Chapter 6: Morphology- Word formation

The grammar of words: word building

Chapter Preview

How are new words formed?
What kinds of new words can be formed?
What does word formation tell us about the grammar of words?
What does the grammar of words tell us about the grammar of language?

6.1 Introduction

Speakers keep their languages alive and usable by changing the vocabulary of their languages (and, less easily, their grammar) according to what they need to express.

Language users do this in three major ways. One way is to simply import a useful word from another language, just like people import useful products from other countries. This is how an Italian word like pizza or a Japanese word like karaoke became English words. Words that are circulated in this way among languages are called borrowings. Secondly, language users can change the meaning of words already in the language, to make them mean different things. The English word sad, for example, is currently used to mean something similar to ‘pathetic‘, besides keeping its meaning of ‘unhappy’. In this new use, a sad joke is not a joke that makes you cry, but a joke that doesn’t make you laugh.  A third way of creating new words in a language involves manipulating not just their meaning but also their grammar, by disassembling the morphemes from the words in which they appear, and reassembling them into new words. This is what word formation is about. Knowing that a morpheme –er means ‘someone who Vs’, as we saw in the previous chapter, we can safely create a brand-new noun emailer to mean ‘someone who emails’, and use it straight away to say that My friend Janice is a compulsive emailer. Speakers of English will have no difficulty understanding what this new word means, even if they have never heard it before, given their knowledge of the meaning and the grammar of the morphemes making up this newly-minted word. Whether the word will ever become accepted in English is another matter.

This chapter deals with several processes that allow language users to build new words, often called word formation processes in the literature, with special emphasis on processes that involve the grammatical make-up of words.

6.2 Word formation

Word formation concerns the processes that allow us to create new words with grammatical resources already available within a language. These processes must of course obey the rules of the language, i.e. its grammar. The word emailer is a well-formed word of English, as are other possible words like downloader or rebooter, because they follow the same word-formation rule of English that allows words like writer or daydreamer.

Activity 6.1

Can you explain why this ad for an entertainment outlet is an example of creative language use?
Never Unfun

Assuming, as we did in the preceding chapter, that words are made up of morphemes, word formation involves a patterning of morphemes within words, whose rules we can find out. Let’s use some data to see what we mean by morpheme patterning.


room rooms *sroom *roosm
darkroom *roomdark darkrooms *darksroom
unhappy *happyun happily *lyhappy
commit commitment commitments *commitsment
songbird birdsong *unments *mently

We observe that:

  • Morphemes must occur in certain positions within a word. For example, the {plural} morpheme in rooms, spelt –s, must occur at the end of the word, not at the beginning (*sroom) or in the middle of it (*roosm).
  • The word class to which lexical morphemes belong is important for their ordering within complex words. The forms darkroom, songbird and birdsong are well-formed, whereas the form *roomdark is not.
  • Certain bound forms must occur before others. The form commitments is acceptable, whereas the form *commitsment is not.
  • Bound forms cannot be combined with one another. Whereas birdsong, with two free forms, is well-formed, neither *unments nor *mently are.

Observations like these help us tell apart different types of morphemes, which in turn helps us tell apart different word formation processes.

There are two players involved in word formation processes. If we think of building words as we think of, say, building a wall, we need the items that we are going to put together (morphemes, or bricks of various types) and we need a way of putting them together (rules, or a building plan). Attempting to fit morphemes together at random won’t result in words, just like throwing bricks around or heaping them together won’t build a wall. We need both building blocks and constraints to build walls and words properly.

In word formation, the building blocks are of two types, and so are the constraints.

The building blocks

  • Stem: a morpheme, or a word, to which other morphemes can attach.
  • Affix: a morpheme that attaches only to a stem.

How can these two concepts help us explain some of the observations above? We can see, from the data in (4.1), that the words commitment and happily are well-formed, whereas *mently is not. Using the concepts just introduced, we can now explain why this is the case. Both commitment and happily are complex words, i.e. words comprising more than one morpheme. Both words also comprise a stem and an affix: commitment comprises the stem commit to which the affix –ment attaches, while happily comprises the stem happy to which the affix –ly attaches. In contrast, if we treat *mently as a complex word, it seems to comprise two affixes (-ment and –ly) attached to one another, rather than a stem and an affix. But our definition of affix says that affixes only attach to stems, not to other affixes.

