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Review of  The Oxford Reference Guide to English Morphology

Reviewer: Isabel Oltra-Massuet
Book Title: The Oxford Reference Guide to English Morphology
Book Author: Laurie Bauer Rochelle Lieber Ingo Plag
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Text/Corpus Linguistics
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 26.3043

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Review's Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


The Oxford Reference Guide to English Morphology offers a descriptive and up-to-date overview of contemporary English morphology based on a large collection of corpus data. Its main focus lies in describing patterns of structure and current use in word-formation on the basis of attested examples, pointing to their productivity and to some of the theoretical problems associated with it. The volume intends to be a basic resource and reference book for students and scholars interested in the morphology of English.

The book is divided into six parts. The first part is the introduction; it encompasses the aims of the book, aspects of terminology, methodology, and orthography. Parts two to five are mainly descriptive, and deal with inflection [2], derivation [3], compounding [4], and how morphological processes interact with each other [5]. The last part has to do with typological issues as well as some theoretical issues that have been a matter of longstanding debate in morphological theory.

Part I – Introduction

Chapter 1 Aims and structures

In this very short chapter, the authors describe their aims, the scope of the book, and how it is organized. They attempt to provide an overview of English morphology which is as theory-neutral as possible, even if also theoretically informed, that tries to combine recent findings in corpus linguistics, theoretical linguistics, psycholinguistics, and computational linguistics, and that also pays attention to the different varieties of English.

Chapter 2 Basic principles: terminology

In this chapter, the authors provide a relatively theory-neutral terminology, based on uncontroversial definitions of widely accepted terms that are to be used throughout, which include well-known concepts such as word, word-form, lexeme, citation form, grammatical word, morphosyntactic word, orthographic word, phonological word, lexical item, morph, morpheme, allomorph, competition, blocking, word classes, transposition, headedness, inflection, derivation, lexicalization, and a few others that are less standard like extenders, splinter, expletive insertion (which refers to the insertion of forms like bloody, fucking in the middle of a word), availability, profitability, or referencing.

Chapter 3 Basic principles: methods

This chapter provides information on the sources of data, methods of obtaining, treating and analyzing data from the corpora, citing and interpreting data, and the conventions used.

Chapter 4 Orthography

This chapter is concerned with the way morphology interacts with spelling, for instance in the orthographic representation of vowel length when this is affected by a morphological process, e.g. consonant doubling, loss of silent <e>, in cases of replacement, velar softening, or hyphenation in derived words, compounds, and phrasal constituents.

Part II – Inflection

Chapter 5 Verb inflection

This chapter deals with the encoding of morphosyntactic categories in both lexical and auxiliary verbs. After distinguishing between lexical and auxiliary verbs, it considers the verbal paradigm for lexical verbs and regular vs. irregular verbs. It provides an overview of classifications for irregular verbs and of the criteria to be taken into account for such a classification. It further discusses the potential productivity of irregular patterns on the basis of evidence from verbs showing two or more competing patterns and experimental studies on nonce words. The chapter continues with defective paradigms typical of core modals, a short description of the semantics of modals, and a variety of issues that somehow interact with the morphology of auxiliary verbs, such as auxiliary clitics, contracted negation, and to-contraction in forms like ‘want to’ or ‘have to’. They close the chapter with an appendix of 387 irregular verbs, which includes some notes on parallel regular forms.

Chapter 6 Adjective and adverb inflection

This chapter deals with the morphological marking of degree in adjectives and adverbs. After a brief description of the semantics of degree, a brief distinction between qualitative and relational adjectives, and affixal degree morphology, it discusses cases of double comparison, irregular cases, and the factors involved (phonological, morphological, lexicalization, semantic, syntactic, dialectal) in affixal versus periphrastic degree morphology. The authors make use of corpus-based studies and attested examples to conclude that the choice between the analytic and the synthetic comparative is probabilistic rather than strictly grammatically or lexically determined.

