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Word Formation: Derivation and Back-Formation

written by: Heather Marie Kosur • edited by: Tricia Goss • updated: 1/17/2012

As part of basic word formation learning, the addition and subtraction of prefixes and suffixes are used to create new words. Also included below are printable downloads of English affixes and English back-formations.

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    Processes

    Word formation is the process of creating new words. The following word formation processes result in the creation of new words in English:

    • Derivation
    • Back-formation
    • Conversion
    • Compounding
    • Clipping
    • Blending
    • Abbreviations
    • Acronyms
    • Eponyms
    • Coinages
    • Nonce words
    • Borrowing
    • Calquing

    The following sections define and exemplify the related word formation processes of derivation and back-formation.

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    Derivation

    Derivation is the word formation process in which a derivational affix attaches to the base form of a word to create a new word. Affixes, which include prefixes and suffixes, are bound morphemes. Morphemes are the smallest linguistic unit of a language with semantic meaning. Bound morphemes, unlike free morphemes, cannot stand alone but must attach to another morpheme such as a word. For example, the following two lists provide examples of some common prefixes and suffixes with definitions in English:

    Prefixes

    • a- – without, not
    • co- – together
    • de- – opposite, negative, removal, separation
    • dis- –opposite, negative
    • en- – cause to be
    • ex- – former, previous, from
    • in- – negative, not
    • non- – absence, not
    • re- – again, repeatedly
    • un- – negative, not, opposite, reversal

    Suffixes

    • -able – sense of being
    • -er – agent
    • -ful – characterized by
    • -fy – make, become, cause to be
    • -ism – action or practice, state or condition
    • -less – lack of
    • -ly – -like
    • -ology – study, science
    • -ship – condition, character, skill
    • -y – characterized by, inclination, condition

    Derivation may result in new words of the same grammatical form, e.g., noun to noun, or of different grammatical forms, e.g., verb to noun. For example:

    Grammatical Form Retaining Derivation

    • verb to verb: appear → disappear
    • noun to noun: friend → friendship
    • adjective to adjective: practical → impractical

    • Grammatical Form Changing Derivation
    • verb to noun: preserve → preservation
    • verb to adjective: bore → boring
    • noun to verb: code → codify
    • noun to adjective: nature → natural
    • adjective to noun: ugly → ugliness
    • adjective to verb: sweet → sweeten
    • adjective to adverb: quick → quickly

    Note that, although both processes involve the affixation of suffixes, derivation differs from inflection in that inflection results in the creation of a new form of the same word rather than a new word. For example, the addition of the third person singular -s inflectional suffix to verbs creates the third person singular form of verbs, e.g., eat and eats, and the addition of the plural ­-s inflectional suffix to nouns creates the plural form of nouns, e.g., dog and dogs. Both eats and dogs are new forms of the same word, eat and dog, rather than new words.

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    Back-Formation

    Back-formation is the word formation process in which an actual or supposed derivational affix detaches from the base form of a word to create a new word. For example, the following list provides examples of some common back-formations in English:

    Original – Back-formation

    • babysitter – babysit
    • donation – donate
    • gambler – gamble
    • hazy – haze
    • moonlighter – moonlight
    • obsessive – obsess
    • procession – process
    • resurrection – resurrect
    • sassy – sass
    • television – televise

    Back-formation is often the result of an overgeneralization of derivation suffixes. For example, the noun back-formation entered the English lexicon first, but the assumption that the -(at)ion on the end of the word is the -ion derivational suffix results in the creation of the verb back-form. Back-formation, therefore, is the opposite of derivation.

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    For a printable list of more prefixes and suffixes in English, please download English Affixes: Prefixes and Suffixes. For a more complete list of back-formations in English, please download English Back-Formations Vocabulary List.

Word Formation: Creating New Words in English

The articles in this series define and exemplify the most common word formation processes, or the creation of new words, in English including derivation, back-formation, conversion, compounding, clipping, blending, abbreviations, acronyms, eponyms, coinages, nonce words, borrowing, and calquing.
  1. Word Formation: Derivation and Back-Formation
  2. Word Formation: Conversion
  3. Word Formation: Compounding, Clipping, and Blending
  4. Word Formation: Abbreviations, Acronyms, and Eponyms
  5. Word Formation: Coinages, Nonce Words, Borrowing, and Calquing