Suppletion Definition and Examples in English Grammar

Man sitting at desk holding head
Suppletion: When your headache goes from bad to worse.

Hiraman / Getty Images

In morphology, suppletion is the use of two or more phonetically distinct roots for different forms of the same word, such as the adjective bad and its suppletive comparative form worse. Adjective: suppletive.

According to Peter O. Müller et al., the term "strong suppletion is used where the allomorphs are highly dissimilar and/or have different etymological origins," as in the adjective forms good and best. "We speak of weak suppletion if some similarity is discernible," as in the words five and fifth (Word-Formation: An International Handbook of the Languages of Europe, 2015).

Examples and Observations

  • "Bad - worse is a case of suppletion. Worse is clearly semantically related to bad in exactly the same way as, for example, larger is related to large, but there is no morphological relationship between the two words, i.e. there is no phonetic similarity between them."
    (J.R. Hurford et al., Semantics: A Coursebook, 2nd ed. Cambridge University Press, 2007)
  • "Suppletion is said to take place when the syntax requires a form of a lexeme that is not morphologically predictable. In English, the paradigm for the verb be is characterized by suppletion. Am, are, is, was, were, and be have completely different phonological shapes, and they are not predictable on the basis of the paradigms of other English verbs. We also find suppletion with pronouns. Compare I and me or she and her. Suppletion is most likely to be found in the paradigms of high-frequency words. . .."
    (Mark Aronoff and Kirsten Fudeman, What Is Morphology? 2nd ed. Wiley-Blackwell, 2011)

Good, Better, Best

"The forms good, better and best, which belong to the adjective good . . . show suppletion since the relationship between the morphs representing the root morpheme is phonologically arbitrary. It would plainly make no sense to claim that there is a single underlying representation in the dictionary from which go and went or good and better are derived. The best we can do is to content ourselves with listing these allomorphs together under the same entry in the dictionary." (Francis Katamba, English Words, 2nd ed. Routledge, 2005)

Origins of the Forms of Be and Go

  • The Old English verb for 'be,' like its Modern English counterpart, combined forms of what were originally four different verbs (seen in the present-day forms be, am, are, was). Paradigms that thus combine historically unrelated forms are called suppletive.
  • "Another suppletive verb is gan 'go,' whose preterit eode was doubtless from the same Indo-European root as the Latin verb eo 'go.' Modern English has lost the eode preterit but has found a new suppletive form for go in went, the irregular preterit of wend (compare send-sent)." (John Algeo and Thomas Pyles, The Origins and Development of the English Language, 5th ed. Thomson Wadsworth, 2005).

Origin of the Term Suppletion in Linguistics

  • "The term 'suppletion' gradually makes its way into grammatical descriptions and other linguistic works in the late 19th century (Osthoff 1899; Thomas 1899:79). In grammars it was probably triggered by the preceding notion of a defective paradigm; e.g. if a verb lacks a form in a certain category, it is supplied by some other verb.
  • "In linguistic theory of the 20th century, 'suppletion' came to be fully established as a concept with the advent of structuralism, where the relation between form and meaning as well as the understanding of paradigmatic relationships became very important for a synchronic language description." (Ljuba N. Veselinova, Suppletion in Verb Paradigms: Bits and Pieces of the Puzzle. John Benjamins, 2006)


From the Latin, "to supply, make up a whole"

Pronunciation: se-PLEE-shen

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Suppletion Definition and Examples in English Grammar." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 27). Suppletion Definition and Examples in English Grammar. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Suppletion Definition and Examples in English Grammar." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 10, 2023).