Activity 6.2

Go back to our data in (6.1), and do two things.
First, decide whether each of the building blocks in rooms, unhappy, darkrooms, songbird and *unments is a stem or an affix.
Then, with the help of this decision, explain why rooms, unhappy, darkrooms, and songbird are well-formed, but *unments is not.

Activity 6.3

Knowing that un- and -able are both affixes in words like uncomfortable, explain whether the underlined word in the following sentence is a counterexample to the rule that affixes can attach only to stems:
Small children are quite unable to keep still for long periods of time.

There is another technical term used to refer to the fundamental stem, as it were, of a word. In the word commitments, this stem is commit, the basic word from which the complex word commitments is built. We then say that the root of the word commitments is commit. The root of a complex word is itself a word from which all affixes have been removed. We can visualise this word formation process as follows, where the arrow indicates the result of word building:

root commit + affix -ment → commitment
stem commitment + affix –s →   commitments

This example shows that a root can be a stem, but that not all stems are roots.

Activity 6.4

How many stems does the word disgraceful contain?
Write them down and explain how you reasoned to find them.

The constraints

  • Hierarchy: the internal structure of complex words is hierarchical.
  • Well-formedness: each step in word formation must produce a well- formed word of the language.

These two constraints help us make sense of word formation. Going back to our analogy of building a wall, they reflect the commonsense observation that walls are built layer by layer, and that each brick added to a wall in fact builds a small wall of its own by fitting neatly among its neighbours. We follow a similar reasoning with word building: complex words are built up step by step from stems and/or affixes, and each intermediate word must itself be a well- formed word. As shown in example (6.2), a word like commitments is formed by attaching the affix -ment to the root/stem commit, forming the word commitment, a new well-formed stem to which -s in turn attaches. In addition, knowing that dark is an Adj and room is a noun in the complex word darkroom, and that Adj precedes N in English, we can explain why darkroom is well-formed whereas *roomdark is not.

6.3 Major word formation processes

The most productive word formation processes in English are affixation, compounding and conversion, the ones that we deal with in greater detail in this chapter.

In morphology, productivity means the degree to which a word- formation process is used in a language. We might use an analogy of productive worker bees – the most productive worker bee is the one that makes the most honey. So also the most productive word formation rules are the ones that are used most frequently to create new words in a language or language variety. Generally, productivity is directly proportional to compositionality, the degree to which the meaning of a new word is predictable from the meanings of its constitutive morphemes. That is, “more productive” entails “more compositional”, and vice versa. For example, an affix like {plural} –s is extremely productive, in that new nouns in English can be made plural by using it. It is also compositional, in that it consistently contributes the meaning ‘more than oneto the new word. If emailer is a noun, then emailers is its plural.

However, we should note that compositionality is not an absolute matter. It is not the case that processes, or words meanings, are either compositional or non-compositional. Rather, compositionality is understood as a cline: at one end of this cline, we find transparent word meanings which are easily deduced from the meanings of the morphemes that make up the word; at the other end of this cline, there are opaque meanings which are not easily inferred from the morphemes making up the word. We will see below several examples of degree in compositionality.

6.3.1 Affixation

Affixation is one of the most productive word formation processes in English. In affixation, an affix attaches to a stem. All the words in the sentence Teachers dislike yawning students are affixed words. We can analyse affixes based on two criteria: according to their distribution, and according to their meaning.

Distribution of affixes

We said above that affixes must attach to a stem, but we did not clarify the order of attachment of stem and affix. We now add that there are different types of affix, according to their distribution. For example:

  • Prefixes precede the stem.
  • Suffixes follow the stem.

We need this clarification in order to explain why the two words unhappy and happily in (6.1) are well-formed, whereas *happyun and *lyhappy are not: un- is a prefix, and –ly is a suffix. That is, un- must precede the stem to which it attaches, while -ly must follow its stem. Note the use of a dash following or preceding these affixes. This is essential to make clear whether we’re referring to a prefix or a suffix.