Chapter 7 Noun inflection

The chapter is concerned with plural marking and possessive marking in nouns. It describes the orthography and pronunciation of plural marking, as well as the different types of plural (umlaut, n-plurals, unmarked plurals, foreign plurals, and plurals of complex lexical items). It briefly deals with the semantics of the genitive, its spelling, pronunciation, and factors influencing the choice of genitive ‘s or of (animacy, semantic relationship, semantic category of the possessively-marked noun, length and processing constraints, quality of the final segment, etc.).

Chapter 8 Function words: pronouns, determiners, wh-forms, deictics

Chapter 8 is a short chapter dealing with other categories that are subject to inflection marking. Among them we find personal pronouns, possessives, reflexives, demonstratives, relative pronouns, what they call compound determinatives (existential, universal and negative pronouns, i.e. indefinite pronouns), and deictic pro-forms. They discuss alleged sub-morphemic structure in these forms.

Part III – Derivation

Chapter 9 Derivation: phonological considerations

The first chapter of this third part provides an overview of phenomena related to the morphology-phonology interactions in the realm of derivation and the principles that govern them. It introduces issues that have to do with allomorphy, such as prosodic restrictions, truncation, syllabification, (de)gemination, vowel/consonant alternation, or affix allomorphy (partially summarized in tables). It addresses the segmental relevance of extenders; it discusses questions of prosody, e.g. auto-stressed affixes, stress-shifting affixes, stress-preserving affixation; it further introduces the notion of haplology, and continues with an introduction to those prosodic processes that manipulate the syllabic structure of the base to create the derivative, namely clippings, hypocoristics in -ie, and expletive insertion. Finally, it includes an overview of additional phonological restrictions (stress position, number of syllables, foot structure) that different suffixes impose on their bases, and closes with a summary.

Chapter 10 Derived nouns: event, state, result

This chapter deals with the affixes -ing, -ation, -ment, -al, -ure, -ance and the process of conversion to nouns denoting events, states, and results. As in all subsequent chapters dealing with word-formation processes, the description and classification of these affixes takes into account the productivity of each individual affix (or process, in the case of conversion), and the type of affix and base (whether native or non-native). The chapter also discusses a number of semantic considerations related to the range of readings expressed by these nominalizations, the kinds of thematic relations expressed by the affixes, the predictability of nominal semantics, i.e. the relationship between the semantic class of the base verb and the interpretation of the derived nominal, and the degree of predictability of the count versus mass interpretation on the basis of the degree of lexicalization of the derived nominal.

Chapter 11 Derived nouns: personal and participant

It is concerned with morphological processes that derive nouns denoting participants in the event/action/state, be they agents, patients, instruments, locations, gendered forms. They distinguish between (i) subject-referencing affixes, i.e. -er, -ant, -an, -ist, -meister, -ster, -nik, -arian (some attach to V, others to N, and others to other minor categories); (ii) object-referencing affixes, i.e. -ee; (iii) affixes referring to inhabitants and languages, i.e. -ite, -ese, -ish, -i; (iv) gender-related affixes, i.e. -ess, -ette, -trix; and (v) prefixes such as grand-, great-, step-, vice-. These are semantically described on the basis of the polysemy they exhibit along basic thematic domains, i.e. agent, experiencer, stimulus, instrument, patient/theme, goal, location, measure, means. Derivational affixes are characterized as linked to these thematic domains or being athematic. Among the latter we find those nouns denoting inhabitants, followers of a person, names of languages, biological, chemical, geological terms, feminine gendered terms, and kinship terms.

