LINGUIST List 15.1379

Mon May 3 2004

Review: Morphology: Plag (2003)

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  1. Evanthia Petropoulou, Word-Formation in English

Message 1: Word-Formation in English

Date: Sun, 2 May 2004 19:15:47 -0400 (EDT)
From: Evanthia Petropoulou <>
Subject: Word-Formation in English

Plag, Ingo (2003) Word-Formation in English, Cambridge University
Press, Cambridge Textbooks in Linguistics.

Announced at

Evanthia Petropoulou, unaffiliated.


This textbook offers an introduction to the study of word formation
using English as the subject language. It is aimed mainly for students
''with little or no prior linguistic knowledge'', because it offers in
a very accessible way all the basic concepts that underlie the
formation of words. At the same time, it encourages the student to
engage him/herself in conducting their own study of word formation
phenomena, by thoroughly referring to up-to-date methodology in
morphological research and through a number of exercises. It consists
of seven chapters, each of them ending in a brief summary, suggestions
for further reading and a set of exercises. It is a very good book
that also makes an excellent textbook not only for the variety of
topics it covers, but mainly for their way of presentation.

After a brief introduction which serves as a quick look through the
contents of the book for its optimal use, Chapter 1(Basic Concepts)
introduces the reader to word formation by presenting some basic
concepts. It begins with defining the notion of ''word'', through the
application of orthographical, semantic, phonological, syntactic and
''word integrity'' criteria, without being very scholarly about the
definition of ''word'', but rather trying to familiarize the reader as
much as possible with this linguistic entity. Then, the real study of
word formation begins with the introduction of the relevant
terminology (complex words, free and bound morphemes, root, stem,
base, prefix, suffix, affix, derivative, infix) through a look at a
number of examples. A brief presentation of the processes that
morphological entities are involved in follows, such as compounding,
concatenation, conversion, zero-affixation, transposition (the last
three presented as equals at this stage), truncation, clipping,
diminutives, blends, acronyms and abbreviation, all of which are
separately presented and explained later in the book. The chapter ends
with a distinction between inflection and derivation, through a
thorough and precise comparative analysis, concluding with the
placement of inflection outside the realm of word formation.

Chapter 2(Studying complex words) discusses the complications that
arise in the actual analysis of some cases in word formation of
English. The morpheme is presented as a unit of form and meaning, a
minimal linguistic sign that combines with another into compositional
expressions with identifiable form and meaning. Other types of
combination of morphemes with different implications on the mapping of
form and meaning are then discussed under this prism, such as
conversion, extended exponence and vowel alternation resulting to
addition of meaning, all presented as problematic cases in this
respect. The case of bound roots of Latinate origin (e.g. -fer,
-ceive, etc.) is extensively discussed also as a problematic case
under the same prism. The case of allomorphy is presented in the next
section, both base and affix allomorphy, along with the
morphologically and phonologically conditioned and complementary
distribution of allomorphs. The next topic is the establishment of
word-formation rules, with all the important methodological and
theoretical considerations in the process of constructing them,
presented and explained through an analysis of the prefix un- towards
the formulation of the relevant word formation rule(s). Word formation
rules are then juxtaposed with redundancy rules and then analogy is
presented as an alternative view. The chapter ends with the
presentation of cases of multiple affixation, the complexity of which
is best explained through tree diagrams and bracketing.

Chapter 3(Productivity and the mental lexicon), discusses the
productivity of affixes, beginning with a short section on the
definition of productivity and the important distinction between
actual and possible words in the mental lexicon of the speakers of a
language. The next section looks deeper into the mental lexicon, the
representation, storage and processing of words (whole-word or
decomposition route), by bringing data from psycholinguistic research
and presenting a number of examples. It ends with a special focus on
the frequency of occurrence of a word, which gives the author the
opportunity to make reference to the corpora as media for measuring
the frequency. In the next section the major topic of measuring
productivity is dealt with, with the presentation and evaluation of
different methods and angles for measuring productivity, all of them
being related to the notion of frequency (type frequency, token
frequency, extent of use, etc.). In a description of measuring the
productivity of the suffix -able, through the application of different
methods and the use of tools such as dictionaries and a corpus, the
author concludes that each measure highlights a different aspect of
productivity. The final section presents and discusses those factors
that constrain productivity, namely the pragmatic and structural
restrictions that prevent all ''potentially useful words'' from being
''actually created and used'' (p.60). At last blocking is extensively
discussed, focusing on the distinction and the discussion of the
different types of blocking (homonymy and synonymy blocking, type and
token blocking).

