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Classification and comparative analysis of English negative affixes

Morphemes also can be divided into overt and covert. The latter shows the meaningful absence of a morpheme distinguished in the opposition of grammatical forms in paradigms [4, 59]. For example in the paradigm of noun in the word hand –s is a covert morpheme. As suffixes can be either present or absent in the word structure they can be of both kinds in different contexts.

Full or meaningful morphemes are opposed to empty morphemes. The later ones have no meaning like the full ones, for example, in the word ‘children’ child- is the root of the word, bearing the core of the meaning, -en is the suffix of the plural, while -r- is an empty morpheme. In this case it is clear that suffixes can also be of both kinds, but usually, as it was already mentioned, they have a certain meaning [4, 59].

Segmental morphemes consist of phonemes, while supra-segmental leave the phonemic content of the word unchanged, but the meaning of the word is specified with the help of various supra-segmental lingual units, like in `convert (a noun) - con`vert (a verb). As suffixes refer to the segmental level, they are all segmental morphemes [4, 60].

Additive morphemes, which are freely combined in a word, e.g.: look+ed, small+er, are opposed to replacive morphemes, or root morphemes, which replace each other in paradigms, e.g.: sing -sang – sung [4, 60]. Within this classification affixes are sure to refer to additive morphemes.

And one more division is to continuous and discontinuous morphemes. Continuous ones are combined with each other in the same word, like in worked, while discontinuous consist of two components, used to form analytical forms, for example, is running [4, 60]. As affixes can not consist of several parts, so they are continuous.

The specification of affixes themselves can be of two kinds: lexical and grammatical. And according to this criterion there are lexical, or word-building, or derivational affixes and grammatical, or word changing affixes. The latest group expresses different morphological categories, such as number, case, tense and others. Grammar study is primarily concerned with grammatical affixes, because they change the word according to its grammatical categories and serve to insert the word into an utterance. Lexical affixes serve to build new words, grammatical – to change the form of the word, for example, go – goes [4, 56]. Regarding this classification we can come to a conclusion that negative affixes, which we are interested in, refer to the group of lexical affixes, as they change the lexical meaning of the word, not its form. For example, smoker – a person who smokes; non-smoker – a person who does not smokes. Prefixes in English are only lexical, they do not transform a word into another part of speech (understand-misunderstand). Suffixes can be both lexical and grammatical. For example, home-homeless, but go-goes. Grammatical suffixes are also called inflexions (inflections, inflectional endings) [4, 56].

Grammatical suffixes form word-changing, or morphological paradigms of words, which is typical for inflexional languages, but they can be observed in English too (boy-boys). Lexical affixes are the subject of lexicology, because they change the meaning of the word. In grammar they are regarded as formal indicators of belonging of the word to one or another part of speech. They form lexical (word-building, or derivational) paradigms of words united by a common root, for example, to decide - decision - decisive – decisively [4, 56].

Affixes can also be divided according to their position. They are divided into prefixes (before the root) and suffixes (after the root) [5, 136]. There are other types of affixes in different languages, but prefixes and suffixes are the most typical for English. As we have seen, the negative affixes tend to come mostly from prefixes.

One more meaningful parameter in classification of affixes is their semantic impact, due to which they are united in semantic groups of a type:

-affixes with meaning of similarity (-al, -ial, -ed, -esque, -ful, -ic, -ical, -ish, -like, -ly, -ous, -some, -y, crypto-, neo- etc.);

-affixes with meaning of denying (a-, dis-, in-, non-, un-, -less), and it is the group of our particular interest, as they also can de called negative;

-diminutive affixes (-ette, -ie/-y, -ikin, -let, -ling);

-affixes with meaningof the person (-an, -ian, -arian, -ant, -ard, -by, her(it), -een, -eer, -er, -ess, -ette, -ician, -ie, -ing, -ist, -ister, -kin, -ing, -ster, -ton);

-affixes with meaning of number (bi-, demi-, di-, mono-, multi-, pan-, poly-, semi-, tri-, twi-, uni-);

and many others. It is impossible to speak about one complete classification of this type, because many affixes are polysemantic and different lexicologist refer them to different groups [5, 148].

Prefixes and suffixes form various subgroups depending on what from all variety of properties, that they inherit, is selected as classification parameter. That can become, for example their origin, on the basis of which there is a division into native affixes and borrowed [5, 145]. As an example of borrowed affix we can take anti-, as in anticyclone, and as native – less, as in motionless.