Chapter 12 Derived nouns: quality, collective, and other abstracts

This is the third chapter dealing with derived nouns, which includes all those affixes that form nouns whose interpretation cannot be included in the two previous chapters. The authors provide the formal properties of the affixes first, i.e. category and type, native or non-native nature of the affix and of the base, whether they trigger stress shift or allomorphy, whether they induce an haplology effect, and their productivity, and treat aspects of their semantics afterwards. They include here (i) -ness and -ity, which prefer adjectival bases; (ii) -dom, -ship, and -hood, which prefer noun bases, and typically form abstract nouns; (iii) -ery, -age, -ana, -ia, which prefer nominal bases and typically form collective nouns; (iv) -ism, which prefers noun bases and typically forms nouns expressing system of belief, action, or scientific study; (v) and the suffix -y. They describe their various formal properties together with aspects of their semantics, partially on the basis of an analysis of non-standard derivations.

Chapter 13 Derived verbs

As the authors themselves mention, the derivation of verbs is tackled in different parts of the book, not just in this chapter. Here, they first consider a few non-productive unstressed prefixes (a-, be-, for-, en-), and then concentrate on the typical and very productive verb-forming suffixes -ize, -ify, -ate, as well as conversion and backformation. The suffixes -ize and -ify are treated together, as they are semantically similar and seem to stand in an almost complementary distribution with respect to the phonological conditions they impose on their bases. They look at the types of bases they attach to, the presence of extenders, and the various phonological restrictions and prosodic constraints they are subject to that give rise to stress shift, stress reduction, allomorphy, and haplology effects. The suffix -ate, which has a lower degree of productivity than the other two suffixes, shows a more complex internal structure. Conversion is argued to be a productive process of verb derivation. In this respect, and due to the difficulty of establishing neologisms created through conversion, the authors discuss the procedure they followed in extracting newly coined converted verbs, showing also that the process applies to a variety of bases. As for the process of back-formation, they provide a brief discussion on the kinds of evidence one can find for back-formations, and contribute data that seem to challenge the well-established definition of backformation as deletion of an affix in a morphologically complex word, e.g. Bolshevik - bolsh, which they claim would argue for an analogy analysis. They consider the semantic contribution of these prefixes and suffixes, provide a table listing the various paraphrases that -ize and -ify can obtain, discuss the semantic flexibility of verbs derived by conversion and back-formation, and very briefly discuss the competition among these verb-deriving processes.

Chapter 14 Derived adjectives

After providing a table summarizing the formal characteristics of the different adjective-forming affixes with respect to the category of the base, status with respect to their etymology, either native or non-native, whether it triggers stress shift, whether it can attach to a compound base, or whether it induces allomorphy, these are treated one by one in the following subsections, together with their productivity. Participial adjectives are here just mentioned in a short paragraph, and their discussion is deferred up to chapters 24 and more extensively 25. As in the previous chapters, after looking at the formal properties of affixes, they turn to semantic aspects of the affix and the derivative, specifically they examine them with respect to their argument referencing properties, i.e. whether the derivative is object-referencing, subject-referencing, event-referencing, or non-argumental. Adjectives are further studied with respect to their relational or qualitative nature, and their gradability properties.

Chapter 15 Derived adverbs

The chapter begins with the old debate on the categorial status of adverbs with respect to adjectives, and whether they belong to the same category or not. The authors remain agnostic in this respect, and so the reason to have a separate chapter on derived adverbs is practical rather than theoretical. The chapter continues with an overview of the different adverb-forming affixes, -ly, -s, -ward(s), -ways, -wise, the prefix a-, and conversion.

Chapter 16 Locatives of time and space

This part deals with affixes that express spatial and temporal concepts. They provide a table summarizing the formal properties of locative prefixes, which are classified as native and non-native, before turning to their semantics. Native prefixes and their non-native counterparts are contrasted, both semantically and formally, and also with respect to possible argument structure effects, so individual comparisons between native over- and non-native super-, supra-, sur-; under- versus sub-; fore- versus ante-, pre-; after- versus post-; by- versus peri-; out- versus extra-; in- versus intra- are undertaken.