These two types of affix account for affixation processes in English. Other languages have additional types of affix. For example, both Bontoc, a language spoken in the Philippines, and Tukang Besi, an Austronesian language spoken in Indonesia, have infixes, affixes that appear in the middle of a stem. Malay, meanwhile, has circumfixes, affixes that surround a stem, in addition to prefixes and suffixes, as illustrated in Figure 6.1.
Adj/N Infix
fikas ‘strong’ fumikas ‘to be strong’ -um-
fusul ‘enemy’ fumusul ‘to be an enemy’ -um-
Tukang Besi Infix
to’oge ‘big’ tumo’oge ‘biggest’ um-
tinti ‘run’ tuminti ‘running’ um-
Adj N Circumfix
selamat ‘safe’ keselamatan ‘safety’ ke-___an
Figure 6.1. Examples of affixes in Bontoc, Tukang Besi and Malay

Activity 6.5

Do any of your other languages have infixes or circumfixes?

Meaning of affixes

According to meaning, affixes can be of two types.

  • Derivational affixes form a new word with a new lexical meaning.
  • Inflectional affixes form a variant of the word they attach to, adding a grammatical meaning.

You will notice that this difference in the kinds of meanings conveyed by affixes parallels the difference that we discussed in the previous chapter, concerning lexical and grammatical words. Like lexical words which express ideas/concepts, derivational affixes have semantic content. Derivational affixes are so named because when they attach to a root/stem, they derive a new word, i.e. a word with a new lexical meaning. In contrast, inflectional affixes, like grammatical words, carry grammatical meaning. They mark grammatical properties such as tense, number, person and case, and do not change the lexical meaning of the words they attach to.

This difference between lexical and grammatical meaning explains why certain words are regularly given an entry of their own in dictionaries, whereas other words share the same entry. For example, the words commit and commitment, though related, are in fact two words, with two different lexical meanings that entitle each to a separate dictionary entry. In contrast, inflected words (e.g. rooms) are listed under the same entry as their root, given that they represent grammatical variants of the same word.

In derivational affixation (or derivation, for short), the word class of the stem and the word class of the derived word may or may not be the same. This means that derivational affixes may be class-maintaining or class- changing. Consider these two words:

(6.3) unhappy       commitment

Affixing un– to the Adj happy derives a new Adj (unhappy); un– is a class- maintaining derivational affix. Affixing –ment to the verb commit also derives a new word (commitment), but this time the lexical class of the derived word changes to a noun; –ment is a class-changing derivational affix.

Inflectional affixes, as we saw in (6.1), change the grammatical meaning of the words they attach to. Consequently, inflectional affixation (or inflection) is always class-maintaining. For example, inflectional affixation with plural -s changes the grammatical meaning of the singular noun room to plural rooms, but the lexical category remains unchanged. Both room and rooms are nouns. Similarly, affixation with -ed changes the grammatical meaning of walk from present tense to past tense walked, but the lexical category remains unchanged. Both walk and walked are verbs. If we assume that lexical meaning is more central than grammatical meaning, we can see why inflectional affixes regularly follow derivational affixes in the formation of words. One example is the word commitments, discussed in section 6.2 above.

Using the two criteria of distribution and meaning, we can distinguish English affixes in the following way:






Figure 6.2. Types of affix in English

Figure 6.2 shows that the derivational affixes of English can be either prefixes or suffixes. For example, un- in unhappily is a derivational prefix, while -ly in the same word is a derivational suffix. In contrast, the inflectional affixes of English are all suffixes. In fact, contemporary English has only eight inflectional affixes: four bound to verbs, two bound to nouns, and two bound to adjectives.

Activity 6.6

Can you identify the eight inflectional affixes of contemporary English?

Other languages, however, have inflectional prefixes as well as suffixes. One example is Swahili (the major African lingua franca). In many languages, nouns must belong to different grammatical classes, called genders. You may be familiar with gender from languages like French, which has two (masculine and feminine) or German, which has three (masculine, feminine and neuter). In these languages, gender is marked by suffixes. Swahili has several different genders (e.g. for ‘human’, ‘other living things’, ‘liquids’, etc.) and all are marked with inflectional prefixes. As in other gendered languages, adjectives qualifying a noun must show the same gender inflection as the noun. Here is one example from Swahili with a noun and an adjective for the gender sometimes called “Class 6” (in Swahili, the adjective follows the noun):

Figure 6.3. Example of gender inflection in Swahili


N Adj Inflectional prefix
tunda ‘fruit’ zuri ‘good’ ma-
matunda mazuri  ‘good fruit’


Affix identification

In section 5.4.3, we listed three criteria to identify morphemes, namely sound, grammar and meaning. The same criteria can of course be used to identify different affixes. Let’s see how the three criteria apply to the affix -ly in the words sharply, kindly and happily. If all three criteria are obeyed, then we are dealing with the same affix. If any one criterion is not met, then we are dealing with different affixes.

