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Complex Words in English.

Valerie Adams: Complex Words in English. Harlow: Person Education Limited, 2001. 173 pp.

They say that you cannot step into the same river twice. Adams's latest book is such an attempt and -- in my view -- a worthwhile one. Twenty-eight years after her first book on word formation, Adams presents a profound, comprehensive, and mature account of the ways complex words are coined in English. While, as she notes in the Preface, this book "was first planned as a second edition of An Introduction to Modern English Word-formation ... nothing of that work has remained." The advances in the research into word formation have been dramatic since the former publication, and they could not but alter the new book.

While there are many references to the latest theoretical works in Adams's Complex Words, it is first of all a practical manual. Brief discussions of theoretical questions in the individual chapters primarily serve more practical ends: a review of the whole variety of ways employed by present-day English speakers in coining new complex words. Moreover, while the essential goal is synchronic description of word-formation trends, their account is systematically set in a broader historical framework, which results in an intriguing synchronic-diachronic overview, perhaps the most comprehensive one since Marchand's Categories (1969) and Bauer's English Word-Formation (1983). Still, there is one more point that makes Adams's work highly valuable: each word-formation process and type is illustrated by copious examples, frequently contextualized, with many of them of recent origin -- all this thanks to the use of the OED on CD ROM.

The book is divided into twelve chapters. While the first chapter introduces some of the essential notions of word formation, the following chapters discuss, in remarkable detail, the individual, more or less productive, word-formation processes in English, including transposition, prefixation, suffixation, formations with particles, and compounds. Considerable space is devoted to borderline cases tike stem formations, phonaesthemes, and reanalysis.

Since the book's main goal is mapping the trends in English word formation and illustrating them with ample examples, theoretical issues, as indicated above, are reduced to the necessary minimum. While this is understandable and justified by the objectives of the book, some theoretical positions are -- consequently -- presented, as it were, axiomatically. By implication, there are some issues in Adams's account that raise a question of an alternative approach. Therefore, in the following comments, without diminishing the significance of Adams's book, I would like to briefly discuss some of the moot points and offer a different way of treating them.

Adams obviously relates word formation to the existence of semantically parallel adverbs or prepositions (post-war: after war) for prefixes, and free lexemes (-ful : full, -like : like, etc.) for suffixes. This seems to be an awkward justification because affixes as form-meaning complexes have their meaning independently of the corresponding "free morphemes." Moreover, it should be emphasized, word-formation rules of suffixation in principle combine two signs: a word-formation base with a meaningful affix (an exception to this approach is, for example, Beard's lexeme-morpheme base theory [1995], which basically rids affixes of their meaning; and, on the opposite pole, for example, Halle's [1973] treatment of morpheme as a unit that need not carry any meaning). By implication, each affix has its distinctive meaning, for example, that of agent (-er, -ist, -ant), instrument (-er), abstract process/result (-ment, -ation), action (-ize, -ify, -en), etc. This conclusion also follows, for example, from Lieber's (1981, 1992) treatment of affixes on a par with other entries in the lexicon, and Plag's discussion (1999) in which various affixes are assigned their specific meanings (or, lexical conceptual structure).

Considerable space is reserved for the discussion of the complex word-phrase distinction, one of the hard nuts of English word formation. Among other things, Adams maintains that while the hyphenated strings like not-in-my-backyardism, morning-afterish, what-have-we-got-to-loseness, etc., behave like words, they are not complex words, because "[a]ccording to the no-phrase constraint ..., complex words are not formed from phrases" (p. 3). This view seems to be questionable. These formations are, no doubt, products of a combination of a phrase and a suffix. The suffix determines their word-class category and thus functions as "determinatum" (head). Given numerous examples of this type of formation, the no-phrase constraint appears to be too strong.

Rather surprisingly, in spite of the existence of abundant counterevidence to Williams's right-hand head rule provided by a number of morphologists (Lieber 1981, 1992; Selkirk 1982; Anderson 1992; Bauer 1988, 1990; Williams in Di Sciullo and Williams [1987] himself modified his original approach by the notion of relativized head), Adams heavily relies on the right-hand head identification principle in distinguishing between complex words and phrases. Thus, in her view, "[a]ny expression which we can see as not right-headed will be distinctive or untypical in some way, or will have the character of a phrase." Outswim, for example, is used by Adams to exemplify the change of an intransitive verb to transitive by prefixation. Apparently, the transitive characteristic is percolated to the complex word from the prefix. In Adams's view, however, swim is the head because it is conjugated irregularly as swim itself. Here, one might ask whether the category of conjugation is more significant than that of transitiveness, that is. whether there is any hierarchy of morphosyntactic characteristics with the topmost one determining the headedness.