Chapter 17 Negatives

Beginning with a table summarizing the formal properties of the various negative affixes, namely whether they are category-changing or not, the type of base they take and the category of the base, the chapter continues examining the basic characteristics, phonological and orthographic properties and productivity of negative affixes. It also includes a discussion of the various types of negativity (contrary, contradiction, scale-external negation, stereotype negation, reversative, privative, and pejorative), and provides a table with the distribution of possible readings among the various affixes, after which there is also an examination of affix rivalry. The chapter concludes with a review of alleged semantic restrictions on negative bases.

Chapter 18 Size, quantity, and attitude
This chapter deals with the various morphological means of marking size, quantity, and attitude (evaluation) in English, specifically diminutives, augmentatives, hypocoristics, affixes expressing quantification and measure, and affixes forming cardinal and ordinal numbers. These include the native diminutive affixes -let, -ling, -ie, and the minor suffixes -o, -s, -er, and -kin; non-native affixes: -ette, hypo-, mini-, micro-, nano-. Hypocoristics, clipped names, and suffixed hypocoristics such as -ie, -o, -s, -zza are analyzed as diminutives and also as examples of evaluative morphological derivation. Other attitudinal affixes are the prefixes pseudo- and quasi-. The prefixes anti- and pro- illustrate the case of non-evaluative attitudinal morphology. Among augmentatives, we find the prefixes hyper-, maxi- and midi-, mega-, super-, ultra-, and turbo-. As in the previous chapter, there are also sections on prefix rivalry. The affixes -ful, verbal re-, -fold, -some, -ton, -ish, and hypo- exemplify the morphological ways to express quantification and measure treated in this chapter.

Part IV – Compounding

Chapter 19 Compounds: formal considerations
This first chapter on compounding deals with the formal properties of compounds, beginning with the definition of a compound and whether it is to be considered in the morphology or it is built in syntax. It also provides a discussion on the differences and similarities between compounding, affixoids and neoclassical compounds. It further deals with the internal structure of compounds, questions of headedness, constituency, stress, and orthography. Finally, it outlines the basic characteristics of the different types of compounds, namely, nominal compounds, verbal compounds, adjectival compounds, prepositional compounds, neo-classical compounds, phrasal compounds, reduplicative compounds and blends.

Chapter 20 Compounds: semantic considerations

This second chapter on compounding concentrates on a semantic classification that takes into account the syntactico-semantic relationship between the components of the compound, in order to distinguish between argumental compounds and non-argumental compounds, showing that the distinction is not clear-cut, in that for instance many argumental compounds can have non-argumental interpretations. The semantic classification takes also the basic notions of endocentricity and exocentricity into account, and provides a semantic analysis of the various types of compounds presented in the previous chapter, showing that the semantics of blends and neoclassical compounds mostly parallel that of more standard compounds.

Part V – Interaction

Chapter 21 Combination of affixes

Chapter 21 discusses complex words containing more than one affix, including the few cases of parasynthetic affixation there are in English, cases combining conversion and affixation, or cases combining inflection and derivation.

Chapter 22 Affixation on compounds and phrases
These pages deal with derived forms created through affixation to compound or phrasal bases. The chapter provides five tables with examples illustrating suffixes and that frequently take compounds as bases, suffixes and prefixes that only occasionally attach to compounds, and affixes on phrasal bases. They further discuss the factors involved in making affixation on compounds and phrases available, and the role of lexicalization in this type of affixation, concluding that it is by no means infrequent, though the only generalization that can be established has to do with the productivity of the affix: where an affix is productive it will be available for compound and phrasal affixation.

Chapter 23 Paradigmatic processes

This chapter deals with cases of inflection, derivation, compounding, and splinters, where the notion of paradigm is claimed to play a crucial role, in the sense that such cases could only be analyzed by making reference to paradigms and analogy.

