What Is a Word Family?

Increase your vocabulary through understanding prefixes and suffixes

These six words are all members of the same word family, with word as the common base.

A word family is a group of words that share 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. The similar words are each 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 for a dramatic effect or emphasis, from plays and poetry to advertising and political speeches.

Learning Language With Roots, Prefixes, and Suffixes

Don't ever worry about memorizing all the word families, though; an analysis of a 1963 dictionary by scholars in 1990 found 54,000 word families in it. 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." ("Does Love Come From to Love or to Love From Love? Why Lexical Motivation Has to Be Regarded as Bidirectional." Cognitive Perspectives on Word Formation, ed. by Alexander Onysko and  Sascha Michel, Walter de Gruyter, 2010)

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 wanting to 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 do not meet the transparency criteria are not included in a word family but given separate listings; for instance business (busy)..." ("Japan's Built-in Lexicon of English-Based Loanwords." Multilingual Matters, 2008)

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, 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, and to detract means to draw away from. 


Norbert Schmitt, Vocabulary in Language Teaching. Cambridge University Press, 2000