There is also one more very important classification of affixes. It is known that affixes are attached to stems of different parts of speech. And according to this they are called:

-substantive (like anti-, non-, dis-, -less);

-adjectival (like dis-, un-, in-)

-verbal (like dis-, de-, mis-);

-adverbial (like un-, anti-, re-, non-) [5, 146].

For example, if we take a noun ability, it can be attached with a prefix dis-: disability. A verbal stem code can be transformed with the verbal prefix de: decode. An adverbial stem, like easily, can be attached with the adverbial prefix un-: uneasily.

It is also noteworthy to mention, that the basis of the classification can be the part of speech, into which the given affix transforms a word. This classification is referred to suffixes, as their role in definition of the characteristics of derivatives’ parts of speech is more obvious, than that of prefixes. It is interesting that the names of the groups are the same as in the previous classification. So while classification the criteria for it must always be mentioned. The groups are:

-substantive (-dom, -ness);

-verbal (-en, -ize);

-adverbial (-ly);

-adjectival (-less) [5, 146].

As it is seen, there is only one negative affix in this classification – suffix -less, so this classification is not of much importance in our analysis. Due to the suffix –less we can transform a noun colour to the adjective colourless. Prefixes are not included into this classification as they usually do not change the part of speech of the word, but touch only its meaning.

Several more classifications are given in one of the Russian Dictionaries. According to their function affixes are of two kinds:

-of nominative function (serving to denote some objects, phenomena etc.);

-of structural (connecting) function.

To the first group belong word-building affixes and flexions. The first serve to build new words and the second – to refer a word to this or that grammatical form. Affixes of structural function are called interfixes. They are used for connection of two joined morphemes, like in паровоз [2, 153]. They are not typical for English language and all the negative affixes must be referred to the first group.

According to the peculiarities of combinability there is the following opposition:

-regular (multivalent) affixes;

-irregular (univalent) affixes.

Regular affixes are combined within the word with the different kinds of affixal or root morphemes, for example, un- (unable, unacceptable). Irregular affixes posses restricted combinability and are called unifixes (like –ух in двух). It is quite obvious that all the negative affixes are included into the first group too, because all they posses a certain word-building pattern and their degree of combinability is very high. [2, 153-154]

Summing up, having consulted some sources, we have found out, that there is a number of classifications of morphemes, and affixes in particular, according to different criteria.

4. The functions of negative affixes

As it was said above, negative affixes are lexical, because they are used to build new words. And they also always bring some negative additional meaning to the derivative word, changing its meaning to opposite. From this it can be made a conclusion that one of the functions of English negative affixes is:

1)    To create antonyms of the derivatives.

This function is performed only if the part if speech is not changed (and only the suffix less does changes it).

And if we look at them more generally, as a part of the discourse one more function appears:

2)    Bringing the negation to the sentence.

Speaking about the second function it is important to mention that there are 6 ways of negation on the sentence: negative affixes, negative particles, negative pronouns and adverbs, negative conjunctions and negative prepositions. Affixation is a morphological way of negation (while others are sintactical). The most popular negative affixes are un-, dis-, de-. To the verbs such prefixes like un-, dis-, de- give the meaning of opposite action. So, such affixes like dis-, mis-, in-, un-, less- and such bring to the sentence the idea of absence, deprivation and oppositeness. It is important to mention that there are certain rules of combinability of affixes. For example, the prefix un-, Germanic in its origin, is not usually combined with the stem of the word. Such words like unlike are not typical for English. More often the particle not is used instead. The prefix un- should be used with care, as when is attached to the verbs, it tends to bring the meaning of the opposite action, as well as mis-, dis-, de- (tie - untie). There are only several verbs in English with these affixes, possessing the meaning “not”. They are to dislike, disbelieve, mistrust. [3, 14-15]

Nouns and adjectives are usually attached with such affixes like un-, non-, in- (im-, il-, ir-) dis-, mis-. The closest to each other in meaning are non- and un- (but it was spoken earlier about their difference). The suffix less- is also usually added to nouns and adjectives. The prefix un- is the closest in meaning to this suffix less- (endless - unending, profitless - unprofitable) [3, 16].