Part VI – Themes

Chapter 24 Inflection versus derivation

This deals with the distinction between derivation and inflection, an old problem in the morphological literature. The authors mention some cases that have been discussed in the literature as showing mixed properties, specifically the nominal plural, adverbial marking with -ly, ordinal -th, the numerical formatives -teen and -ty, the participles, as well as other clear-cut cases. The authors conclude that even though the distinction between inflection and derivation can be maintained in English, it does not help to understand any other aspect of the morphology of English.

Chapter 25 The analysis and limits of conversion

This chapter discusses the process of conversion, focusing on two main aspects: on the one hand, it attempts to delimit the properties of the process of conversion, so that it can clearly distinguish between those cases that can be said to be representative of this process and those that can not; on the other hand, it seeks to assess the various theoretical approaches to conversion that can be found in the literature. The process of conversion is defined on the basis of three main canonical criteria, which are then used to decide on a number of case studies, namely de-adjectival nouns preceded by ‘the’ such as ‘the rich’, de-adjectival nouns that take any determiner like ‘an intellectual’, adjectives with plural noun counterparts, like ‘news’, cases where words are mentioned, as in ‘the buts’, formations related to prepositions such as ‘a down’, cases with an additional phonological change, either devoicing, as in ‘believe - belief’, or cases of stress shift, as in ‘frágment-fragmén’t, the various uses of participles, cases of type coercion involving a subcategorization, e.g. count versus mass, transitive versus intransitive, proper versus common, forms that can be used as either adjective or adverb, and the use of compounds or phrases in categorically unexpected contexts. In the second part of the chapter, after a revision of the main approaches to conversion, the authors conclude that their approach based on the cluster of conditions established at the beginning is to be preferred in that it avoids a number of theoretical problems, such as positing zero morphemes.

Chapter 26 Blocking, competition, and productivity

This chapter discusses aspects related to the three notions of the title, as they have been - and still are - central in some theories of morphology. The authors conclude that the notion of blocking does not find support in their data, which is incompatible with the notion of competition, which is pervasive. As for the notion of productivity, even though it is clear that it is important in the description of the data, it can be very difficult to establish the productivity of individual morphological processes, and their theoretical importance is open to interpretation and controversial.

Chapter 27 The nature of stratification

This chapter is concerned with theoretical issues related to the interaction between native and non-native aspects of the morphology of English. In particular, it presents a study of the various combinatorial patterns of (non)-native prefixes and suffixes, here presented in the form of eleven tables, and the consequences that can be drawn for claims on stratification made within theoretical frameworks like the Lexical Phonology and Morphology. The authors conclude that neither native affixation nor non-native affixation seems to be stratified.

Chapter 28 English morphology in a typological perspective

These pages present a typological comparison between English, German, and French. The chapter first considers a Humboldtian typological classification of English and a classification based on Comrie’s (1981) intersecting indices of synthesis and fusion. Then, it discusses aspects of the inflection (word-based versus stem-based inflection, plural and case marking, etc.), derivation (word-based versus stem-based derivation, headedness, etc.), conversion, and compounding patterns of English in contrast to Germanic and Romance in an attempt to offer a finer-grained typological view of the morphology of English.

Chapter 29 English morphology and theories of morphology

After a brief discussion of the different traditional approaches to morphology, namely Item and Arrangement, Item and Process, and Word and Paradigm, the authors consider also the appropriateness of realizational and non-realizational models for the morphology of English, and discusses analogical models of morphological analysis and Construction Morphology. They further introduce a number of specific rules and claims made in the literature, and discuss whether they can be maintained for English on the basis of the data discussed in the previous chapters. They specifically examine the Righthand Head Rule, the Unitary Base and Unitary Output Hypothesis, blocking and the Elsewhere Condition, Level Ordering and Bracket Erasure in the Lexical Phonology and Morphology model, the Monosuffix Constraint, the First Sister Principle, and the Lexical Integrity Hypothesis. They conclude with some implications of their study.


