You can add various derivational and inflectional suffixes on to most English words to create new longer words (or forms of words). But is there a definite or theoretical maximum that can be added in the case of English? If not is there rough upper limit in typical vocabulary?

Trying to think of examples the best I can come up with off the top of my head is:

ego + ist + ic + al + ly


  • Would decid-ed-ly be one? – mplungjan Jul 4 '11 at 8:48
  • @mplungjan: Of course, but it only has two suffixes. I'm pretty sure more than four is possible but they're not easy to think up. – hippietrail Jul 4 '11 at 8:53
  • In your example, I think it's slightly unfair to count "ic" and "al" as two suffixes: the "al" is in effect necessary when you add "ly" to "ic". (And this shows a slight problem in counting affixes generally; how fair is it also to count "en-" and "-en" in "enliven"?) – Neil Coffey Jul 4 '11 at 9:28
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    Theoretical? No. You can keep adding -ize, -ation, -al, rinse-repeat, ad infinitum. So, whenever someone brings up a word such as antidisestablishmentarianism, you can raise them an antidisestablishmentarianization, antidisestablishmentarianizational, antidisestablishmentarianizationalize, antidisestablishmentarianizationalization, etc. (Same with prefixes. You could go antidisantidisantidis... for quite some time.) There is merely a practical limit — which likely differs from person to person. – RegDwigнt Jul 4 '11 at 9:35
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    I'm pretty sure that there is a hardcoded limit and it's probably 32 or 64. SCNR. – Joachim Sauer Jul 6 '11 at 12:59

I think you can get a rough idea by grouping affixes according to their rough function and assuming that people wouldn't tend to form words with two affixes of a similar function (e.g. it would be rare to make a word with both "bi-" and "tri-", because they both denote conflicting numbers).

Crystal (Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language) suggests the following categories for what he sees as the 57 "common prefixes in English" (without giving exact criteria):

  • negation ("dis-", "in-")
  • reversal ("de-")
  • disparaging ("mal-")
  • size/degree ("arch-", "sub-")
  • orientation ("anti-", "contra-")
  • location/distance ("extra-", "intra-")
  • time/order ("ex-", "pre-")
  • number ("bi-", "uni-")
  • grammatical conversion

So as a rough guess, we could say that the upper limit on prefixes was roughly one prefix from each of these categories.

As far as suffixes, adapting also from a list of common ones suggested by Crystal, we might suggest that it would be rare to have more than one from each of the following categories in a single word:

  • abstract noun markers ("-dom", "-hood")
  • concrete noun/"agent" markets ("-ster", "-eer", "-ist")
  • word category markers ("-ly", "-ate", "-ify")
  • noun derivation from verb/adjective ("-age", "-ity")
  • inflection/adjective derivation from noun/verb ("-less", "-able")

It's more difficult to combine suffixes because of their tendency to change the word class. As a rough guage of the limit on suffixation, maybe we could say it is around 4 (the first three of these categories, plus one instance of word category "derivation", although occasionally you will get 2 of the latter combined).

So as an "absolute upper limit that would apply in 99% of cases", a sensible conjecture on the basis of the above would be around 13.

On the other hand, if you take a word such as "pseudo/anti/dis/establish/ment/arian/ist/ic/ally" with 8 (or 9 if you include the automatically necessary "al") affixes, this appears intuitively to be reaching the upper end of what is practical...

Update: I should also concur that theoretically you can find corner cases where there is no upper limit. Certain prefixes can themselves be repeated. If you can "re-do" something, you can also "re-re-do" it etc. If I'm an anti-abortionist, somebody who doesn't agree with me is an anti-anti-abortionist, and somebody disagreeing with their philosophy is an anti-anti-anti-abortionist. In music, there is an interesting pattern of nomenclature for short notes ("semiquaver", "demisemiquaver", "hemidemisemiquaver", "semihemidemisemiquaver"...). Suffixes which don't change the word category of the derived word (or combinations which change it back and forth) are also potential candidates. "Loneliness" is the concept of being lonely; "Lonelinessless" is a lack of loneliness; "Lonelinesslessness" is the concept of there being a lack of loneliness etc. The nomenclature of chemicals involves a whole system of affixes that can theoretically be used to name compounds of infinite complexity using "words" of infinite length.

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  • I appreciate the inclusion of prefixes in your answer but I was specifically asking about suffixes only rather than all adfixes and your summing-up seems to answer for total morphemes or total adfixes. – hippietrail Jul 4 '11 at 9:15
  • OK, I think it would be quite rare to have more than one from each of the 5 suffix classes listed above (and as I say, probably the last 2 can be merged in you have 4 classes for the sake of most words). But I suppose with those 4/5 classes in mind it would be worth playing around and seeing how easily you come up with exceptions. – Neil Coffey Jul 4 '11 at 9:25
  • Hmm, we need to see if our streets are extraneighbourhoodifiable :) – mplungjan Jul 4 '11 at 9:31
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    Well, it's all arbitrary. There's no God-given definition of "real word" (or indeed "word")-- it's all a question of the arbitrary criteria that specific editors decide on. Some dictionaries do include chemical formulae (presumably what they see as the more common/commercially interesting ones), whilst others may well decide that "antidisestablishmentarianism" is never actually used except in discussions about the longest word of English. – Neil Coffey Jul 6 '11 at 13:01
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    (I have 2 degrees in linguistics for what it's worth and I'm also the compiler of a dictionary, so I have a vaaague idea about this kind of thing.) – Neil Coffey Jul 7 '11 at 14:21

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