Understand Forming New Words: Derivation and Back-Formation in English

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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.

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.

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.

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.

This post is part of the series: 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