The book’s main aim is to provide a comprehensive overview of contemporary English morphology. There is no doubt that the authors have achieved this main goal. The data coverage is impressive, as it brings together a large quantity of previously undiscussed data that covers all areas of the discipline, from inflection to the various processes of word-formation. They discuss, for example, the high productivity of word-formation processes that take compounds or phrasal constituents as bases, and the so-called minor word-formation processes like blends or clippings.

This book fills a gap in the literature and will be an essential reference for anyone interested in the morphology of English. It can be of benefit to instructors, linguistic researchers, and students, both beginners and advanced, looking for a quick overview of the many issues, problems, and intricacies of English morphology.

One of the most exciting ideas that the reader may obtain from reading the book is
that there is still much to do, much to study, examine, and analyze to
understand the various processes of word building. So, despite its characterization as a descriptive and theory-neutral overview of morphology, the authors mention interesting examples that represent real theoretical challenges, e.g. comparison in compounds, or the probabilistic nature of degree inflectional marking (whether synthetic or analytic), or the possible correlations that deserve further analysis, e.g. native vs. non-native conversion forms in eventive contexts.

Now I will point out some possible general drawbacks that have to do with issues of organization, terminology, and the theory-neutral status of the description.

On the one hand, the chapters on derivation are organized on a semantic basis, so that information on individual affixes is scattered throughout, i.e. properties of a single affix are often to be found in different subsections or even in different chapters. For instance, despite the semantic division of nominalizing suffixes, words in “-age” that should be introduced in chapter 10 due to their semantics, are left for chapter 12, to keep them with other “-age” words. Or, a suffix like “-y”, which can derive both event nominal and abstract nouns, must be treated in separate chapters, even though, as the authors already mention, it is difficult to distinguish both readings in some cases. Even though one gets used to the organization of the book, this can occasionally create some confusion. In any event, it is also true that the book is full of indications referring the reader to (sub)sections or chapters that provide further information.

As for the terminological issue, at some points the authors create new terminology, e.g. on referencing, on pronouns, even though they also say that “we will continue using the established terminology, but without a commitment to the derivational approaches that underlie this terminology” (p.164). Besides, they introduce concepts without defining them, e.g. “haplology” is first introduced on p.112, but its definition does not arrive until p.189; the notions of trochee and dactyl are first introduced on p.112 without being characterized; also, the section on compound determinatives, which does actually not discuss them, creates confusion with this non-standard terminology. Given that the book is addressed to “the widest possible audience”, this can be problematic.

Finally, one of the main aims of the book is to remain “as theory-neutral as possible”, and I am not certain that it fully succeeds in this respect. On the one hand, it is true that the authors tend to use traditional classifications and standard terminological labels--although they do not always succeed, as mentioned in the previous paragraph. However, the morphological description is essentially restricted to lexicalist-oriented works, as well as the references cited in the text, with just a couple of references to neoconstructionist or syntax-oriented morphological literature. As a consequence the volume loses the opportunity to be an all-inclusive reference book that gains insight from all sides.

On a more formal side, the style is clear, and the book is well produced and almost free of typos. I have detected just these six: p.66: allomorphs; p.146-147: no (58d), d has been skipped; p.414: (88) instead of (90); p.439: the definition; p.440-441: there is no; p.616: heterogenous.

The use of tables summarizing the main points discussed, presenting the main characteristics of the various processes, or exemplifying processes help the reader get a more general view of the phenomena. In this respect, it would have been helpful to have some more summaries and concluding sections, which are available only in a few chapters.

To conclude, this volume is an excellent resource and reference book. It shows that there is still a long way to go in understanding the morphology of English, and this book will certainly be a helpful tool to use along the way.
I hold an SM and a PhD in Linguistics. My main research interests are morphology and its interface with phonology, syntax, and semantics, as well as the interface lexicon-syntax-semantics. I currently teach English grammar, English linguistics, and Pragmatics in the English language classroom at the Universitat Rovira i Virgili in Tarragona.

Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9780199579266
Pages: 704
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