  • Sound. In all three words, the affix is pronounced the same way, [li] (conventions to represent pronunciation are dealt with in the next chapter). In other cases, the pronunciation of an affix may be predictable by rule. Predictable variation of this kind also satisfies the sound criterion.
  • Grammar. The affix attaches to the same stem class, in the same position (as a prefix or as a suffix), and the lexical category of the resulting word must be the same for all the words under consideration. In this case, -ly is suffixed to an Adj to form an Adv in all three words.
  • Meaning. The affix establishes a regular meaning relationship between the stem and the word resulting from the affixation. In this case, the meaning of the newly derived word can be paraphrased as ‘in a manner’, where the Adj replaces the blank. For example, sharply means ‘in a sharp manner’.

Note that the meaning paraphrase must contain the stem of the word, in this case the adjectives sharp, kind and happy, in order to make the meaning relationship between the stem and the derived word absolutely clear. We can now generalise our observations about the formation of the words sharply, kindly and happily to all other words containing the same affix by means of a shorthand rule, like this:

(6.4)     Adj + –ly → Adv, ‘in a _ manner’

In rule notation of this kind, the plus sign represents sequential ordering of morphemes, and the arrow indicates the result of that ordering. This rule summarises all the information that we need, in order to identify the affix –ly. You can use this rule to check for yourself that sharply contains the same affix as words like brightly, lightly or beautifully.

The observations and analysis that we developed in this section of course apply to any complex word formed through affixation, not just the three adverbs under discussion here. Otherwise, our conclusions would be useless in a scientific account of language.

Activity 6.7

Use rule notation to account for the formation of the words unhappy and commitment. Then find three other words that follow the same rules.

6.3.2 Compounding

Affixation involves attaching one or more affixes to a stem. In contrast, compounding involves attaching a stem to another stem. In the following sentence, the words in italics are compounded words:

(6.5) Janice spilled the salad dressing on her brand-new laptop.

Notice that spelling is irrelevant for the identification of compounds. Compounds may be spelt with hyphens as in brand-new, without hyphens as in salad dressing, or as single words as in laptop. What is crucial is the meaning relationship between the stems making up the compound word.

Form of compounds

Each of the stems in a compound is itself a word of the language, and therefore belongs to a particular word class. However, the word class of each stem does not necessarily correspond to the word class of the compound word itself, as shown in the table below:



Word class of stems

Word class of compound

hand + bag


N + N


pick + pocket


V + N


pull + over


V + P


sea + sick


N + Adj


bare + foot


Adj + N


run + down


V + Adv


spoon + feed


N + V


over + shadow


P + V


in + to


P + P


Figure 6.4. Word classes of compounds and their stems

Figure 6.4 shows that the word class of the compound word may be the same as the word class of one of its stems, often the right-hand stem (as in pickpocket, seasick, spoonfeed, and overshadow), but that this need not always be the case (as in barefoot, rundown and pullover). There is wide variability in the correspondence of word class between stems and compound, and it is this flexibility that contributes to the lively productivity of compounding as a word-formation process.

Languages like English allow simple juxtaposition of stems to form a compound, as in the examples above. This is the commonest compounding process in these languages. But other compounding processes exist, such as linking stems by means of grammatical words as in mother of pearl, chief of staff or black and white. Examples are expressions like a mother of pearl necklace or a black and white photograph. Other languages prefer linking stems in this way, for example Romance languages like French or Portuguese. What’s important is that the words so linked, whether by simple juxtaposition or through the use of linking words, acquire a specific meaning of their own, that is different from the meaning of each of the stems that make up the compound. Compound words, like derived words, have dedicated entries in dictionaries.

Activity 6.8

We saw in Activity 6.4 that the word disgraceful contains more than one stem. This being so, explain why this word is not a compound.