Chapter 4(Affixation) is the first of the three chapters that
concentrate on each of the word formation processes. The notion of
''affix'' is attempted to be defined in greater detail, through the
presentation of problematic cases that aim at distinguishing firstly
between free and bound morphemes and secondly between affixes and
combining forms such as the neoclassical elements. The next section
concentrates on issues of methodology for the study of affixes.
Beginning with reverse dictionaries, the discussion focuses on the
electronic version of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) with
specific guidelines for its optimal use. Possible queries for the
retrieval of data forthe suffix -ment in the OED and the BNC format
are presented. The next section discusses common features exhibited
by English affixes, especially on their phonological properties and
the possible generalizations on the types of suffixes that ''may
trigger phonological alternations''(p.80). For this reason, a long
part of this section is devoted to the familiarization of the reader
with the notion of the ''prosodic structure'' of words, explained with
all the necessary details, the use of a number of examples. Certain
properties of affixes of etymological nature that play a role in word
formation are then presented. The rest of the chapter contains a
one-by-one presentation of a great number of suffixes and some
prefixes of English. The suffixes are grouped according to the
grammatical category of the derivative they create and their
description contains basic information on their semantics, their
morphology and their structural restrictions (p.80). This account on
affixes is mainly descriptive, giving this part of the book ''the
characterof a reference text''(p.86), as the author also points out,
of the book as a whole. The chapter ends with the discussion of
infixation and its ambiguous status in the realm of word formation,
mainly due to its restricted presence in English.

Chapter 5(Derivation without affixation) deals with non-affixational
word formation processes, such as conversion, truncation, clipping and
abbreviation, which are here looked upon in greater detail. The first
section deals with conversion and some major theoretical problems
raised by it, presented in separate sub-sections (directionality of
conversion, zero-morphs, morphological or syntactic nature of
conversion), while possible ways of resolving them are proposed. The
next section titled ''Prosodic Morphology'' contains those non-
affixational processes where prosody plays a great role, namely
truncations and blends. Through an extensive discussion and a number
of examples, the author argues against those views that want to
exclude these processes from the regular word formation processes and
what has been called ''grammatical morphology''(p.126). Abbreviations
and acronyms are lastly presented as similar to truncation and
blending processes, with a major difference, that orthography, rather
than prosody plays a great role here.

Chapter 6 (Compounding) deals exclusively with the case of
compounding, recognizing compounds as ''binary
structures''(p.134). The modifier-head structure, the right-hand
headedness and the feature percolation that results from these, are
presented as characteristic features of compounds that distinguish
them from lexicalized phrases. Stress is another such feature also
presented, together with the possible stress patterns in compounds
consisting of more than two elements and their interpretations. The
chapter then looks into the possible combinations of grammatical
categories that can appear in a compound. The following section, quite
a long one, deals exclusively with nominal compounds and different
types of them are analyzed in great detail (endocentric vs exocentric,
possessive and copulative, appositional vs. coordinative), as well as
the challenges they bring to the general properties of compounds
stated earlier. More canonical endocentric compounds are next
discussed from a semantic viewpoint, examining a combination of
important factors. Adjectival, verbal and neoclassical compounds are
presented and discussed in separate sub-sections and from all aspects,
such as combination and stress patterns. Similarly with conversion,
the last section of compounding deals with ''the question of whether
compounds are morphological or syntactic objects''(p.160) which is
discussed in great length applying criteria, presenting arguments for
and against the two views and finally suggesting an answer in favour
of the morphological view, pointing out though that the absence of a
well- defined theory of syntax is a major drawback for the problem's

The last chapter of the book (Theoretical issues: modeling word
formation) presents and discusses prevalent theories developed on word
formation. Beginning with some words, aimed mainly for students, on
the necessity of the formulation of an precise and efficient theory,
the chapter continues with the description and discussion of the
theoretical background of the interaction between morphology and
phonology, beginning with the theory of Lexical Phonology. The author
describes in few words how the theory emerged and outlines its basic
concepts. Cyclic morphological rules and level-ordering are thoroughly
explained. The advantages of the theory along with the solutions it
offers in certain problem areas are presented next, while the
following sub-section comes to criticize the theory, presenting its
inadequacy by leaving certain phenomena unaccounted for. The next
sub-section presents some alternative theories and brings up-to-date
findings from psycholinguistic research. According to Plag (1999) and
Fabb (1988), a theory that ''focuses on suffix-particular affix-driven
and base-driven restrictions'' (p.175)* proves to be more adequate in
the solution of empirical problems than a solely affix-driven
theory. Moreover, an approach that relies on the segmentability of
affixes, according to Hay (2002), and the consideration of the
relative frequency between the base and its derivative as an important
factor can lead to important generalizations about suffixes.

