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According to ODO, mini- is classified as a combining form. How exactly is this different from a prefix (or an affix, in general)? Can combining forms also be prefixes?

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3 Answers 3

Generally affix is used for morphological pre- and suffixes. So the /-z/ in Who goes there? is an inflectional affix (a suffix, in fact); this is also true of derivational affixes like -ation, -ize, -ism, be-, en- (and -en).

A combining form, on the other hand, refers prototypically of an allomorph of a (usually free) morpheme (like Malay satu /satu/ 'one') which appears when combined with a different morpheme as a word (like se- /sə/ in sepuluh 'ten'; compare dua 'two' and dua puluh 'twenty').

Mini- is a special case, what's called a libfix — a combining form like net- or -pocalypse that has escaped its morphological bonds and now pursues a new career in neologism creation.

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@coleopterist: How did you fix that link? –  FumbleFingers Jan 25 '13 at 19:27
    
You say (usually) free; your usually conforms to common practice where bound morphemes can have allomorphs as combining forms too. So what makes combining forms different from affixes? Moreover, undisputed affixes can have allomorphs too, such as plural -s/-es, or -ise/-ize. So I can't really see how combining forms are different from affixes at all, nor even how they could be a special category. I think what people mean is just nominal and verbal stems of Greek and Latin words used as affixes in English. –  Cerberus Jan 25 '13 at 19:44
    
Often they are, but not always. The point of technical terminology is to describe behaviors accurately and consistently, rather than giving incomplete descriptions of irrelevant phenomena, like whether the root comes from Greek and Latin or not. That's not true of all such roots, and it's not universal for combining forms; that makes it a poor technical description. –  John Lawler Jan 25 '13 at 20:46
    
@JohnLawler: I agree, which is why I called the whole concept amateurish. Correct me if you think a consistent, rigid definition can be formulated. The criteria you name do not exclude what is to be excluded, not do they include what is to be included—that is, they do not match what those who use this term "feel" must fall under combining form. So I don't think it is more than an intuitive idea of "difficult stems". I tried to convey that in my answer. What do you think? –  Cerberus Jan 25 '13 at 20:57
    
As with all technical terms, a great deal of context is presupposed. Among professionals, rigidity is discouraged, since we can all get really stuffy when we need to, but it hinders communication. In dealing with questions that come from out of left field (like the ones here), with no presumption of shared context, and a million varieties of terminology applied any which way, there is some benefit in consistency and a certain rigidity may not be out of place. –  John Lawler Jan 25 '13 at 21:19

The term combining form was probably meant for learners of English; it is not used on the same level as affix, although it signifies a kind of affix. It is commonly used to indicate nominal and verbal stems of Greek and Latin words used (mainly) as affixes in English. (An affix is meaningful sequence of letters or sounds that can be attached to other sequences of letters/sounds to form a word, but which is not an independent word itself with that particular meaning.)


The sequence of letters -ceive, for example, could be said to be meaningless on its own, because it cannot mean anything in English without some other element, like re- or per-. Then it is not considered a morpheme. (A morpheme is the smallest part of a word that still has an identifiable meaning and can be combined with other morphemes.) According to this approach, combining forms cannot exist as morphemes.

However, if you consider -ceive to mean something like "be the entity that something moves towards", or whatever seems to fit, then you treat it as a morpheme, and you say that receive consists of two meaningful parts, however vague or changeable their meanings may be. Because -ceive in receive exists as part of a word, not as an independent word, it is then a suffix there. (A sequence of letters/sounds can be an independent word in one sentence, and an affix in another; but -ceive is never an independent word, obviously. Or, at least, not yet.)

If you take the latter approach, you can use the word combining form for -ceive, as a special kind of suffix. However, the question remains, how are they special? The answer is: they are not really special linguistically. But for learners, it can be convenient to think of morphemes not in terms of affixes and independent words/stems, but in terms of "the form x is related to other forms, but it is only used in a certain situation, namely as an affix". That is more or less what "combining form" supposedly means, although it is apparently only used for Greek and Latin morphemes.

In the English word photography, for example, both photo- and -graphy are commonly called combining forms by those who use the term. Photo- can occur independently—although with a different meaning, so it is arguably a different morpheme there—, but -graphy normally cannot; it can occur with other prefixes, though, such as epigraphy and calligraphy. Then there are also photographic, telegraph, and telegram, which you could say contain allomorphs of -graphy, namely -graphic, -graph, and -gram. (An allomorph is an alternative form of the same morpheme, so with the same meaning and a similar, though different, form.) However, perhaps -graph- should be considered a morpheme, and -y a suffix signifying an occupation or system, -ic signifying an adjective. Then -gram- and -graph- can be considered allomorphs, as they were certainly in Greek, where the difference was merely related to pronunciation, not meaning—in so far as the two can be separated.

