Word Formation

Word formation processes are basically how new words are created and become part of the language.

There are quite a few of them, and we will now make the most important ones simple and clear.

Click Here for Step-by-Step Rules, Stories and Exercises to Practice All English Tenses

Click Here for Step-by-Step Rules, Stories and Exercises to Practice All Tenses

Knowing this can actually help you better understand the English language, not to mention the fact that knowing a word's origin is a great way to reinforce your understanding of it!

Borrowed words

Borrowed wordsBorrowed words are words that came to the English language from another language.

It is a process where foreign words are gradually becoming part of the language.

In many cases, the foreign words adopt the sound and other characteristics of the language, and if used long enough, they can sound quite "native"!


Source language Original word
(If the original
different, then

it is given
in parenthesis)
English word
Chinese t'e tea
Dutch wagen wagon
Old Norse vanta want
Old Norse taka (grasp) take
Latin rapidus rapid
Latin plus (more) plus
Latin nervus (strength) nerve
Old French blanc (white) blank
Norwegian klover (skillful) clever
Italian spago (small cord) spaghetti
Arabic safar (journey) safari
Greek beugen (to bend) bagel

(Reference: The Heron Derivation Dictionary


Affixes An affix is a letter or group of letters that is added to the beginning or end of a word and changes its meaning.

  • healthy => un + healthy = unhealthy (un is the affix)

  • fear => fear + less = fearless
    (less is the affix)

There are two kinds of affixes:
prefixes and suffixes.

When the letter or group of letters is added to the beginning of a word, we call it a prefix.

  • unhappy

  • overconfident

  • ultraviolet

  • underdeveloped

When the letter or group of letters is added to the end of a word, we call it a suffix.

  • careful

  • secretly

  • greatness

  • teacher

In English, many new words were formed from existing ones by adding affixes to them.

Some even have several affixes added, such as:
care => careless => carelessness

Some words were formed exactly the other way around. The affixes were removed from existing words.

For example, the affix "or" was removed from the word "editor," and so we got the verb "edit":
  • editor => editor => edit 
Click here for more info and prefixes and suffixes worksheets.


By "converting" we mean changing the function of a word without changing its form.

For example, nouns that start to be used as verbs.

Examples of NOUNS that turned into VERBS:

Original word – noun New word – verb
We had a long talk. They like to talk for hours.
Can you buy me a drink? Don't drink that!
She finally got a divorce. I heard they are divorcing.
That dress was amazing. He likes the way she dresses.
I wrote you an e-mail. He e-mailed me several times.


Combinations In English many words are formed by joining parts of two or more existing words.

  • bag + pipe = bagpipe

  • smoke + fog = smog

  • spoon + fork = spork

  • motor + hotel = motel

Or, by combining full words, and not just their parts:

  • foot + ball = football

  • black + board = blackboard

  • with + out = without

  • be + have = behave


ClippingClipping is the shortening of longer words.

In some cases the front is removed, in some cases the back is removed, and in some other cases both are removed!

  • advertisement => advertisement => ad

  • examination => examination = exam

  • doctor => doctor = doc

  • airplane => airplane => plane

  • telephone => telephone => phone

  • popular music => popular music => pop

  • influenza => influenza => flu


Acronyms An acronym is a word made up from the first letters of the words that make up the name of something.

  • NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration)

  • NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization)

  • Interpol (International Criminal Police Organization)

  • radar (Radio Detection And Ranging)

Totally new

Totally new Some words were simply invented.

Meaning, somebody creates the word, and people start using it.

This can be necessary when scientists invent or discover something new that didn't exist before, when technology advances, or when a company comes up with a new product.

In many cases science fiction an fantasy writers invent new words, as well.

  • radioactive

  • Celsius

  • Kleenex

  • diesel

  • hobbit

  • Internet

  • blog

Word formation processes – final words

Understanding the different word formation processes helps us thoroughly understand the creation of the English vocabulary.

But you can take it a step further. By taking individual words and looking into their actual origin, you can achieve a more complete understanding of them.

To learn more about building a wide vocabulary with the help of word origins, read the Basic Study Manual.

See Also

Morphology and Morphemes

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