Meaning of compounds

A compound word encapsulates a specific concept. The meaning of many compounds is non-compositional and may lie anywhere from transparent to opaque on a compositionality cline. What this means is that we cannot predict the exact meaning of a compound by assuming a particular relationship between the stems that build it. Take, for example, the compounds meatball and handball. They both have the structure N + N → N, and they both mean something that is related to meat and ball in the first case, and to hand and ball in the second. But whereas meatball means ‘a ball made of meat’, handball doesn’t mean ‘a ball made of hand(s)’. Similarly, handbag means ‘a bag to be carried in your hand’, whereas handball does not mean ‘a ball to be carried in your hand’.

Activity 6.9

Explain why this is an example of language play:

If olive oil is made by pressing olives, how is baby oil made?

As illustrated above, the meaning of some compounds is opaque because of the idiosyncratic relationships between the stems forming the compound. But compound opacity can also result from meaning shifts in the stems of a compound. The compound blackboard, for example, was created at a time when all school boards were black, i.e. the stem black was used in its literal sense. Nowadays, however, we can talk about green blackboards and even about white blackboards (although the word whiteboard has been coined for the latter), without feeling that we are being paradoxical about the colour of the board. The reason is that the stem black no longer designates the colour ‘black’ in this compound. Together with the stem board, it identifies a particular kind of object instead.

Despite the opaque meaning that the first stem contributes to these compounds, there is a sense in which compounds like blackboard or darkroom do have a transparent meaning, in that a blackboard is a board, and a darkroom is a room. The same cannot be said of the meaning of compounds like pickpocket or pullover. In compounds of the former type, the second stem is central to the meaning of the whole compound. We can paraphrase the meaning of compounds like handbag or shoulder-bag by saying that they are bags of a particular kind. Similarly, we can paraphrase the meanings of compounds like seasick and car-sick by saying that they both involve being sick in some way. Compounds of this type are called headed compounds: the second stem is the head of the compound, and the first is its modifier. Two properties can be observed among these compounds, relating to:

  • Meaning: the modifier narrows down the meaning of the head.
  • Word class: the compound word belongs to the same word class as its head.

By these two properties, the meaning of a headed compound can be said to refer to a kind-of the meaning of its head. For example, a handbag is a kind of bag (for more on kind-of relations between word meanings, see section 9.5.2). The meaning of these compounds tends to lie on the transparent segment of the compositionality cline, compared to the meaning of non-headed compounds like pickpocket or pullover.

The productivity of compounding is borne out by the frequency with which so-called long compounds are formed. Long compounds are expressions formed by successive compounding of other compounds (this kind of compounding is an example of recursion. In English, 3-word and 4-word compounds are very common. Two examples are, with their stems numbered for ease of reference:


a. vehicle breakdown service
1 2 3
b. professional children’s entertainment troupe
1 2 3 4

Because long compounds are formed by compounding other compounds, we need to take account of hierarchy in their formation. Often, decisions about the order in which the stems attach to one another result in quite different interpretations of the meaning of the final compound. We would all agree that example (6.6a) can only mean ‘a service dealing with vehicle breakdown’, not ‘a breakdown service for vehicles’. That is, (6.6a) is formed by attaching stems 1 and 2 to each other, and then stem 3. Similarly, (6.6b) can only mean ‘a professional troupe for children’s entertainment’, not ‘an entertainment troupe made up of professional children’). That is, (6.6b) is formed by attaching stems 3 and 4 to each other, followed by stems 2 and 1, in that order.

But how would we parse a long compound like Singapore noodles soup? Do we mean ‘a kind of soup with noodles that is served in Singapore’, or ‘a soup containing Singapore noodles’? The two interpretations can be made clear using square brackets for the stems that are parsed together, like this:


a. [Singapore] [noodles soup]

b. [Singapore noodles] [soup]

The choice of interpretation may well depend on what we understand a “concept” to be, in the sense discussed above for the meaning of compounds. Singapore noodles may be a concept for certain speakers, in which case the parsing in (6.7a) is the one that immediately comes to mind. For other speakers, the compound may be ambiguous, i.e. mean two different things according to the alternative analyses in (6.7).

