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Teaching word formation


affixation, suffixation, prefixation, conversion, circumfixing, reduplication, clipping, blending, portmanteau words, compounding

If any of those terms are unfamiliar or little known to you, you should work through the guide to word formation before tackling this section.  You should also have followed the guide to compounding.  The guide to morphology will also introduce you to some key concepts.
If you have been through the guides you will know the major ways in which English makes new words.  If you are unsure whether you know enough, try this test.  (It will open in a new window or tab so just shut it to return.)


Other languages

English makes a good deal of use of affixation (either suffix or prefix attachment), compounding and conversion but less of the other means of word formation.  Other languages do things differently and you should know how your learners' languages do things.  This will help you plan what to teach and explain things clearly.

Here's a run-down of some major language groups and a little about what they do in this area.

Languages What they do
(and other Semitic languages such as Hebrew and some languages of north-east Africa)
Arabic words take their form from their function.  Words have what are called triliteral roots.  For example, from the three consonants K, T and B, Arabic makes a large number of connected words by the insertion of prefixes, suffixes and infixes:
KaTaBa, he wrote, yaKTuB, let him write, KiTaB, book, maKTaB, office, KaTiB, clerk and so on.
Arabic has 28 consonants and that figure means there are 3000 or so combinations of them available to generate words (but not all of them can be used for phonological reasons).  In theory, any triliteral root can be expanded to make 40-odd connected words.
The process of affixation will not, therefore, be mysterious to Arabic speakers.
The problem arises with compounding because that is an alien concept to speakers of Semitic languages, a fact which causes translators all kinds of problems.  Compounds are usually rendered as paraphrases along the lines of an X that is used for Y or a thing that is beyond another thing etc.
Simple conversion is very rare and instances in English will cause some confusion, for example, using drink as a noun and a verb.
Chinese languages Modern Standard Chinese is an isolating language with a very large number of monosyllables.  Affixation will be an almost wholly unfamiliar concept to speakers of these languages.
Compounding is a different matter and the concept will be familiar (even if the way it is done is very different).  For example, in Cantonese, the words great and space may be combined to render the concept of emptiness.
Conversion exists but is normally signalled by a particle.
Slavonic languages including Russian, Polish, Ukrainian, Czech, Slovak etc. Slavonic languages are synthetic in the sense that grammatical meaning is often expressed through affixation.  It is somewhat rarer to make new words by affixation but the concept will not be wholly strange.
Compounding is common in these languages and the concept will be familiar; noun-noun, adjective-noun and noun-verb compounds are all frequent.
Conversion is rare.
Germanic languages including, e.g., Dutch, German, Afrikaans and English.
Also Scandinavian languages including Finnish (in this case)
These languages use both affixation and compounding to make new words.  There will be few conceptual difficulties for speakers of these languages.
Conversion is rare with changes in word-class usually being signalled by affixation.
German in particular is an agglutinating language which forms new words by simply combining others.
Italic languages including French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian etc.
Also Greek (in this case)
Compounding and affixation are common in these languages, e.g., in Italian ferrovia (railway) is formed from ferro (iron) + via (way).  In Greek, the word for weekend (a compound in English, too) is formed by compounding the words for Saturday and Sunday.
There should be no conceptual difficulty but there is a tendency for learners with these first languages to guess and render Latin- or Greek-derived words in English in a familiar way (to them).
These languages are usually left headed so it the first item in a compound which determines meaning and word class.  In French, e.g., a timbre postage is a type of timbre (stamp) not a type of postage but in English, a right-headed language, the determining item comes to the right (postage stamp).
Because these are inflected languages, conversion without a signalling suffix is rare.
Japanese and Korean Japanese and Korean both have a tendency to agglutinate and uses affixation (often only suffixes) to change word class so, for example, a noun may be converted into its adjective by affixing the adjective-forming suffix.  The concept is not alien.
Un-signalled conversion is alien.
Compounding, too, is common in both languages.


