Word Family: Definition and Examples in English

A word family is a group of words with a common base

Word Family

ThoughtCo

A word family is a group of words with a common base to which different prefixes and suffixes are added. For example, members of the word family based on the headword, base, stem, or root word work include rework, worker, working, workshop, and workmanship, among others. Similar words are called paronyms. 

Polyptoton is the use of more than one of these words together, such as in this quote from the movie "Fight Club": "The things you own end up owning you." The repetition can serve as a dramatic effect or for emphasis in writings ranging from plays and poetry to advertising and political speeches.

Roots, Prefixes, and Suffixes

Don't plan to memorize all the word families, though. An analysis of a 1963 dictionary by scholars in 1990 found 54,000 word families. With English users creating new words all the time, it's better to know how to work with the language and its roots, prefixes, and suffixes than to attempt to memorize it all.

According to Birgit Umbreit, "[L]anguage users are able to analyze complex words and to establish synchronic relations between words both formally and semantically because they have an implicit or even explicit knowledge of word-family organization." (Birgit Umbreit, "Does Love Come From to Love or to Love From Love? Why Lexical Motivation Has to Be Regarded as Bidirectional," from "Cognitive Perspectives on Word Formation," edited by Alexander Onysko and Sascha Michel)

Said in a simpler way, language learners can decode many new or unfamiliar words through understanding what different prefixes and suffixes do to a root word. The technique can also help people figure out spellings of words they hear or determine the etymology of a word. Frank E. Daulton wrote, "[M]ost linguists agree that word families should be transparent, in that learning a new item related to one already known should involve a minimum of learning burden...For instance, if a learner knows govern and is familiar with the prefix mis-, then misgovern requires little if any additional learning (Goulden et al., 1990). Derivations that don't meet the transparency criteria are not included in a word family but given separate listings; for instance, business (busy)..." (Frank E. Daulton, "Japan's Built-in Lexicon of English-Based Loanwords")

Breaking Words Into Parts

The roots or stems don't have to be words on their own to make other words. For example, the root struct forms the base of more than 30 English words; it comes from a Latin word for to build and creates words such as: construction, structure, and constructive. Knowing that con- as a prefix means "with" or "together," you can see how the words construction and constructive involve the creation of something. Knowing that the prefix de- means the opposite—to reduce or remove—and that the suffix -ion indicates that a word is a noun, you can understand how the word destruction is created—or even the verb to deconstruct.

Following the same pattern, look at contract and detract; a contract is something that joins parties in agreement, while to detract means to draw away from.

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