Skip to main content


WORD-FORMATION The formation of longer, more complex words from shorter, simpler WORDS. In the West, the analysis of word form began in classical Greece and passed in due course to Rome. Philosophers including Plato and Aristotle and grammarians such as Dionysius Thrax and Terentius Varro developed the study of the ways in which words were formed as a part of GRAMMAR, founding a long and subtle tradition that was inherited and extended by 19c comparative philology and 20c linguistics. The classical study was based only on GREEK and LATIN words, and contrasted simple word and complex word. The simple word was discussed either in terms of its ROOT (a basic element without adaptations or inflections), such as Greek log, whose core meaning was ‘speech’, or as a root word, consisting of a root, stem, and inflection (in most cases cited in standard forms, such as the nominative singular for nouns), such as Greek lógos (speech, word) and Latin verbum (word, verb). The complex word was discussed in terms of two processes or categories: (1) Derivation, in which AFFIXES and inflections could be added to a root, as with logikós, an adjective formed from lógos, and verbalis, and adjective formed from verbum. (2) Composition, in which two or more roots could be combined, with appropriate affixes and inflections added, as with the nouns biología and biologistḗs formed from bíos (life) and lógos, and agricultura, formed from ager (field) and cultura (cultivation).

Contemporary terms

The classical description was somewhat modified when transferred to English. The concept root has continued in use, but in the 20c has been increasingly replaced by BASE when discussing non-historical processes. A root word is usually called either a simple word or a simplex. The classical ‘complex’ forms divide into COMPLEX WORDS and COMPOUND WORDS, the formation of complex words being DERIVATION and of compound words being formerly called composition but now usually compounding. Derivation is the process by which the word unfriendly is built up from the simple word or free base friend, and illegality is built up from the bound base -leg-(from Latin, meaning ‘law’). Compounding is the process by which the vernacular compound teapot is formed from the simple words tea and pot and the classical compound biography is formed from the combining forms bio- and -graphy. Although derivation and compounding account for a large number of the composite word forms of English and other languages, they do not cover everything. As a result, at various times further descriptive categories have been added, such as conversion or functional shift, back-formation, phrasal verb, blend, abbreviation, and root-creation. Sometimes, specific word-formational terms have lagged behind an awareness of the distinct forms actually occurring in a language: although, in English, verb forms like put up and put up with have been discussed since at least the 18c, the name phrasal verb, by which they are now most commonly known, was not applied to them until the early 20c.

In more detail, these categories are: (1) CONVERSION or functional shift, the process by which words extend their grammatical function: for example, from verb to noun (run in go for a run), and from noun to verb (position in positioning people). (2) BACK-FORMATION, the creation of a simpler or shorter form from a pre-existing more complex form: edit from editor, intuit from intuition. (3) PHRASAL VERB, a class of verb followed by an adverbial and/or prepositional particle: put up provide a bed for, put up with tolerate. (4) BLEND, the outcome of a process which collapses two words into one: breakfast and lunch into brunch; electro- and execute into electrocute. (5) ABBREVIATION, the shortening of words and phrases, in three basic forms: the INITIALISM, a set of letters pronounced as such and standing for an idea, group, or institution (BBC, pronounced ‘bee-bee-cee’, for British Broadcasting Corporation); the ACRONYM, a set of letters pronounced as a word (NATO, pronounced ‘Nay-toe’, for North Atlantic Treaty Organization); the CLIPPING, a short form created by removing one or more syllables (pro for professional, phone for telephone, flu for influenza). Blends are often closely involved with the processes of abbreviation. (6) ROOT-CREATION, the formation of new roots or bases, which tend to be echoic, where a form resembles one or more pre-existing forms (cuckoo, splish: sounds of nature), or onomastic, deriving from names (atlas from the name of the mythical titan; gin from the city of Genoa). See ECHOISM.

Word-formation clusters

In accordance with need, social context, and formational patterns, clusters of derivatives, compounds, and other usages develop around words and bases. The noun wolf, for example, is the focus of a wide range of expressions: (1) Compounds like prairie wolf and timber wolf kinds of wolf, wolf dog the off-spring of a wolf and a dog, wolfhound a dog that hunts wolves, wolf-fish a fish in some way like a wolf, wolf spider a spider that hunts its prey like a wolf, wolfsbane a poisonous plant, wolf child a child brought up by wolves, wolfman a man who can turn into a wolf, wolf pack a pack of wolves, wolf note a discordant note in music, wolf whistle a whistle of sexual admiration, she-wolf a female wolf, werewolf (from German) someone who can become a wolf. (2) Derivatives like wolfer/wolver a hunter of wolves, wolf-like and wolfish like a wolf, wolfishly its adverb, wolfishness the quality of being wolfish, wolf down to swallow food like a wolf, wolverine a large weasel-like animal with wolf-like attributes. (3) Fixed phrases like Tasmanian wolf a wolf-like animal in Tasmania, lone wolf a person who does things alone. (4) Idioms and sayings such as cry wolf, keep the wolf from the door, be a wolf in sheep's clothing, throw someone to the wolves.

