The Importance of Word Formation

Word Formation is a kind of exercise you'll find in some Cambridge Exams such as FCE, CAE and CPE in the Use of English section. In this task you have to change the word given (or the root) so that it fits the sentence logically and grammatically. For example, you may be asked to alter the word fit so that it makes sense in this sentence: In some ways she was very unsuited to this life—indeed she has described herself as a __________ . (Seasons of my life. Hauxwell, Hannah and Cockcroft, Barry. London: Random Century Group, 1989).

After figuring out that the missing word can only be a singular noun, you try adding different suffixes and prefixes until you finally get the correct wordmisfit. Many English learners discover how useful studying word formation is only when it comes to taking exams. In this article I would like to change that view and show the advantages of word formation even for those who are not going to take Cambridge exams anytime soon.

When you first learn the word “do” at beginner level, you learn it as an auxiliary in the present simple.

  • She doesn't go to work every day.
  • I don't like apples.

You also learn “do” as an action verb which usually goes in such collocations:

  • do sports
  • do homework
  • do housework

As a computer user you come across “undo” when you want to cancel your previous action. Then, usually at pre-intermediate level, you are faced with more collocations:

  • undo a button
  • undo a shirt

“Undo” also means to open something that is fastened, tied or wrapped.

At intermediate level you may come across the verb “outdo,” which means to do more or better than somebody else.

  • She tried hard to outdo her sister.

You will probably meet the verb “overdo” in advanced learners’ books.

  • Don't overdo the salt in the food.

And you are unlikely to meet the word “wrongdoing” anywhere but in fiction and articles. Formed by compounding the adjective “wrong” and the gerund “doing,” it means illegal or dishonest behavior.

What I mean is, why wait when you can learn all of these meanings together? Prefixes such as “un,” “over,” and “out” make three more words out of one. And you must agree, their definitions are quite easy to work out. They are not like multi-part or phrasal verbs. “Do away with,” “do somebody in,” and “do out of” are not such easy examples to guess.

My advice is this: make your life easier and start learning words in packages. If you don't want to learn five words instead of onejust take a look at them and mark prefixes and suffixes so that you'll recognize the words later.

And it goes without saying that word formation adds to your language feeling. You will soon see that you can guess new forms based on the stem you already know and you will even be able to invent your own words to create a humorous effect. You may notice this in popular television shows. Take the word “lawyered” from the series How I Met Your Mother. This word, said when a lawyer wins an argument, actually means “beaten by a lawyer.” The noun “lawyer” in this case is used as a verb which can be turned into an adjective by adding -ed like in many words we know.

  • tire - tired
  • excite - excited
  • lawyer - lawyered

Studying word formation will also let you invent new words to describe things that haven't existed before. For example, the series Jersey Shore made the word “tanorexia,” (coined in the 1980s according to the Oxford dictionary) very popular. Created by blending “tan” and “anorexia,” it describes a syndrome where an individual feels unacceptably pale and has an urgent need to darken their complexion by excessive use of skin tanning methods.

Now that you're looking forward to starting improving the way you've been learning vocabulary, you may wonder if there is a magical resource where you can type a headword and see all its derivatives. Yes, there you go. The British Council cares about us English learners! Try this website here.

You can also limit the amount of words you'll see by ticking the level box. Type the word “work,” for example, and enjoy the whole package of easy-to-learn words: worker, workman, workshop, co-worker, workmate, overwork, overworked and many more. If you want to check your word formation skills there are a lot of exercises online. I recommend these ones.