So, we can come to the conclusion that the most widely used are the affixes de-, un-, dis; and negative affixes tend to come with nouns and adjectives. The stems of verbs are not combined with them and the negation is expressed in the sentence by the analytical negative verb-form. So, the function of creating antonyms can hardly find its application in verbs, but typical for nouns and adjectives.

Let us take the novel of Lauren Weisberger “Chasing Harry Winston” for different examples of these two functions. We will take not only sentences containing words with negative affixes, but also sentences where negation is expressed in other ways, for example participle not. It will help to prove (or not to prove the statement that the negation of actions are more likely to be expressed by the particle not).

1) When Leigh’s doorbell rang unexpectedly at nine on Monday night, she did not think, Gee, I wonder who that could be. [8, 1]

Here we see that the function of negation is performed here: it is stressed that Leigh did not expect the doorbell. Unexpectedly is derived from the word expect (because there is no such word in English as ”expectedly” [7]), so the first function is not performed here.

 2) Where there people who actually welcomed unannounced visitors when they just stopped to “say hello” or “check in”? [8, 1]

In this example both functions are realized: there is a negation in the sentence (there are few people who welcome visitors who are not announced), and the word unannounced comes from the word announced, being its antonym.

3) The apartment might have been the most perfect she’d seen in a year and a half of looking, but she had not wanted to take any chance. [8, 2]

Here the negation in the sentence is expressed by the negative particle not. It is used to change the meaning of the verb to the opposite, what is very frequent, as it was said above.

4) Before her, removing a QVC catalog from an unlocked mailbox, stood an overweight woman in a polka-dot housedress. [8, 3]

In the example above both functions are performed: unlocked is an antonym for locked and there is an idea of negation on the sentence (from the mailbox which was not locked).

5) Not a day younger than eighty, thought Leigh, and she breathed a sigh of relief. [8, 3]

This sentence is another example of the negation expressed by the negative particle not.

6) How could she possibly have predicted that the seemingly innocuous upstairs neighbor was a dedicated wearer of massive wooden orthopedic clogs? [8, 3]

In the given example only the second function is performed (the neighbor did not seem a person intending to do harm), because there is no such a word as “nocuous” [8], so antonymic function is irrelevant here.

7) Before she had spotted her neighbor wearing the offending shoes, Leigh had created an elaborate explanation for the relentless upstairs racket. [8, 4]

Here we see the adjective built with the suffix –less. As we remember it is the only negative affix which transports a word from one part of speech to another. So it can not perform the antonymic function, because antonyms must refer to one part of speech (relent is a verb, relentless is an adjective [7]). The conclusion can be made that only the second function is expressed by the affix (the upstairs racket which never stopped moving).

8) Leigh’s throat constricted and her pulse inexplicably quickened. [8, 5]

In the sentence above inexplicably is derived from explicable, but not “explicably”, so it does not perform the antonymic function. But the affix expresses the function of negation in the sentence (it was not easy to explain, why her pulse quickened).

9) Leigh did not think she was a likely candidate for a coronary: It was a panic attack, plain and simple. [8, 5]

10) I am not falling for this, she thought as she stealthily dialed her doorman. [8, 5]

In the last two examples we can observe the expression of the negation in the sentence with the participle not.

11) In an ineffective attempt to dispel the panic, Leigh pressed her fingertips into her temples and stretched her neck from side to side. [8, 5]

Here ineffective is an antonym of effective, and the second function is also expressed by the affix (the attempt is not effective).

12) Never mind that in eighty years of city living she did not personally known anyone who had been so much as pickpocketed, or that the chances of a psychopathic murderer choosing her apartment from more than two hundred other units in her building was unlikely… 8, 6]

In the example given in the first case the negation is expressed by the particle not, and in the second case unlikely, which affix un- is also one way of expressing the negation in the sentence, is also an antonym for likely.

From the examples above it can be seen that the most popular way of negation is particle not, as it is used in five examples from twelve. The most active of the negative affixes are un-and in- (they are used in three examples each). The least active of the present ones is the suffix less-, it is used only once.

What is also important for the classificational analysis of the negative affixes is to apply different classification to concrete examples of affixes. Thus, when we deal with certain examples, we can see, how the classifications given work. So let us take the examples 1, 6 and 7: unexpectedly, innocuous and relentless.

