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Review of  Word-Formation in English

Reviewer: Evanthia Petropoulou
Book Title: Word-Formation in English
Book Author: Ingo Plag
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Morphology
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 15.1379

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Date: Sun, 2 May 2004 18:11:44 +0200
From: Evanthia Petropoulou
Subject: Word-Formation in English

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

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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