Although the wolf-cluster exhibits the range of word-forming potential, it is an ancient and diffuse system whose members cover many contexts. As such, it does not illustrate the vigour of present-day word-formation, which can be seen in a recent more or less ‘nonce’ cluster based on the name Tourette. In 1885, the French neurologist Georges Gilles de la Tourette described a nervous condition marked by tics, jerks, grimaces, curses, mannerisms, imitative actions, and antic kinds of humour. This became known as Gilles de la Tourette Syndrome, then as Tourette's syndrome, often further shortened to Tourette's. When describing people with Tourette's, the American neurologist Oliver Sacks has used the following derivations, compounds, and other forms: (1) Nouns: Tourettism the syndrome and its effects, motor Tourettism the physical aspect of the syndrome, mental Tourette's the psychological aspect, Tourette a symptom of the syndrome, Touretter someone with the syndrome, Tourette's Syndrome Association a proper name, TSA its initialism, Tourettoma a figurative mind-tumour, super-Tourette's a powerfully destructive variety, super-Touretter one who has it, Tourette psychosis ‘an identity frenzy’, Tourettesville the nickname of the town of LaCrete in Alberta, Canada, many of whose Mennonite inhabitants have the syndrome, Grandma Tourette the nickname of a matriarch of the town. (2) Adjectives, adverbs: Tourettic (formal) pertaining to the syndrome, Tourettically its adverb, Tourette-like like the syndrome, Touretty (informal) showing symptoms, Tourettish (informal) relating to the syndrome, Tourettishly its adverb. (3) Verb forms: Touretting displaying the syndrome, Tourettized afflicted with the syndrome. (From Oliver Sacks, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, 1985, and ‘Being Moved by the Spirit’, Sunday Times, 25 Sept. 1988.)

Paradigms and paraphrases

Although they often belong in clusters, complex words are usually formed one at a time in accordance with more or less established patterns. Such patterns or paradigms are built up analogically and differ for compounds and derivatives. Compound patterns involve a distinctive kind of stress on (the main syllable of) the first element, as in TEApot and eMERgency plan, and paraphrase formulas gloss the relationships between the bases in a compound: a flower pot is a ‘pot for flowers’ and so a slop bucket is interpretable as a ‘bucket for slops’; a goatskin is ‘the skin of a goat’ and so an iguana skin is interpretable as ‘the skin of an iguana’. Derivational paradigms are often cumulative, as in the set form/formal/formality, the paraphrases expressing relationships between base and other elements: formality is the condition of being formal, and formal is the adjective that relates to form, and similar relations exist for the set norm/normal/normality, but not for nature, natural, *naturality.

The word-forming continuum

Although much of English word-formation is regular, few patterns are neat and tidy and many forms blend their categories and mix their patterns. It is useful therefore to introduce the concept HYBRID: for example, compounds with derivational elements (school-boyish and mud-walled) and abbreviations involved in attribution and compounding (a NATO radar system), in derivation (ex-IBMer, someone who no longer works for International Business Machines), or in both (an ex-CFL player, someone who no longer plays for the Canadian Football League). It is likely that word-formation can be most usefully discussed in terms of both a continuum in which categories shade into each other and self-contained classical containers, each more or less insulated from the others. The fluidness of word-formation arises both from complex processes of change over centuries and from casual usage untouched by theories of language and norms of ‘good’ formation. The American linguist Dwight Bolinger, reflecting on ‘the high informality of word-making in English’, puts the matter as follows:
Practically all words that are not imported bodily from some other language … are made up of old words and their parts. Sometimes those parts are pretty well standardized, like the suffix- ness and the prefix un-. Other times they are only broken pieces that some inventive speaker manages to re-fit … Hamburger yields -burger, which is reattached in nutburger, Gainesburger, and cheeseburger. Cafeteria yields -teria, which is reattached in valeteria, groceteria, and washateria. Trade names make easy use of almost any fragment, like the -roni of macaroni that is reattached in Rice-a-Roni and Noodle-Roni. The fabrication may reuse elements that have been re-used many times, or it may be a one-shot affair such as the punning reference to being a member of the lowerarchy, with -archy extracted from hierarchy. The principle is the same. Scientists and scholars may give themselves airs with high-bred affixes borrowed from classical languages, but they are linguistically no more sophisticated than the common speakers who are satisfied with leftovers from the vernacular (Aspects of Language, 1968).Word-formation in English operates among hundreds of millions of people, drawing on centuries of complex hybridization and prompting idiosyncrasy in forms and uses. As a result, even the most well-defined categories and patterns identify tendencies rather than absolutes that are thought-lessly ‘flouted’ by the ignorant and insensitive. Around such focal points as compounding and affixation, with their relative certainties, swarm innumerable and unpredictable fringe formations, of longer or shorter duration, such as lowerarchy, Rice-a-Roni and Grandma Tourette.


Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"WORD-FORMATION." Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language. . 5 Aug. 2019 <>.

"WORD-FORMATION." Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language. . (August 5, 2019).

"WORD-FORMATION." Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language. . Retrieved August 05, 2019 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.