Why One Suffix Is More Common Than Another

By Mark Nichol

What is the rationale, if any, for the predominance of one suffix over one that performs the same function? Last week, I discussed the question of choosing between the suffixes -logic and -logical. Here, I take a look at other suffixes that compete with each other when various parts of speech are converted to others.

The suffix –ize is adopted for most multisyllabic words; by contrast, -ify is rarely applied to words of more than one syllable. The rationale given for this rule, that one choice or the other simply feels right, bears out: Even if I didn’t know the adjectival form of apology, I would more likely say apologize than apologify; the same goes for minimize over minimify, revolutionize over revolutionify, and just about any other applicable word I can think of. (Electrify, rather than electricize, is one exception.)

Often, more than one correct adjective exists for a given word, but one form seems more formal than the other. For example, both accountability and accountableness are acceptable (another example is the duo profanity/profaneness), but although -ness is more common, -ity is considered more proper.

Certain suffixes go in and out of style. For example, -th long ago fell out of favor as an option for converting an adjective to a noun, and -ment has essentially been retired as a go-to suffix for new words. The same is true of -ar as a suffix indicating transformation from a verb to a noun; though -ar is common among existing words, -er is not only much more common but is also the default suffix for new coinages.

When a word has more than one possible suffix, the alternatives may develop different connotations. For example, profaneness refers, among other senses, to irreverent or unholy things, while profanity has come to denote the quality or state of being profane, or the speaking or writing of profane language, or such language itself. Another example is the development of cynical when cynic became a noun as well as an adjective.

Some suffixes develop distinct qualities. For example, -ive, based on Latin words ending in -vus but extended to non-Latinate words as well, implies a permanent state, as exemplified by the difference in nuance between attracting and attractive.

Because of the variety of likely suffixes, it’s best to consult the dictionary or an authoritative resource if you’re uncertain about the proper appendage for a particular word.

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3 Responses to “Why One Suffix Is More Common Than Another”

  • Gary

    The one that annoys me (well … briefly anyway) is ‘normalcy’ – one that I’ve only heard in American usage. The only alternative I know of is ‘normality’, which sounds better to me, but I don’t know if either one or neither is ‘more’ correct.

  • venqax

    Accountableness is more common than accountability? Accountableness?

    Can you give an example of what you mean regarding the -th suffix for adjectives-turned-nouns?

  • Mark Nichol

    Venqax:

    I should have been more precise. I meant not that accountableness is more common than accountability, but that -ness is more common in general than -ity.

    Adjectives derived from nouns that end in -th include warmth and width.

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