As you see, combining form leads to all kinds of problems, and it is a bit of an amateurish term. If you choose to treat certain parts of words as morphemes, it can be practical to present them as belonging to a fixed, clear-cut, special class; but this class will not sustain deeper scrutiny.

[Edit:] As to allomorphism, this occurs in affixes and non-affixes alike (see examples below). Of course the fundamental problem is: when are two sequences of letters to be considered allomorphs, and when entirely separate morphemes? Usually we take etymology into account for allomorphs, as in naming -graph- and -gram- allomorphs in English, or -th and -s in doth/does, or -ion/-ation, or flam- and flamm- in inflame/inflammation, or after- and aft- in afterthought and aft-deck, or in- and im- and il- and ir- in inhumane/impractical/illicit/irrespective, etc. Ultimately, it is a choice, not an immutable fact.

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I'm not sure that the editors of the OED would normally be considered amateurish in their choice of terms. –  Jon Hanna Jan 25 '13 at 20:25
    
Thank you for the excellent answer. Could you please address @phire's point that (assuming that a combining form is not an affix) prefixes are not "allomorphic" while combining forms can be? –  coleopterist Jan 25 '13 at 20:30
    
@JonHanna: It can be convenient for learners, so that's probably why people use it. But I haven't seen it used in the OED? If you can come up with a satisfactory definition that includes and excludes the right things...because I have yet to see such a definition. I really think people just mean "affixes taken from Greek and Latin"... –  Cerberus Jan 25 '13 at 21:06
    
@coleopterist: Done! My examples include various morphemes that I think are indisputably affixes, such as aft(er)- and in/im/il/ir-. –  Cerberus Jan 25 '13 at 21:07
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@JonHanna: Oh, OK. First time I see it in the OED. I don't know why they chose that term: because it doesn't matter in context? They could just as well have used affix. Note how the OED does not use this term consistently, which leads me to think that they don't use it as a clear, definitive term; for -graph they say "termination"; for pseudo- and -phile they use "combining element"; for fore- they say "prefix"; and for psycho- "combining form". They just seem to call affixes from Latin/Greek something with "combining", most of the time. And Germanic suffixes "suffixes". –  Cerberus Jan 25 '13 at 21:21

There's a couple of distinguishing factors. A combining form is a modified version of another word (e.g. mini- for miniature) which can be joined to other words (mini + dress), combining forms (photo + graphy), or affixes (cephal + ic).

So a combining form has another form that it derives its meaning from (e.g. electro- and electric), whereas an affix is a modifier without a corresponding base word (e.g. the un- in unhappy is just a negating prefix). This also means that an affix can be attached to a word or combining form, but not another affix.

Combining forms are also often borrowed combining forms from Greek or Latin (-phile, -ography).

For example, "post-" would be a prefix, since it doesn't have a form which stands on its own, and needs to be attached to a full word for its meaning (after, behind) to come into effect.

Wiktionary

(Edited to incorporate additional discussion from the comments.)

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How does that make them different from prefixes? Is post- a prefix, a combining form, or both? –  coleopterist Jan 25 '13 at 18:54
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There's a couple of distinguishing factors. A combining form has another form that it derives its meaning from (e.g. electro- and electric), whereas a prefix is a modifier without a corresponding base word (e.g. the un- in unhappy is just a negating prefix). Combining forms are also often borrowed combining forms from Greek or Latin (-phile, -ography). I believe "post-" would be a prefix, since it doesn't have a form which stands on its own, and needs to be attached to a full word for its meaning (after, behind) to come into effect. –  Phire Jan 25 '13 at 20:10
    
Thank you. Please incorporate your comment into your answer :) –  coleopterist Jan 25 '13 at 20:22
    
Done! Cheers :) –  Phire Jan 25 '13 at 20:32
    
So a combining form has another form that it derives its meaning from (e.g. electro- and electric) — that depends on how you look at it. Both the suffix electro and the adjective electric were borrowed from Greek through Latin and French, most probably, and so you can't really say one was derived from the other. The -o- was a theme vowel in Greek btw. –  Cerberus Jan 25 '13 at 21:10

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