Issues for learners and teachers

Many speakers of European languages will not face huge conceptual problems with word formation in English but those whose first languages operate very differently will.
That said, English word formation phenomena do present considerable problems for all learners and here are some of them.

Here are some examples of the most frequently encountered issues.  Think about why these issues cause problems for learners and then click on the eye to check.



There are over 20 suffixes used to form a noun and a dozen or so to form an adjective.  There are around five different prefixes which make negatives and another three used to reverse an action.
A cooker is not a person who cooks, a doctor doesn't doct and what on earth does a scholar do?
-cian, -tion, -cion, -sion, -sian, -xion and -cean are all pronounced shun.  We drop the 'e' when we add -tion to evolve and (in British English) we double the consonant in marvellous.
English almost never stresses an affix but suffixes usually affect word stress so we get the predictable shifts on economy, economic and economical but also the unpredictable photograph, photographer and photographic.
The suffixes -able and -ible don't change word stress normally (adapt, adaptable) but sometimes they do: admire, admirable, demonstrate, demonstrable.
A green house and a greenhouse are differently stressed.
Is it round up, round-up or roundup?


Meaning and Use

There are over 20 suffixes used to form a noun and a dozen or so to form an adjective.  There are around 5 different prefixes which make negatives and another three used to reverse an action.
A word like unpredictability contains two prefixes, two suffixes and a bound base.  A word like pre-teach is much easier to understand than predict.
A salesperson sells things but a doorman does not 'door'.


Teaching word formation

Most coursebooks cover the areas of both affixation and compounding but not until B1 level in most instances.
See, for example, Soars, L & J (2012) New Headway Intermediate Student’s Book 4th Edition Oxford University Press, Unit 5.  (In this unit, both prefixes, altering meaning, and suffixes, altering word class, are considered.  Some might think that's too much for a presentation but fine for a revision exercise.)

There are some significant issues to do with how much more productive and useful some affixes are than others and these are covered in the section in the guide to morphology to do with teaching implications.  This is repeated here so if you have already followed that guide, move swiftly on.

English is right-headed so the second part of a compound determines:
    meaning: a doorman is a type of man, not a type of door
    word class: a pushbutton is a noun for a type of button, not a verb for a type of pushing
If you have learners whose first language is left headed (as, for example, most Italic languages are), you need to be alert to this comprehension problem.
When introducing the concepts of word formation in English, it makes sense to start with those morphemes whose meaning is the most transparent.  They also tend to be the most productive and, therefore, the most useful.
So, start with simple affixes which have a near one-to-one relationship between form and meaning:
Suffixes like: able, ness, ity, ize/ise are good candidates.
Prefixes such as un, re, pre are also good candidates.
frequency and usefulness
are, of course, considerations to bear in mind when deciding on any teaching of lexis and it is sensible to exclude noun-making suffixes such as th and adjective-forming suffixes such as esque because they are either wholly or nearly fully unproductive in English.  In fact, singling out th as a noun-former at all is probably a waste of time.
It makes more sense to focus on:
    Noun-forming suffixes like ness, er, ity, eer, ist rather than ant, dom, ery, hood etc.
    Adjective-forming suffixes like able, less, ful, ish, ist rather than ous, ic, ian.
    The adverb-forming ly rather than wards or wise.
    The verb-forming ise/ize rather than fy, en.
Phonology and meaning are the two to focus on because etymology will only be useful in real time for learners with a narrow range of European first languages.
It is, for example, predictable from the syllable number and stress pattern (two syllables or more, stress not at the end) that the verbs from computer, brutal, central, economy, familiar, national, personal etc. will all end in -ize or -ise.  The constraints on the use of en in this function are much less easily applied but phonologically, for example, deriving quieten from quiet is not too challenging once you spot the /t/ ending.
Already-negative adjectives (like ugly, vile, hateful, odious, helpless, antagonistic) do not take antonym-making prefixes.
We can't have *unugly, *unvile, *dishateful, *unhelpless etc.
Positive adjectives (such as kind, comfortable, generous, helpful, likeable) do take antonym-making prefixes.
We can have unkind, dislikeable, unhelpful etc.
This is easy to grasp and the knowledge will help learners avoid a good deal of potential error.
comprehension vs. production
Armed with a knowledge of the function of common affixes, learners can significantly increase their receptive lexicon.
Production is harder, of course, but opting for the most productive affixes when speculating on word formation will usually pay dividends.  If you want to make the opposites of these adjectives, what would you choose?
    cut, read, quiet, easy, lived-in, organised, classified, worried
Participle adjectives very frequently form their opposites with the simple un.
Nouns formed from adjectives are overwhelmingly made with ness (and less frequently ity) so that's the way to bet if you want to form nouns from adjectives from, e.g.,
    delightful, malicious, rocky, thrifty, dark, clever
all take the ness suffix when forming a noun.
If the adjective ends in able or ible, opt for ity:
    readable, drinkable, editable, pronounceable, describable etc.