It is also not quite clear why words like anti-bacterial are considered to be parasynthetic formations (p. 4), that is, words coined by joint operation of prefix and suffix. This runs counter to the general binary-structure-based approach in generative word formation: (anti([bacterium.sub.N] + [al.sub.A])[sub.A])[sub.A]. Moreover, the claim that, for example, on-line in on-line editing is a phrase (unlike inter-city in inter-city train) because the latter contains a "preposition-like prefix" does not appear to be well justified. No doubt, on-line and similar expressions are common technical terms that have a firm place in dictionaries, and as such they are words rather than phrases. Phrases do not function as technical terms. To change over is classified as a phrase but change-[over.sub.N] as an exocentric compound (pp. 4-5). It may be proposed, however, that the noun member of this pair was converted from the corresponding verb, which implies that the nominal member -- as opposed to the verbal member -- is not a compound.

Derivation is divided by Adams into transpositional and nontranspositional, that is, class-changing and class-maintaining; at the same time, she admits that this division is not quite accurate because some prefixes, such as de- dis-, un-, etc., form verbs with both noun bases and verb bases; adjectival -able and nominal -ee have nominal as well as verbal bases. Based on this approach, suffixes -- rather than separately -- are treated in transpositional groups. Moreover, conversion and suffixation are treated under one heading, with the focus of discussion being laid on similarities and differences. This approach reflects an important feature of Adams's book, demonstrating that setting strict boundaries between various word-formation phenomena is incorrect. Thus, apart from the vague boundary between compounds and phrases, "[t]he boundary between derivation and compounding is crossed at many points" (p. 16), and there are also numerous ambiguous cases for which there are no firm criteria, for example, some adjective + noun, adverb + noun, and adjective + participial adjective formations (p. 81).

Within the chapter on transposition, some postulates are disputable. Thus, for example, the innocent, the wealthy are not treated as cases of word formation "since any adjective can function like a noun in a definite noun phrase denoting a class of people, or a quality (the sublime)" (p. 20). This, however, seems to give support to the opposite claim and witnesses a high productivity of this word-formation rule. The same applies to "attributively used nouns": they are not treated as converted adjectives "since any noun can be used in this way" (p. 20). Adams's reasons for this classification do not seem to be well founded. Conversion of noun to adjective can be viewed as one of the most productive WF rules in English. High productivity should not become the reason for eliminating this process from the field of word formation. The background of this claim is understandable, though, and concerns the deep-rooted prejudice of Chomskian linguistics against word-formation rules that are considered much less productive and regular than syntactic and inflectional rules. For an opposite view, see for example, Anderson (1982), DiSciullo and Williams (1987), and Stekauer (1998).

Conversion is treated as "transposition without affix," and in Adams's view it "is not essentially different from other transpositional patterns"; "zero" is, in her view, just a "convenient shorthand term for `without affix'" (p. 20). This claim is arguable because zero morpheme is generally considered to be an affix, that is, a form-meaning complex (see, for example, Marchand's [1969] or Kastovsky's [1968, 1969, 1982] theories of zero derivation, or Haas's [1957] discussion of zero in linguistics), the meaning of which corresponds to that of the respective overt affix.

Adams demonstrates that while complex words with particles are generally classified as compounds, initial particles are closely related to prefixes. Both of them can produce verbs from verbal bases (precook: overlook), from adjectival stems (interleaved: undermentioned), nouns from verb-related nominal stems (subcontractor : onlooker); both can modify monemes (super-volcano:outfield), etc. (p. 71). Interestingly, however, verb + particle formations are treated as phrases and similar conclusions apply to deverbal noun + particle formations like shoot-out, kick-off, etc. (p. 76). In the latter case, however, a conversion-based account seems to be more appropriate.

Compounds are discussed in three chapters: noun, adjective, and verb compounds. Unlike her 1973 classification of noun compounds (11 groups), which was rather inhomogeneous, combining different, incompatible criteria (syntactic, semantic, morphological), her new classification distinguishes five patterns (noun + deverbal noun; noun + noun; noun genitive s + noun; adjective + noun; exocentric). The claim that syntactic compounds of the first group, for example, bicycle-repairing "are phrase-like in that they are as readily formed and as semantically predictable as transitive verb + object collocations" (p. 79) is of the same sort as that concerning the deadjectival nouns and denominal adjectives (see above). In fact, all productively coined complex words can be labelled as "readily formed"; semantically predictable are all compounds whose actional semantic component is formally expressed. For Adams, -er-suffixed synthetic compounds are unpredictable because of their capacity to refer to both things and persons (coffee-maker). It might be objected that, from the word-FORMATION point of view (genetic aspect), the difference is captured by postulation of two different WFRs employing two homonymous suffixes with their respective meanings of agent and instrument. This semantic difference is an integral part of the intuition or linguistic competence of a speaker, and therefore, also from the speech-level aspect, the predictability in context appears to be guaranteed.

