Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Wikipedia and The Free Dictionary were not much help — is there a practical difference in the semantics of suffix and postfix, except that the latter is more rare?

File name extensions are well known. For example, index.en.xhtml could reasonably be assumed to be the index file of a website directory, in XHTML format, and with primarily English, human-readable contents. I’d normally call the collection of extensions (.en.xhtml in the example) the suffix or postfix, but it’s not obvious which (if any) is technically and/or semantically more accurate.

share|improve this question
    
possible duplicate of Are there any cases where "prepend" cannot be replaced by "prefix"?. "Postfix" is primarily just another modern jargon term, along the lines of "prepend" and "postpend". –  FumbleFingers Sep 11 '12 at 11:54
    
Postfix is clearly used as the opposite of prefix. (post-after and pre-before) All my life I have been using suffix- when learning morphology in high-school or string algorithms at the University. When talking about words, string and ect aka sequence of characters I am almost positive that suffix is the more suitable word. As you can see from my examples above all my life I have been using suffix in that exact context. –  speedyGonzales Sep 11 '12 at 12:31
add comment

4 Answers

From a "pure" English standpoint, postfix is essentially a lesser-used synonym for suffix, both in the noun and verb sense (with the verb being the act of adding a suffix). In fact, my dead-tree American Heritage Dictionary, 2nd College Ed. gives these (and only these) definitions of postfix:

n. A suffix.

tr v. To suffix.

More modern definitions of postfix have cropped up, including the adjective used in computing and mathematics, and a medical verb.

I disagree with Roaring Fish's analysis of the n-grams. I believe postfix and suffix are both rising in large part because of their use in computing. Computer programmers typically use postfix only as an adjective and suffix only as a noun. Therefore, the thing that comes after a dot in the name of a file would only be referred to as a suffix (given just these two choices). The use of suffix dwarfs that of postfix even in computing because plenty more people are exposed to file extensions than to mathematical or programming notation.

Finally, I would like to say that for your particular use (denoting the part or parts of a file name following a dot), extension is actually the most common and preferred term. Normally it refers only to the stuff after the last dot, so if you want to specify the collection of extensions, the most clear alternative is to say just that, or something to its effect. (Other possibilities might be stack, string, or series of extensions.)

share|improve this answer
add comment

In linguistics, the term "postfix" is not so widespread in Anglophone linguistics, the more common one being "suffix".

Indeed, there is a difference between a suffix and a postfix. A postfix is whatever comes after the base of a word, be it a suffix or an ending or even an enclitic. Thus, under this interpretation, a postfix is a hyper(o)nym, whereas a suffix is a hyponym.

The term "postfix" is somewhat more common in German and Russian linguistics, cf. Hall 2000:

enter image description here

share|improve this answer
add comment

The simple answer is that, other than popularity, there is not much practical difference.

OED tells us that postfix is used in grammar and linguistics:

postfix, n. and adj.

Pronunciation: Brit. /ˈpəʊs(t)fɪks/ , U.S. /ˈpoʊs(t)ˌfɪks/

Grammar and Linguistics. An element (e.g. -ly) added to the end of a word; a suffix.

and Ngram tells us that the word has been around since around 1800, which agrees with the earliest 1805 example given in OED.

On that basis, I don't think that computing has much to do with it. It is tempting to say that the recent rise in the usage of postfix is from its use in computing, but as suffix shows a similar rise there is probably an outside factor causing both increases. Ebooks maybe.

To put some perspective on the frequency of use for these two words, neither BNC nor COCA corpora found postfix, but BNC found 148 instances of suffix, and COCA found 145. (That is itself quite curious, as COCA (American English) has 450 million words, while BNC (British English) has 100 million.)

share|improve this answer
    
+1 That Ngram certainly gives a good indication which to use. –  l0b0 Sep 11 '12 at 10:54
    
It may be just you - I have never used 'postfix' - but I can understand why you see it that way. OED lists 'suffix' as a verb, but to me it sounds odd used in that way. –  Roaring Fish Sep 11 '12 at 12:58
1  
@tchrist: It's not just you. It's definitely a common pattern among modern AmE speakers. Actually, it's probably more common to use neither as a verb (using append instead), and to not use postfix at all, unless you're a computer programmer (or possibly mathematician or calculator geek). –  John Y Sep 11 '12 at 15:14
add comment

I think both can be used interchangeably, although the context sometimes determines which word you are more likely to use. For example, in linguistics, an affix after the stem of the word is called a suffix. In computer programming, when an operator appears after the operand, it is known as a postfix operator.

As far as a file extension goes, my intuition would be to go with "suffix", but I believe that "postfix" would be equally valid.

The word "suffix" has been around since 1778. I was unable to uncover a similar etymology for the word "postfix", leading me to guess that it is a modern invention, as "post-x" is a more obvious candidate for being the opposite to "pre-x". In this regard it is very much like prepone in Indian English, except that it has caught on globally.

share|improve this answer
add comment

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.