Here are some other issues and ideas to consider:

  • For some learners, the morphological patterns in the target language are intrinsically interesting and they are happy to search out patterns of meaning given, for example, a text containing prefixed or suffixed words from which the meanings can be identified or inferred.  Almost any text will contain compounds but advertising language and news reports are rich sources.
  • An understanding of word class is, of course, fundamental to learning any language.  Learners can, for example, be given a text which contains language such as

He was walking crabwise along the ledge, climbing upwards and holding on tightly to the rope.  He thought to himself, "This is foolish insanity, I'm not a mountaineer and not particularly heroic, either."  However, the satisfaction and happiness he felt on finally reaching the summit lessened his moodiness.

There are tasks that can be set with texts like this:
a) to match suffix to word class and draw a table classifying them
b) to reconstruct the text substituting the words and word classes by choosing to use words with different affixes or removing them.  Synonym dictionaries are helpful.  Like this:

He walked sideways along the ledge climbing energetically and holding glue-like to the rope.  He thought to himself, "This is idiotic madness, I'm not a climber or particularly courageous, either.  However, the contentment and pleasure he felt on eventually reaching the summit heightened his mood.

  • Prefixation can be handled similarly.  Take short texts like:

He thought it was impossible to re-do the work and he explained to his co-workers why
She was unhappy that her ex-husband had decided to rejoin the navy
He defrosted the pre-cooked chicken he got from the supermarket in time but miscalculated how long it would take to reheat

The teaching points are a) to understand the effect of the prefixes, b) to see what other prefixes might be substituted and what effect on meaning they have and then c) to get the learners to compose similar texts for their colleagues to investigate.
What happens, for example, if you remove the prefixes from the first and second sentences?  What substitutions and removals can you make in the third sentence?

  • Compounds can be treated in ways which are similar to handling the teaching of collocation (for obvious reasons):
    a) matching exercises with words from the same field are helpful in terms of making them memorable.  You can start by brainstorming things you need for school (or work, a holiday, whatever) and then go on to focus on compounds with something like:
note sharpener
school suit
pencil coat
reading book
track book
lab glasses
course bag

b) Compounds can sometimes be chained and patterned to help people who like graphics (as most of us do).
Learners can be asked to make their own chains starting with certain common components.
Start, e.g., with the word film and see what compounds you can elicit, teach or get your learners to discover (in dictionaries or on-line corpuses).  You may get something like:
film compounds
Then take each outlier in turn and assign one to each group of learners with the task of researching further compounds so they come up for the word industry with something like:
industry compounds
Each group gets a different word.
You can of course, repeat the activity with words from a different 'daughter' chart ad infinitum.
The exercise works well with writing tasks based around the main topic words in the centres of the charts.

Related guides
morphology for an overview of underlying theory
word formation for the overview of the analysis
word stress for more on considerations of word stress
compounding a guide to a special type of word formation

If you have recently taught a successful lesson in this area or have other ideas to share, why not send the materials to ELT ConcourseClick here to see how.

Campbell, GL., 1995, Concise Compendium of the World's Languages, London: Routledge
Swan, M and Smith, B (Eds), 2001, Learner English: 2nd Edition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press