106. Word-Like Suffixes


Some added letters at the end of a word can also make a word by themselves



A suffix is a kind of subdivision found in some words. It is likely to be:

(i) Added to an existing English word, modifying its meaning.

(ii) Placed after its partner word, sometimes separated by a hyphen.

(iii) Meaningful.

(iv) Repeated in numerous other words.

(v) Unable to be used alone as a word.

Well-known examples of suffixes are -s on nouns and verbs, -ness and -tion on some nouns, -ing and -fy on verbs, and -ly on some adverbs. A major reason for studying suffixes is that familiarity with them can make it easier to guess the meanings of unfamiliar words in a text (see 177. How to Guess Meanings in a Text).

Some suffixes are considered to belong to grammar, others to vocabulary. The first kind normally create different forms of the same word, the second kind new words altogether. The suffix -s is of the first kind – see and sees are different forms of the same verb SEE, showing respectively plural and singular meaning. The suffix -ly, on the other hand, is of the second kind: sad and sadly are two different words, one an adjective and one an adverb.

The last of the five characteristics above helps to separate suffixes from “roots” – meaningful word parts that are more than just additions to another word, such as -work in homework. There is more about roots within this blog in the post 26. One Word or Two?. However, some word endings that may be best thought of as suffixes (of the vocabulary-like kind) can also occur by themselves. One reason for still classifying them as suffixes is that they are found at the end of more than just a few words.

This post is about suffixes that resemble roots. I wish first to examine the occurrence of -ful and -less, which are quite widespread in English, and then to consider some others that are not so frequent. Other posts that contain information about suffixes are 14. Countable Noun Meanings 1,  27. How to Avoid Passive Verbs,  41. Unexpected Vowels in Derived Words,  135. French Influences on English Vocabulary and 172. Multi-Use Suffixes.For information about prefixes, see 146. Some Important Prefix Types.


THE SUFFIXES “-ful” AND “-less”

The suffixes -ful and -less can be used at the end of numerous English nouns to change them into adjectives. For example the noun joy can be made into the adjectives joyful and joyless. The former means “happy” (“full of joy”), the latter “unhappy” or “unattractive” (“lacking joy”). Most -ful and -less adjectives can then be made into new nouns by the addition of -ness (e.g. joyfulness).

Unfortunately, the use of -ful and -less is not trouble-free. The main problems are firstly that many nouns do not allow them at all, secondly that some words with -ful are nouns rather than adjectives, thirdly that some nouns allow only one of the two suffixes but not both, and fourthly that some words ending in -ful or -less are not also a word when the ending is removed. The words baleful and reckless are examples of this last phenomenon.

Words with -ful that are nouns rather than adjectives include spoonful, cupful, glassful and mouthful. The ability of a particular suffix to make words of different classes is actually quite common in English (see 172. Multi-Use Suffixes). Fortunately, -ful nouns are quite easy to recognise from the fact that the noun they are made from is usually the name of a container.

Probably the best way to learn which nouns allow -ful and -less and which do not is simply to gain exposure to as much English in use as possible. However, there can also be merit in seeing many examples of the words presented together in lists. Here is a sample of adjectives with -ful. Those that can replace -ful with -less are underlined.


Adjectives Ending in “-ful”

awful, baleful, bashful, beautiful, bountiful, careful, colourful, delightful, doubtful, dutiful, faithful, fateful, fearful, frightful, harmful, helpful, hopeful, hurtful, joyful, masterful, meaningful, merciful, painful, peaceful, pitiful, playful, plentiful, remorseful, resentful, spiteful, stressful, successful, tasteful, tearful, thankful, thoughtful, truthful, useful, vengeful, wishful, wrongful, youthful, zestful.

Adjectives that one might expect to end with -ful but in fact have a different suffix include angry, risky, dirty, irksome, troublesome, charitable, problematic, flawed and loving.