Unexpectedly: negative affix un-. Morphemic analysis: un-expect-ed-ly. Derivational analysis: expected – unexpectedly. As all the affixes un- is bound, overt, full, segmental, additive, continuous morpheme (the same will be common for other classified affixes). It is a prefix, since it is in preposition to the root. It is a native affix. As it is an adjectival according to the pert of speech it is attached to. We can not speak of the classification based on the criteria of the part of speech of the built word, because it is not only the affix which transfers the word from one part of speech to another. It is an affix of nominative function, because it is not an interfix, and it is regular, as long as it has certain models of combinability (derivational patterns).

Innocuous: negative affix in-. Morphemic analysis: in-nocuous. Derivational analysis: can not be done, the word is non-derived. In- is a prefix. We can not apply to it the classifications, based on the part of speech the affix is attached to and the part of speech if forms, because this word does not have derivatives, it was not built from any other word, it was created as it is. It has a nominative function, and it is regular.

Relentless: negative affix –less. Morphemic analysis: relent-less. Derivational analysis: relent – relentless. It is verbal according to the criteria of the word it is attached to, and adjectival according to the part of speech of the derived word. It is also regular and performs a nominative function.

Summing up the written above, we can notice that:

1)                All the negative affixes in context bring the negation into a sentence, and viewed independently, some of them perform the antonymic function.

2)                Though it was stated that un-, dis- and de- are the most popular negative affixes, according to the present examples the most frequent are un- and in-.

3)                Negative affixes are rarely attached to verbs. For the purpose of negation verbs are more often preceded by a particle not and the analytical form is used.

The conclusion

So, we are done with the comparative and classificational analysis. In this work we, first, managed to study different sources and to make one complete list of negative affixes. We found out that all affixes can be studied from two criteria: morphological and derivational. These two criteria were very useful in the further classificational analyses. We also studied one of the morphemic classifications and stated the place of affixes there.

There are different points of view on the semantics of affixes, but most scholars agree, that they have a kind of general, additional meaning. So, sticking to this opinion, we gave the meanings of the negative affixes from different dictionaries, compared them, and observed how they are expressed in different contexts.

There are numerous ways of classifying affixes. We tried to give as many classifications of both morphemes in general and affixes in particular as possible and also find out, what place is occupied by the negative affixes in any of then.

Different shades of meanings were also studied and the choice for different affixes for one and the same stem was explained. We also found out the main functions of the negative affixes, taken independently and in the context. A popular novel was used for the context, which is an example of contemporary British literature. We also studied which affixes are attached to different parts of speech and which parts of words they then build.

Analyzing the examples from the novel, we made a conclusion, which affixes are the most active nowadays (which affixes are used most frequently). After giving the examples of the negative affixes in context, we singled out several words containing them and gave a complete descriptive analysis of the negative affixes using all the possible ways of classification studied earlier.

Making this course paper, we gave a general overview to affixation as a way of word formation, familiarized ourselves with English negative affixes, learned how they differ in shades of meaning from each other, and learned to differentiate them. We studied which affixes are used with stems of different parts of speech and saw which of them are able to transform words of one part of speech into another, studied the peculiarities of their usage. It is very useful for a linguist and a translator, it can be a great help especially in our future study and work.


1.                 M.L Burns Scope English Writing and Language skill Level three – Scholastic Inc., 1982.

2.                 Л.Л. Касаткин, Е.В. Клобуков, П.А. Лекант Краткий справочник по современному русскому языку. – М.: Высшая школа, 1995. – 382 с.

3.                 Л.Г. Паранук, З.С. Хабекирова, Ф.С. Адзинова Щтрицание в мнологической и диалогической речи, Майкоп, 2004.

4.                 А.А. Ривлина. Теоретическая грамматика английского языка: учебно-методическое пособие. - Благовещенск: БГПУ, 2009. - 118 с.

5.                 З.А. Харитончик Лексикология английского языка. – Минск: Высшая школа, 1992.

6.                 Addison Wesley Longman. Longman Dictionary of English Language and culture. 1998.

7.                 A.S. Hornby. Edited by Sally Wehmeier. Oxford Advanced Lerner’s Dictionary of Current English. Oxford University Press. 2000

8.                 L. Weisberger Chasing Harry Winston. – New York: Symon and Svhuster. – 2008.

9.                 http://www.affixes.org/typesofaffix.html

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