Types of Word Formation in English

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In linguistics (particularly morphology and lexicology), word formation refers to the ways in which new words are formed on the basis of other words or morphemes. This is also known as derivational morphology.

Word formation can denote either a state or a process, and it can be viewed either diachronically (through different periods in history) or synchronically (at one particular period in time).

In The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, David Crystal writes about word formations: 

"Most English vocabulary arises by making new lexemes out of old ones — either by adding an affix to previously existing forms, altering their word class, or combining them to produce compounds. These processes of construction are of interest to grammarians as well as lexicologists. ... but the importance of word-formation to the development of the lexicon is second to none. ... After all, almost any lexeme, whether Anglo-Saxon or foreign, can be given an affix, change its word class, or help make a compound. Alongside the Anglo-Saxon ​root in ​kingly, for example, we have the French root in royally and the Latin root in regally. There is no elitism here. The processes of affixation, conversion, and compounding are all great levelers."

Processes of Word Formation

Ingo Plag explains the process of word formation in Word-Formation in English:

"Apart from the processes that attach something to a base (affixation) and processes that do not alter the base (conversion), there are processes involving the deletion of material. ... English Christian names, for example, can be shortened by deleting parts of the base word (see (11a)), a process also occasionally encountered with words that are not personal names (see (11b)). This type of word formation is called truncation, with the term clipping also being used."

(11a) Ron (-Aaron)
(11a) Liz (-Elizabeth)
(11a) Mike (-Michael)
(11a) Trish (-Patricia)
(11b) condo (-condominium)
(11b) demo (-demonstration)
(11b) disco (-discotheque)
(11b) lab (-laboratory)

"Sometimes truncation and affixation can occur together, as with formations expressing intimacy or smallness, so-called diminutives:"

(12) Mandy (-Amanda)
(12) Andy (-Andrew)
(12) Charlie (-Charles)
(12) Patty (-Patricia)
(12) Robbie (-Roberta)

"We also find so-called blends, which are amalgamations of parts of different words, such as smog (smoke/fog) or modem (modulator/demodulator). Blends based on orthography are called acronyms, which are coined by combining the initial letters of compounds or phrases into a pronounceable new word (NATO, UNESCO, etc.) Simple abbreviations like UK or USA are also quite common."

Academic Studies of Word-Formation

In the preface to the Handbook of Word-Formation, Pavol Stekauer and Rochelle Lieber write:

"Following years of complete or partial neglect of issues concerning word formation (by which we mean primarily derivation, compounding, and conversion), the year 1960 marked a revival—some might even say a resurrection—of this important field of linguistic study. While written in completely different theoretical frameworks (structuralist vs. transformationalist), both Marchand's Categories and Types of Present-Day English Word-Formation in Europe and Lee's Grammar of English Nominalizations instigated systematic research in the field. As a result, a large number of seminal works emerged over the next decades, making the scope of word-formation research broader and deeper, thus contributing to better understanding of this exciting area of human language."

In "Introduction: Unravelling the Cognitive in Word Formation." Cognitive Perspectives on Word Formation, Alexander Onysko and Sascha Michel explain:

"[R]ecent voices stressing the importance of investigating word formation in the light of cognitive processes can be interpreted from two general perspectives. First of all, they indicate that a structural approach to the architecture of words and a cognitive view are not incompatible. On the contrary, both perspectives try to work out regularities in language. What sets them apart is the basic vision of how language is encapsulated in the mind and the ensuing choice of terminology in the description of the processes. ... [C]ognitive linguistics concedes closely to the self-organizing nature of humans and their language, whereas generative-structuralist perspectives represent external boundaries as given in the institutionalized order of human interaction."

Birth and Death Rates of Words

In their report "Statistical Laws Governing Fluctuations in Word Use from Word Birth to Word Death," Alexander M. Petersen, Joel Tenenbaum, Shlomo Havlin, and H. Eugene Stanley conclude:

"Just as a new species can be born into an environment, a word can emerge in a language. Evolutionary selection laws can apply pressure on the sustainability of new words since there are limited resources (topics, books, etc.) for the use of words. Along the same lines, old words can be driven to extinction when cultural and technological factors limit the use of a word, in analogy to the environmental factors that can change the survival capacity of a living species by altering its ability to survive and reproduce."


  • Crystal, David. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. Cambridge University Press, 2003.
  • Onysko, Alexander, and Sascha Michel. “Introduction: Unravelling the Cognitive in Word Formation.” Cognitive Perspectives on Word Formation, 2010, pp. 1–26., doi:10.1515/9783110223606.1.
  • Petersen, Alexander M., et al. “Statistical Laws Governing Fluctuations in Word Use from Word Birth to Word Death.” Nature News, Nature Publishing Group, 15 Mar. 2012, www.nature.com/articles/srep00313.
  • Plag, Ingo. Word-Formation in English. Cambridge University Press, 2003.
  • Stekauer, Pavol, and Rochelle Lieber. Handbook of Word-Formation. Springer, 2005.
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Nordquist, Richard. "Types of Word Formation in English." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/word-formation-1692501. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 27). Types of Word Formation in English. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/word-formation-1692501 Nordquist, Richard. "Types of Word Formation in English." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/word-formation-1692501 (accessed May 30, 2023).