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When is it appropriate, if at all, to use the suffix ish?

Consider the following:

She was a largish woman

According to Google the word largish is defined as somewhat large. However, Merriam-Webster seems to redirect the search phrase to large instead.

I have seen people abuse this quite a bit. When does one draw the line when using this suffix? Or does it have no place in formal english?

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up vote 11 down vote accepted

I think you could make the argument that the -ish suffix should not be used in formal English to create ad-hoc words on the spot, like "largish". There is nothing grammatically wrong — you will, of course be understood — but it has a definite informal connotation. However, there are a number of established words, e.g. impish, boorish, devilish, sheepish, etc., where -ish is accepted in all contexts, including formal ones.

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All of your usage examples show it affixed to nouns, not adjectives. For adjectives (and sometimes adverbs), "ish" shows an approximation, but for nouns, marks a quality: "impish" does not mean "approximately an imp" but rather "like an imp". There are two very different uses at work here, and arguably only the adjective suffix is the informal one. – Jon Purdy Oct 4 '10 at 23:17
Well, I wouldn't say that you can attach -ish to any noun (or even most nouns) and have a formally acceptable word. If I said something is car-ish or table-ish, it would sound quite informal, though understandable. I maintain that the distinction is really whether the word is established or created on the fly. There just happen to be few established -ish words whose stem is an adjective (for whatever reason). – Kosmonaut Oct 5 '10 at 4:59
Would you say that the same reasoning applies to the use of -ee to create words such as chattee (passive person in a chat) as opposed to established words such as referee or employee? Is the -ish construction more or less acceptable than the -ee construction? – painfulenglish Oct 9 '14 at 13:18

Adding the "ish" suffix to a word X is a colloquial way to say that something is "somewhat" X, "approximately" X, "rather" X, etc.

  1. She was a largish woman. ⇒ She was a rather large woman.

  2. She will be here by fiveish. ⇒ She will be here by any time close to five o'clock.

  3. The boy is fiveish. ⇒ The boy is five years old or about that age.

  4. The interior has niceish plastics covering the dash and the doors ⇒ The interior has rather nice plastics covering the dash and the doors.

  5. The exam went well, ish. ⇒ The exam went fairly well.

See Wictionary page here.

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To me, examples 1-3 sound pretty standard, while 4 and 5 are very colloquial. "The exam went well, ish" is definitely a "trendy" speech pattern. – Guy Starbuck Oct 5 '10 at 0:29
Or, as Steve from "Blue's Clues" said "I was fame-ish" – Kevin Sep 1 '11 at 15:40

As an aside, sometimes (in British conversational English at least), people use 'ish' on it's own:

"So, are you happy with your new job?"
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Very trendy with the younger set. – Picturepocket Oct 5 '10 at 5:59
I don't think I've ever heard it being used in this context before. But then again, I'm not British. – Russell Dias Oct 5 '10 at 21:29
What?! The way I speak is "trendy"? I may have to change. – TRiG Oct 20 '10 at 23:09
This usage is often accompanied by holding your hand out flat, palm down and wiggling it to denote doubt. – tinyd Sep 1 '11 at 9:25

See this link

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It would be great if you could provide a summary here (in case the link ever disappears; this is standard practice at EL&U). – Kosmonaut Feb 20 '11 at 20:54

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