Complex Words in English

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

In English grammar and morphology, a complex word is a word made up of two or more morphemes. Contrast with monomorphemic word.

A complex word may consist of (1) a base (or root) and one or more affixes (for example, quicker), or (2) more than one root in a compound (for example, blackbird).

Examples and Observations

"[W]e say that bookishness is a complex word, whose immediate components are bookish and -ness, which we can express in shorthand by spelling the word with dashes between each morph: book-ish-ness.

The process of dividing a word into morphs is called parsing." (Keith M. Denning et al., English Vocabulary Elements. Oxford University Press, 2007)

Transparency and Opaqueness

"A morphologically complex word is semantically transparent if its meaning is obvious from its parts: hence 'unhappiness' is semantically transparent, being made up in a predictable fashion from 'un,' 'happy,' and 'ness.' A word like 'department,' even though it contains recognizable morphemes, is not semantically transparent. The meaning of 'depart' in 'department' is not obviously related to the 'depart' in 'departure.' It is semantically opaque." (Trevor A. Harley, The Psychology of Language: From Data to Theory. Taylor & Francis, 2001)


"Let us consider the complex word blender. What can we say about its morphology? One aspect we can mention is that it consists of two morphemes, blend and er. Besides, we can say that blend is the root, since it is not further analysable, and at the same time the base to which the suffix -er is attached.

To conclude, if we carry out morphological analysis, we usually show what morphemes a word consists of and describe these morphemes in terms of their type." (Ingo Plag et al, Introduction to English Linguistics. Walter de Gruyer, 2007)

The Hypothesis of Lexical Integrity

"The lexicon . . . is not just a set of words, but also comprises word combinations.

For example, English (like most Germanic languages) has many verb-particle combinations, also called phrasal verbs of the type to look up which clearly consist of two words which are even separable:

(20a) The student looked up the information
(20b) The student looked the information up

The verb look up cannot be one word since its two parts can be separated, as in sentence (20b). A basic assumption in morphology is the hypothesis of Lexical Integrity: the constituents of a complex word cannot be operated upon by syntactic rules. Put differently: words behave as atoms with respect to syntactic rules, which cannot look inside the word and see its internal morphological structure. Hence, the movement of up to the end of the sentence in (20b) can only be accounted for if look up is a combination of two words. That is, phrasal verbs such as look up are certainly lexical units, but not words. Words are just a subset of the lexical units of a language. Another way of putting this is to say that look up is a listeme but not a lexeme of English (DiSciullo and Williams, 1987).

"Other examples of lexical multi-word units are adjective-noun combinations such as red tape, big toe, atomic bomb, and industrial output.

Such phrases are established terms for referring to certain kinds of entities, and hence they must be listed in the lexicon." (Geert E. Booij, The Grammar of Words: An Introduction to Linguistic Morphology, 3rd ed. Oxford University Press, 2012)