§45. Noun-forming Suffixes in English

As the title suggests, this chapter is almost exactly the reverse of Chapter 5—but less complicated. There you encountered a wide variety of Latin suffixes that can turn nouns into adjectives. Now you will meet a much smaller number of Latin suffixes that convert adjectives into ABSTRACT NOUNS.[1] Again, you will probably find the Latin material easier to understand if you think first how English deals with this problem when Germanic roots and suffixes are involved. How are native English adjectives turned into nouns?

First, let us recall something that we learned about adjectives in Chapter 4. In English, as in Latin and in many other languages, an adjective can be used as a noun without any change of form at all. We saw examples like “the highest good” and a “happy medium” (§24). Adjectival nouns such as these may refer concretely to people (“the bad and the beautiful”) or to things (“Money is a necessary evil”). No suffix is required to create that kind of noun, which can be described as a simple adjective used substantively. In contrast, we are now looking for words that have been changed in form—so-called “derived” nouns.

What suffixes, then, does the English language use to turn adjectives into nouns? To find out, take a few common Germanic adjectives, such as good, wicked, fat, short, hard, flat, broad, wide, long, high, free, and wise. From this list you will soon identify three noun-forming suffixes, of which the first is by far the most common:

1.  Adjective + suffix -NESS
good-ness, wicked-ness, fat-ness, short-ness, hard-ness, flat-ness
2.  Adjective + suffix -TH
bread-th, wid-th, leng-th, heigh-t (originally high-th)
3.  Adjective + suffix -DOM
free-dom, wis-dom

Apart from a few quirks of spelling and pronunciation (broad > breadth, wise > wisdom), there doesn’t seem to be anything very difficult or complicated here. Even the meaning of the suffix seems to be identical in every case—“the state or quality of being —–”. Fortunately, Latin noun-forming suffixes are just about as easy and straightforward.

  1. Remember that an abstract noun denotes a state or quality. The adjective good is a descriptive word, used to modify an English noun (a good book, a good woman); the abstract noun goodness denotes the quality of being good.


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Greek and Latin Roots: Part I - Latin Copyright © 2016 by Peter Smith (Estate) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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