In the last half of the chapter, the nature of word-formation rules,
which have already been used in previous chapters, is more
systematically discussed, as ''a mechanism or device that, speaking in
very general terms, relates complex words to each other''. However, a
device that ''can be conceptualized very differently according to
different theories'' (p. 179)*. To illustrate this, the author
contradicts the two theories pertinent to this issue, namely the
morpheme-based and the word-based theory. Devoting the same length of
text, to the presentation and discussion of each of them, the
discussion starts with the morpheme-based, focusing on the word-syntax
approach, and pinpointing its advantages in the analysis of
affixational morphology, and its weaknesses in non-affixational
processes. The discussion of the word-based theory, which follows,
focuses on the construction of morphological schemata, and analyses
their advantages in the analysis of both affixational and non-
affixational morphology, compared to word-formation rules. Although,
obviously being in favour of the word-based theory, the author ends
the chapter and the whole book, admitting the necessity of both models
and proposing a synthesis of the two views, which would serve for more
empirical adequacy.


Sixteen years after publishing Laurie Bauer's ''English
Word-Formation'' (1988), the same series come with the publication of
Ingo Plag's book on the same topic under a slightly different title,
''Word-Formation in English''. The two books are quite different, both
due to the progress in the study of word formation, but also due to
the different style of presentation. This book resembles a long
discussion on the topic of word-formation in English and its study,
rather than a neat, one-by-one account of the different phenomena,
processes and problems. This does not mean that it is not well
structured. On the contrary, as it can be seen from the order of the
seven chapters of the book, it resembles any other book on English
word-formation. What is important is what is going on inside each
chapter. The author has adopted throughoutthe whole book a
''problem-oriented didactic approach'' (p.86). The problematic cases
are not presented as marginal ones, but as facts along with the more
canonical cases.An advantage of this problem- oriented approach is
thatoffers the reader the opportunity to consider the problematic
areas and urges him/her to engage actively in the study of word
formation. In general it is very welcoming in this respect.

The book is very readable both as a textbook and as an up-to-date
reference on word-formation processes in English. It has a simple
language and a straightforward style that is free from complexities,
features that are very important for a textbook. It was written
without a particular theoretical framework in mind, and in general,
theory is avoided throughout the whole book (apart from Chapter 7,
which deals specifically with theoretical issues), with the various
facts, processes and problems being presented as neutrally as
possible, using only the necessary amount of terminology, however
without being inadequate in this respect. Another point that was
stated earlier and can be seen in the synopsis, is that the book
familiarizes the reader to a great extent with the up-to-date
methodology and tools for conducting research in the field of
word-formation. Sometimes whole sections, intended for this purpose,
such as guidelines for using the BNC for measuring productivity or the
CD-ROM version of the OED in search of neologisms with a certain
suffix, especially in the middle of a chapter explaining productivity
or affixation, at first might look as irrelevant or as being 'too
practical' for the matters being discussed. In my opinion, this is
not the case though, as apart from the familiarization issue, the
author indicates and emphasizes, sometimes in a very straightforward
way, how important the correct use of the available research tools is
in drawing correct conclusions.

The great advantage of this book, in my opinion, is that it literally
is intended also for readers with ''withlittle or no prior linguistic
knowledge''. This is evident in the way every piece of information is
presented not only those relating to word formation or morphology, but
also those relating to other areas of linguistics, such as syntax or
semantics. For example for the explanation of the approach of ''word
syntax'', in chapter 7, the ''little bit of syntactic theory'' that is
necessary, is provided inside the book. Another strong feature of this
book is the section of the exercises that ends every chapter. These
exercises are divided into two levels (beginner and advanced) and
apart from helping the student assimilate the information provided in
each chapter, they also urge him/her to conduct a kind of a short
study on certain phenomena. Certain things might be presented slightly
simplified for the needs of an exercise, but by no means does this
disillusion the student. The answer key is also very valuable, as the
answers to the exercises are very analytically presented, even if this
means having to repeat things already presented inside each chapter.

In general terms, in this book the author succeeds in what is a
prerequisite for a textbook in order to be good: get in the position
of the student, distance oneself from all the acquired knowledge and
explain things anew. Someone reading it, feels quite knowledgeable not
only about the principles of English word formation, but also about
the study of word formation in general.


Bauer, Laurie,(1988) English Word-Formation. Cambridge : Cambridge
University Press, Cambridge Textbooks in Linguistics.

Fabb, Nigel (1988) ''English Suffixation is constrained only by
selectional restrictions'', Natural Language and Linguistic Theory

Hay, Jennifer (2002) ''From Speech persception to Morphology: affix-
ordering revisited'', Language 78.3:527-555.

Plag, Ingo (1999) Morphological Productivity: Structural constraints
in English Derivation. Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter.


Evanthia Petropoulou has participated in the SNSF-Research Program
"Word Formation as a Structuring Device in English and Italian
Lexicons: A large-scale exploration", at the University of Basel, as a
research lexicographer. Her main research interest is on combining
forms of neoclassical origin and their status in word-formation
systems of various European languages. At the moment she teaches
English in Greece, trying at the same time to find ways to continue
her research and complete a PhD thesis.
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