Several languages in which English has its roots have easily definable rules. For example, sticking "a" in front of an adjective can mean the opposite of that adjective (symmetrical - asymmetrical), while you can accomplish the same thing with "dis" (satisfied - dissatisfied). Similarly, suffixes can be tacked onto other words to create new words (for example, turning beautiful, an adjective, into beautify, a verb). These patterns are quite obviously present through our language, and are powerful tools to create new words that may not be officially recognized as part of the language (e.g. documented by Webster or OED).

If one were to use these rules to create words (uglify comes to mind, being the opposite of beautify), would these words be considered proper English, or have we dropped the suffixing/prefixing rules of our mother languages, and such words are no longer acceptable?

  • 1
    The "rules" you notice may apply in other languages, but when a word is borrowed or repurposed in English, it is reified and the original rules no longer apply in English. Native speakers can and do extend the boundaries of derivational morphology. Non-native speakers have very little opportunity to participate in this; English syntax is where they should concentrate their efforts. Your English syntax is in need of a lot more work before you tackle derivation and inflection. – John Lawler Dec 31 '14 at 16:00
  • 2
    I believe what you are referring to as Wordsmithing is actually called morphological derivation. Proper English is much more subjective than you think. Words that fall into common use are, more often than not, considered "proper English". – Alex W Dec 31 '14 at 16:08
  • 1
    It may also be worth being aware that English has productive and non-productive prefixes and suffixes (ones which can be used in new combinations, vs those which are fixed). Whether a prefix is productive or not is vague at the edges. As an example of the subtleties involved, our many negative prefixes tend to only be productive until a particular negative is well established as canonical (either by subtle etymological justification or social forces). – Dan Sheppard Dec 31 '14 at 16:52
  • BTW, I don't think wordsmith means what you think it does. oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/… – Barmar Dec 31 '14 at 16:54
  • By definition, very probably. Are all strings produced by applying to accepted words the types of inflections commonly encountered in derivational morphology, acceptable? has been addressed before. – Edwin Ashworth Dec 31 '14 at 17:07

The problem in trying to determine whether a prefix can be used for a particular word is complicated by the fact that we use prefixes and suffixes from languages that are NOT our "mother language" (English cannot be accurately described as descended either from Latin or Greek). The most common English root words are of Anglo-Saxon derivation. You cannot just tack on a prefix such as "un" to ANY Anglo-Saxonism such as "get", "put", "eat", or "go", (or to use your example: "a" in front of "round" or "green".) It's more subtle than that, and something only native speakers can do well (that is, come up with this type of acceptable new "coinages".) I cannot explain, for example, why "unhappy" is an acceptable word, but "unsad" is not, or why "undo" works, but "unget" won't. But I know that "dishappy" would never work. If you are confused by this, that's just my point. Don't try to come up with new prefix/suffix combos until you have learned well the ones that are in use. and even then, you'll have somewhat better luck if you stick to matching up Latin-ish affixes to Latin-ish roots, or attaching Greek-ish affixes to Greek-ish roots. Compare, for example, "adrenaline" and "epinephrine". There's a reason these are not "adnephrine" or "epirenaline".

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

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