An illuminating episode concerning compound parsing involved one of the authors of this book as main character. As a newcomer to Asia, I saw a poster describing a red dragon boat team. My first reaction was to wonder “What colour is the dragon??” Would you have any trouble assigning a colour to the dragon too, or would you find the issue irrelevant? The explanation for my confusion is that, for me, dragon boat was not a compound concept, so I didn’t know whether to parse red dragon first, or dragon boat first. Think for yourself how you would parse a long compound like kitchen towel rack, which is always ambiguous because there is no single “basic” compound concept involved in its formation.

Activity 6.10

Do you find these long compounds ambiguous? Explain why you think so.

busy family schedule

toy car factory

wooden door latch

Here is a schematic summary of the word types discussed so far:

Figure 6.5. Summary of simple and complex words

6.3.3 Conversion

The last of the three highly productive word formation process that we wish to discuss here is conversion. Conversion involves a change in the word class of a word without any change in the form of the word. Examples of converted words appear in italics below:

(6.8) If you bookmark your favourite websites, they’ll cookie every download.

Used originally as nouns, the words bookmark and cookie are currently used also as verbs. The converse is true of the word download, which started life as a verb and is now used also as a noun. The productivity of conversion is seen in the vast number of identical word forms that serve as different word classes. A few examples include judge, fast, party, impact, and email. Out of context, the word class of converted words cannot be determined. In English, virtually any word can be converted to a noun. This is why we can talk about the rich, a have-not, or the whys, ifs and buts of an argument.

Conversion differs from both affixation and compounding in that new words are formed not through the addition of morphemes (whether affixes or stems) but simply by changing their word class. Because of this, conversion adds new simple words to the language, from other simple words, whereas affixation and compounding add complex words.

When dealing with word formation processes, it may sometimes be useful to find out the original word class of a word. Etymology (from the Greek etymon, ‘true meaning’ and logos, ‘science’) deals with the historical evolution of word meanings. Any good dictionary, such as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) or the Merriam-Webster, for British and American uses of English, respectively, will provide this information. Incidentally, a lot of people think that the original meaning of words is their ‘true meaning’, as the Greek word above suggests. If so, we would all be very wrong in our current use of many words. Take nice, for example. At the time English imported this word from Latin through French in the Middle Ages, it mean ‘ignorant, foolish’ – certainly not how we use this word today.

6.4 Other word formation processes

We now discuss briefly four other word formation processes that are common in various languages. All of them share one characteristic that sets them apart from the three major processes discussed so far: they all shorten words.

6.4.1 Backformation

Backformation is so named because it is the opposite of affixation: it involves removing from a word a part of it that is perceived as an affix. The word is taken “back”, as it were, to its stem “form”.

The interesting feature of backformed words is that the supposed affix is in fact not an affix at all, and there is therefore no stem to go back to. By analogy with other legitimately affixed words of the language, backformation in fact creates a new word. One classic example of backformation will help explain how it works. The word television was created as-is to designate what we all know it to mean. By analogy with pairs of words like supervision-supervise, revision-revise, the word television was (wrongly) assumed to be a derived word too, and the new verb televise was backformed from it. Many backformed words create verbs from nouns in similar ways. Examples include hawk from hawker, edit from editor, and electrocute from electrocution.

Backformation isn’t always clear-cut, and at times may cause hesitation in the use of certain word forms. For example, when you find your bearings do you orientate or orient yourself? And are you then orientated or oriented?

6.2.2 Clipping

In contrast to backformation, clipping simply cuts a word short, without reference to morphological structure. Examples of clipped words include exam from examination, maths from mathematics, and pub from public house. Many students taking English Language refer to their course as Elang. Many of us surf the net rather than the internet, and ride in cars rather than motorcars. These examples show that clipping can affect any part of the original word, its beginning, end or middle. The words fridge and flu, from refrigerator and influenza, for example, retain the middle, while clipping off the beginning and end of the words.

Activity 6.11

Can you explain the language play in the sign below, painted on the side of an electrician’s van?

Let us remove your shorts

6.4.3 Acronymy

Acronymy involves using the initial letters of a sequence of words or morphemes to form a new word. We mentioned the word television above, as the name of a familiar object, but the likelihood is that you don’t watch television, you watch its acronym TV instead. Other examples of acronyms are KL for Kuala Lumpur, MMR for (vaccination against) measles, mumps, rubella, DOS for disk operating system, or UNESCO for United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation.