A pitfall to beware of is believing that -ful and -less words with the same base noun are always true opposites in the way that joyful and joyless are. Those that are not include doubtful, meaning “doubting” or “untrustworthy”, versus doubtless, an adverb meaning “almost certainly”; pitiful, usually meaning “deserving pity”, versus pitiless, meaning “not feeling pity”; remorseful, meaning “feeling remorse”, versus remorseless, meaning “unstoppable”; and helpful, meaning “helping”, versus helpless, meaning “unable to do anything”.

Adjectives ending in -less seem slightly more numerous than the -ful ones. In the following list, the underlined ones again have a -ful equivalent.


Adjectives Ending in “-less”

aimless, *blameless, *bloodless, bottomless, careless, ceaseless, childless, clueless, *cloudless, colourless, defenceless, *effortless, emotionless, endless, expressionless, faithless, *faultless, *fearless, *flawless, hapless, *harmless, heartless, helpless, hopeless, joyless, landless, lifeless, meaningless, merciless, *motionless,*odourless, *painless, penniless, pitiless, pointless, *priceless, reckless, relentless, remorseless, senseless, sleepless, soundless, speechless, tasteless, tearless, thankless, thoughtless, *topless,*tireless, toothless (etc), useless, worthless.

The “(etc)” in this list next to toothless is because many other names of body parts besides tooth can have -less, for example headless and hairless.

An interesting feature of the list as a whole is that most of the words are negative in their meaning (exceptions are marked *). Special care is needed with useless, which can cause offence. To meet the politeness demands of formal writing (see 166. Appropriacy in Professional English), a preferable alternative is something like not very useful. More about negative meaning is in the posts 13. Hidden Negatives and 16. Ways of Distinguishing Similar Words.

Another suffix with similar meaning to -less is -free. It is found (with a hyphen in front) in words like sugar-free, risk-free and trouble-free. The suggestion here is always positive – a feature that makes -free a particular favourite with advertisers!



Suffixes like -less, -ful and -free are different from those like -ly and -ness in that they closely resemble ordinary words. However, they seem better classifiable as suffixes than as roots like -work because they combine with ordinary words more widely than roots do. Here is a list of some interesting word-like suffixes that I have gathered. Many need to follow a hyphen in the same way that -free does.

-ABLE (or -IBLE): advisable, understandable, divisible, intelligible (for a valuable use of this suffix, see 27. How to Avoid Passive Verbs)

-FRIENDLY: child-friendly, user-friendly, car-friendly

-LIKE: childlike, insect-like, soldier-like, flu-like

-PRONE: accident-prone, disaster-prone, flood-prone

-PROOF: accident-proof, fireproof, waterproof, idiot-proof

-RICH: butter-rich, cash-rich, vitamin-rich, colour-rich, time-rich 

-SHY: camera-shy, crowd-shy, publicity-shy

-SOME: fearsome, gruesome, handsome, irksome, tiresome, troublesome

-STYLE/-FASHION: cowboy-style, Beckham-style, police-style

-TIGHT: watertight, airtight

-TYPE: flu-type, racing-type, British-type

-WIDE: countrywide, nationwide, institution-wide

-WISE(1) (direction-showing): lengthwise, clockwise

-WISE(2) (= “regarding”): accommodation-wise, cost-wise (see 121. Sentence-Spanning Adverbs)

-WORTHY: newsworthy, noteworthy, praiseworthy

In addition, many suffixes are verbs in the “participle” form (see 52. Participles Placed Just After their Noun). Some help physical properties to be named (e.g. many-sided, kidney-shaped, bitter-tasting, rough-looking – see 163. Ways of Naming Properties).

Elsewhere, participles with –ing seem especially common. Examples are -taking (pains-, liberty-), -seeking (pleasure-, answer-), -grabbing (money-, headline-), -causing (trouble-, disease-), -supporting (government-, football-), -seeming (innocent-, friendly-), -loving (fun-, sport-), -looking (good-, suspicious-), -setting (trend-, example-), -breaking (law-, record-), -sounding (positive-, promising-) and -eating (meat-, ant-).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.