgroups (e.g. edgewise&
Other examples of nominal suffixes: -al, -ance (with its variants –ence/ -ance/-ancy/-
envy), -ant, -ful, -ee, -er, -ing, -tion/ation, -sion, -ure, -ment, -age, -ness, -ism, -th, -y, -ty, -ar, -
or, -ist, -ster, -trix/-trice, -tress/-ess, -sy/-sie
Other examples of verbal suffixes: -ate, -ify, -ize, -ise, -ificate, -fy, -ate
Other examples of adjectival suffixes: -al, -ary, -ed, -ful, -less, -ly, -ic, -ical, -ish, -like, -
ant, -ive, -en
Other examples of adverbial suffixes: -ly, -ily, -ally, -ways


Derivational morpheme, the basic parts of word formation and the rules for their
combination, has gained increasing attention in English research. The knowledge of derivational
morphology includes at least three aspects, labeled: relational, syntactic and distributional.
Relational knowledge means to identify the words which have a complex internal structure and
several words may share a common morpheme. For instance, the word create is related to
creator but me is not related to meter. The second aspect is syntactic knowledge which is
knowing that the suffixes mark words for syntactic category. For instance, regularize is a verb
after adding the derivational suffix–ize to regulate as well as regulation is a noun after adding -
ion to regulate. Distributional knowledge is the principles or constraints on the sequence of
stems and affixes. The suffix –ness has to attach to the adjective instead of a verb. Happiness is
an acceptable form while playness is not (Tyler&Nagy,1987).
The paper began with the background of morphology to explain the importance of
learning morphology. There was a brief explanation of terminology to have a basic knowledge of
morphology and classification of the morphemes would be helpful to distinguish the word
elements. There are three points of analysis in the paper. Under derivational morphology, the
significant knowledge is how a word is formed. It includes derivational prefixes and suffixes. In
grammar, affixes are classified into two categories: class-changing and class-maintaining.
Different prefixes and suffixes have diverse meanings. With these analyses, the aim is to have a
rough understanding of derivational morphology and the category of the derivational
morphology. In my opinion, we must learn the categories of derivational morphology, because
morphology tends to be vital in word formation. In my previous experience, vocabulary is the
primary element in English learning. Morphology is the specific study of the formation of words
and the rules to construct a word. There is no denying that morphology exerts a vital function on
vocabulary learning because if a student has a deep understanding of the way a word is formed,
they will remember it and apply the knowledge to practical learning. As English teachers, we


should teach students the way to study and are responsible to have a systematical learning of
morphology for efficient teaching.

Word count: 2572



Baker, M. 1985: The Mirror Principle and morphosyntactic explanation. Linguistic Inquiry
16, 373-416.

Bauer, L., Lieber, R., & Plag, I. (2013). The Oxford reference guide to English morphology.
Oxford university press.

Hamawand, Z. (2011). Morphology in English: Word formation in

cognitive grammar. London, New York: Continuum.

Hay, J., & Baayen, R.H. (2002). Parsing and productivity. In Booij, G., &van Marle, J. (eds)
Yearbook of Morphology 2001. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic, 203-235.

Remson, L. Y. (2007). Oral Language. Literacy for the New Millennium, ed. By Barbara J.
Guzzetti. Praeger, 2007

Lehrer, A. (1998). Scapes, holics, and thons: the semantics of English combining forms.
American Speech 73, 3-28.

Laws, J. & Ryder, C. (2014). Getting the measure of derivational morphology in adult speech: A
corpus analysis using morphoquantics. University of reading language studies working
papers, vol.6 (2014) 3-17.

Nordquist, R. (2018, December 23). Allomorph Word Forms and Sounds. Retrieved from:

Nordquist, R. (2019, January 14). A List of 26 Common Suffixes in English. Retrieved

from: https://www.thoughtco.com/common-suffixes-in-english-1692725

Pr𝑐́ 𝑖 𝑐́ , T. (2005). Prefixes vs initial combining forms in English: a lexicographic perspective.

International Journal of Lexicography 18, 313-334.

Pr𝑐́ 𝑖 𝑐́ , T. (2008). Suffixes vs final combining forms in English: a lexicographic perspective.

International Journal of Lexicography 21, 1-22.

Stein, G. (2007). A dictionary of English affixes: Their education and meaning Munich: Lincom

Sveuc&ilis&teu, U. Z. (2011). Derivational (affixation). Retrieved from:



Tyler, A. &Nagy, W. (1987). The acquisition of English derivational morphology. Technical

Report No. 407