Word Formation

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Alphabet soup
According to linguist Bogdan Szymanek, "English word-formation is doing quite well and keeps many people busy: first, the ordinary language user, the journalist or media man, the writer and the copywriter, and all those other individuals who like to test, from time to time, the limits of morphological creativity, and, finally, the linguist, who must try to make sense of the new creations" ("The Latest Trends in English Word-Formation" in Handbook of Word-Formation, 2005). Peter Dazeley / Getty Images


In linguistics (particularly morphology and lexicology), word formation refers to the ways in which new words are made on the basis of other words or morphemes. Also called 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). See Examples and Observations below.

Some Common Types of Word Formation

Also see:

Examples and Observations

  • "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 levellers."
    (David Crystal, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, 2nd ed. Cambridge University Press, 2003)
  • Processes of Word-Formation
    "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 11) 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."
    (Ingo Plag, Word-Formation in English. Cambridge University Press, 2003)
  • Academic Studies of Word-Formation
    - "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."
    (Pavol Å tekauer and Rochelle Lieber, preface to Handbook of Word-Formation. Springer, 2005)

    - "[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."
    (Alexander Onysko and Sascha Michel, "Introduction: Unravelling the Cognitive in Word Formation." Cognitive Perspectives on Word Formation. Walter de Gruyter, 2010)
  • Birth and Death Rates of Words
    "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."
    (Alexander M. Petersen, Joel Tenenbaum, Shlomo Havlin, and H. Eugene Stanley, "Statistical Laws Governing Fluctuations in Word Use from Word Birth to Word Death." Scientific Reports, March 15, 2012)