There are two main types of morpheme in English: ‘free’ morphemes and ‘bound’ morphemes. ‘Free’ morphemes can be used on their own, in much the same way that a main clause makes sense on its own (whereas a subordinate/dependent clause does not). For example, the definite article ‘the’ is a morpheme as well as being a word. It doesn’t need to be attached to another word to serve a function.

‘Bound’ morphemes, on the other hand, need to be attached to other words to make sense. An ‘affix’ is a type of bound morpheme that is added to an existing word to create a new word. An affix placed in front of a word is called a ‘prefix’, and is generally used to change the word’s meaning. An affix placed at the end of a word is called a ‘suffix’ and generally changes the word’s grammatical function. In this blog we will focus on suffixes. (The ‘un’ in ‘unfriendly’ is an example of a prefix, whereas the ‘-ish’ in ‘greenish’ is an example of a suffix.

There are many different suffixes, which can be divided into two main types: vowel suffixes and consonant suffixes. As their names suggest, these suffixes either begin with a vowel, e.g. -ed, -ance, -ation, -est (and so on) or a consonant, e.g. -ship, -ness, -ment, -s.

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We can go further and say there are noun suffixes, verb suffixes and adjective suffixes. Some examples of noun suffixes are ‘-acy’ (which means state or quality), ‘-ism’ ( belief or system), ‘ment’ (condition), etc. Think of the words ‘democracy’, ‘Judaism’ and ‘contentment’. Respectively, they mean the concept of being democratic or an instance of this; the Jewish faith; and a person’s content state of mind.

There are some rules we can follow when using suffixes. Let’s look at a few of them now.

One convention relates to adding consonant suffixes to a word: in many cases, the spelling of the root word should remain the same. So we have ‘ill’ – ‘illness’; ‘bright’ – ‘brightness’; ‘dark’ – ‘darkly’ and so on.

An exception is when the root word has more than one syllable and ends in ‘y’ – in this case we change the ‘y’ to ‘i’ before adding a suffix that does not begin with ‘i’. So for example, ‘happy’ becomes ‘happiness’; ‘sunny’ – ‘sunniest’, etc. For suffixes beginning with ‘i’, we don’t change the ‘y’ to ‘i’, e.g. ‘study’ – ‘studying’.

Another rule involves the doubling of consonants before adding a suffix. When a word of one syllable ends in the pattern ‘consonant – vowel – consonant’ – for example the word ‘stop’ (t-o-p) – we double the final letter before adding the suffix, i.e. ‘stopped’. We don’t double the consonant when the word ends in two consonants, when two vowels come before the consonant or if the word ends in the letters ‘w’ or ‘y’.

Generally you have to learn which suffix is appropriate for each word, although we can narrow down our choice of morpheme depending on what type of word we wish to create. For example, if we wish to change the adjective ‘short’ to become a verb, we would use the suffix ‘-en’ (‘shorten’). We only use ‘-en’ to create verbs. Using a suffix such as ‘-ity’ would not work, as that suffix is used for nouns, not verbs.

Alternatively, we only use ‘-ship’ for nouns, e.g. ‘friendship’ (‘-ship’ means ‘a position held’). Here are some more examples of suffixes:


Verb suffixes

-ate (means ‘become’) – create, collaborate.

-ify (‘make or become’) – identify, simplify (or even Spotify; although this is a brand name, it is a classic example of using a suffix to create a new word)

-ise (‘become’) – publicise, dramatise


Noun suffixes

-ity (‘quality of’) – credulity, banality

-sion/tion (‘state of being’) – revolution, promotion

-ance, -ence (‘state or quality of’) – tolerance, acceptance, reference


Adjective suffixes

-ical (‘having the form or character of’) – musical, hypocritical

-ful (‘notable for’) – worshipful, hopeful, incredible

-ive (‘having the nature of’) – attentive, informative, sensitive

Take our blog test to see how you do with suffixes.


A. Porter

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