These examples in fact conflate two types of acronyms. Some, like KL, are pronounced by the names of the letters that compose them, whereas others, like UNESCO, can be pronounced as a word. The former are sometimes called initialisms, whereas the latter are acronyms proper. The word CD- ROM is a mixture of both, its first part an initialism and its second part an acronym. Words like PhD (Philosophy Doctor) or radar (radio detecting and ranging) are also taken as acronyms, although they both take two initial letters from one of their words, rather than just one (“Ph” from Philosophy and “ra” from radio).

Activity 6.12

In Singapore, the names of most expressways are shortened in the following way (all shortenings are read as initialisms).
Bukit Timah Expressway BKE
Kranji Expressway KJE
Pan-Island Expressway PIE
Seletar Expressway SLE

1 . Can you find the rule for these shortenings?

2. Now try to predict the shortenings for the following expressways:

Central Expressway

Tampines Expressway

3. Think about naming practices of this kind in your own country, for roads, institutions, services, etc. Any interesting examples?

Once acronyms become words in their own right, they behave like ordinary words, exhibiting the features of the word class to which they are assigned. We can thus pluralise nouns like radar and CD-ROM, to talk about radars and CD-ROMs, respectively. Spelling, particularly of proper acronyms, also normalises to lowercase letters. This is the case for radar, as it is for scuba and laser, from self-contained underwater breathing apparatus and light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation, respectively.

These examples make it easy to understand why acronymy is an economical way of using words, and why, therefore, acronyms are extremely common in any media where speed of communication is seen as desirable, e.g. chatrooms, email, instant messaging systems. Other recent examples of acronyms include SARS for severe acute respiratory syndrome, DVD for digital video disc, URL for uniform resource locators and SMS for short message service.

Activity 6.13

  1. Collect a file of commonly used acronyms that you use on email or when messaging your friends.
  2. Make a list of acronyms used in the news (either on TV/radio or in print).

6.4.4 Blending

A blend can be seen as the compounding of clipped words, in that it takes segments from words and joins them together in a new word that retains meaning characteristics from the original words. The word smog, for example, is a blend of smoke and fog, and means a ‘blend’ of smoke and fog. Similarly, brunch is a blend of breakfast and lunch, a modem is a blend of a modulator and demodulator, while a dramedy blends drama and comedy.

Other examples of blends are the names by which local varieties of languages are known. Examples of labels involving English include Hinglish (Hindi English), Japlish (Japanese English), Swenglish (Swedish English), and Spanglish (Spanish English). These blends reflect the dual contribution of their two referents to form the language variety in question. Within this set of labels, the word Singlish is also a blend, although its first clipping refers to a country (Singapore) rather than a language. The same applies to Manglish (Malaysian English), the variety of English spoken in Malaysia.

6.5 Morphological analysis of complex words

Several of the word formation processed discussed in this chapter can, and in fact do, operate on the same word. This flexibility is part of the productivity of these word formation processes. We can, for example, find words like ATMs, formed through acronymy and affixation, or like piano-players, where compounding and affixation apply. Let’s now see how complex words like these are analysed.

6.5.1 Interpretation of meanings

Insight into the meaning of a complex word is best gained by means of a paraphrase that explicitly describes its meaning. Paraphrase makes clear not only the grammatical identity of each of the component morphemes in a complex word, but also the grammatical relations among them. As highlighted above, paraphrases must mention the morphemes that constitute a word, so that the meaning of the word becomes clear. For example:




a bag to carry in your hand


with feet that are bare


to fry (something) deeply


not sane


someone who plays the piano


more than one piano-player

Figure 6.6. Examples of paraphrases of complex words

6.5.2 Representation of structure

The internal structure of words may be represented schematically by means of a diagram. In linguistics, diagrams that represent grammatical structure have become known as tree diagrams, although they in fact suggest an upside down, or inverted “tree”, with branches that grow downwards rather than upwards. By analogy with actual trees, tree diagrams have branches, straight lines that link units at successive levels of analysis, and nodes, the points at which the branching take place. Each node of the diagram bears a label, which clearly identifies the relevant unit for the intended analysis. Labelled tree diagrams are commonly used in morphology and in syntax, and their purpose is to enable us to visually grasp the linguistic structure of words, phrases and sentences in terms of their linear and hierarchical organisation.

When drawing a morphological tree diagram, we can work bottom-up, starting at the bottom of the tree, labelling each morpheme in each word, and work our way upwards. Or, we can work top-down, starting with the word as a whole and breaking it down into its constitutive morphemes. In either case, we must bear in mind that word analysis obeys the two constraints stated in section 4.2 above: the analysis reflects the hierarchical step-by-step process of word formation, and must build well-formed words at each stage of word formation.

Here are the complete diagrams for three words, the nouns ATMs and piano-players, and the verb emailed. For these diagrams, we chose, arbitrarily, to use the abbreviations der. and infl. for derivational and inflectional, and an arrow to indicate conversion. Other conventions can be used in diagrams, so long as their meaning is made perfectly clear.


The diagrams (6.9)-(6.11) give us all the information that we need in order to understand the internal structure of the words, in what could be called the words’ formation “history”. The information in brackets is in fact redundant, and is shown here just for clarity. There is no need to repeat, for example as in (6.10), that player is a derived stem: its suffix is already specified as derivational. The diagrams also show that inflection applies last, in all three word formations. All words in the examples are therefore inflected words, regardless of other processes in their formation.

Activity 6.14

Draw labelled tree diagrams for the underlined words in this sentence:
Janice SMSed that her laptop refuses to restart properly.

4.5.3 A note on spelling and morphological analysis

Written representations of language add an additional level of arbitrariness to it. We have also insisted that linguistics is concerned primarily with spoken language, rather than written/printed forms of it. “Creative spellers” do manage to get their written messages through, if their original spoken form can be recovered from the written/printed material. One example is the following letter written by a child to Santa Claus, where the intended meaning is clear despite the unexpected spelling:

(6.12) I want a bored game.

While the observation that spelling is a secondary representation of language remains true, it is also true that spelling is not entirely irrelevant to linguistic analysis. Being conservative by nature, not least because it reinforces the dominance of the sense of sight over hearing, spelling preserves the visual coherence of morphologically-related words that may have lost their family resemblance in speech. Speech-faithful spellings like the following can be easily read, and might be advocated by spelling reformists:

(6.13) ilektrik ilektrishan ilektrisiti ilektrikal

The counterargument to such reformation is that the alternative spellings ilektrik, ilektrish and ilektris would fail to represent the unity of the morpheme electric, found in the conventional spelling of all four words.

Food for thought

Let’s face it,

English is a crazy language. There is no egg in the eggplant No ham in the hamburger

And neither pine nor apple in the pineapple. English muffins were not invented in England French fries were not invented in France.

We sometimes take English for granted

But if we examine its paradoxes we find that Quicksand takes you down slowly

Boxing rings are square

And a guinea pig is neither from Guinea nor is it a pig.

If writers write, how come fingers don’t fing? If the plural of tooth is teeth

Shouldn’t the plural of phone booth be phone beeth? If the teacher taught,

Why didn’t the preacher praught?

If a vegetarian eats vegetables

What the heck does a humanitarian eat!? Why do people recite at a play

Yet play at a recital? Park on driveways and Drive on parkways?

How can the weather be as hot as hell on one day And as cold as hell on another?

You have to marvel at the unique lunacy

Of a language where a house can burn up as It burns down,

In which you fill in a form By filling it out

And a bell is only heard once it goes!

English was invented by people, not computers And it reflects the creativity of the human race (Which of course isn’t a race at all).

That is why

When the stars are out they are visible

But when the lights are out they are invisible. And why it is that when I wind up my watch It starts

But when I wind up this poem It ends.

Richard Lederer

Further reading

Deterding, David H. and Poedjosoedarmo, Gloria R. (2001). Chapter 2. Morphology. In The grammar of English. Morphology and syntax for English teachers in Southeast Asia. Singapore: Prentice Hall, pp. 6-17.

Hudson, Grover (2000). Chapter 15. Six ways to get new words. In Essential introductory linguistics. Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 239-251.


This chapter has been modified and adapted from The Language of Language. A Linguistics Course for Starters under a CC BY 4.0 license. All modifications are those of Régine Pellicer and are not reflective of the original authors.


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