Exocentric compounds are subdivided according to three patterns: verb + complement (pickpocket); adjective + noun (highbrow); and noun + noun (spoonbill). The claim that many exocentric compounds function as modifiers within noun phrases (free-lance writer, long-nose pliers, stopgap measures) gives indirect support to Stekauer's (1998) proposal according to which exocentric compounds are regularly generated in the word-formation component as endocentric compounds (sabertooth + tiger, redskin + person, free-lance + writer) and are formally reduced in the lexicon with the categorial and other features being inherited from the (deleted) head noun.

Segmenting out "role-denoting" coordinative N + N formations like author-illustrator, producer-director, etc., from the group of compounds by referring to them as phrases -- as opposed to absentee landlord, demon barber, killer virus, etc., seems forced (see, for example, Hansen et al. 1982).

Adams properly points out the problems one faces when trying to provide a homogeneous semantic classification of compounds and emphasizes the important role of context in their interpretation.

The position of verb compounds seems to engender a number of problems for morphologists, perhaps because, according to general belief, verb compounding is not a productive process in English. As suggested by Adams, "there will almost always be an intermediary nominal or adjectival expression from which an English compound verb is derived" (p. 100). Then, however, one may ask whether the term "compound verb" is an appropriate one. If one analyzes to literary-edit as back-formed and to cannonball as converted from the corresponding N + N compound, then one might propose avoiding the term "compounding" for these kinds of words. For back-formed verbs like literary-edit, however, it is possible to suggest a synchronic compounding account (see Stekauer 1998) similar to that proposed by Adams in her "reanalysis" of literary editor as (A or N + V) + suffix. In that case, the productivity of verbal compounding necessarily increases.

Another problem accompanying the notion of verbal compounds discussed by Adams is the uncertainty of their inflection if the right-hand constituent is an irregular verb. As shown in the book, compound verbs "transposed without affix from compound nouns often have the regular past tense ending" (p. 102): joyrided, moonlighted, potshotted, etc. Such words entail the problem of head identification, which -- in my view -- can be best answered by admitting the conversion-based account. On the other hand, Adams distinguishes regularly conjugated transposed compound verbs (see the examples above), irregularly conjugated backformed verb compounds (book-keep, hand-write), and those corresponding to noun compounds with a "zero" derived deverbal head (deep-freeze, free-fall). The latter type has irregular past tense "because freeze and fall are far more common as verbs than as nouns or heads of noun compounds" (p. 103), thus appearing to be the only genuine verbal compounding type in Adams's analysis. Generally speaking, if a verbal compound includes a converted verb, its inflection appears to be regular, while simple verbs (unconverted) as compound constituents transfer their irregular conjugation to a compound as a whole.

Adams's focus, however, is not only on classification. She looks for the reasons for limited use of particular patterns. In the case of verbal compounds, one of the reasons -- apart from the already discussed uncertainty about the past tense -- may be an instance of inappropriately defocused information conveyed by the modifying element, which makes some compound forms rather awkward ("I was cabinet-making in the garage"). On the other hand, there are also factors contributing to wider use of verb compounds: for example, the possibility of focusing the right-hand constituent (p. 106). Given these considerations, Adams's conclusion appears to me rather surprising and too strong: "... genuine verb compounding is not likely to develop in modern English" (p. 109).

Stem-based formation is another issue discussed in Complex Words; it is considered to function as an alternative system in English, alongside the major, word-based system, on the ground that "some affixes productively combine with incomplete word bases" (p. 114). This is a disputable claim from the point of view of those conceptions of word formation that maintain that both complex-word constituents should be meaningful units (bilateral signs). This is what does not seem to be the case with stem-based formations, although Adams believes that "the stems that appear in modern coinages have meanings for some speakers at least." Reference to meaning plays an important role here in terms of the combinability of formative elements, more important than the specification of syntactic category of the WE base (p. 115).

This chapter brings a reader to an even more peripheral phenomenon of word formation, the phonaesthemes, the position of which within the system of word formation is disputable if one postulates that word formation deals with productive patterns of coining new complex words. This is recognized by Adams herself when she maintains that phonaesthemes can hardly be compared with the complex words discussed in the other chapters of her book: they are characterized "by elusiveness of meaning, and subjectivity in judgements about it, by proliferation and volatility of form" (p. 132). The reasons underlying the detailed and careful treatment of this group of words follow for Adams from their use and "creation" by speakers, as well as from their frequency and analyzability.

Under the heading of "Reanalysis," Adams discusses some affixes, back-formation, blending, and shortening. Back-formation, as indicated above, is accounted for as a reanalysis of a "longer" form as a complex base + suffix, with the subsequent subtraction of the suffix (for example, [guest edit] + or). Certainly, one might ask a question concerning the justification of such a step from the synchronic point of view and propose an independent derivation of the "shorter" form (guest + edit vs. guest + edit + or), which appears to me a more straightforward account.

Whether or not shortening should be included in the field of complex words is a matter of discussion, because -- in my view -- they are not "complex" and do not represent new words: clippings have no new meaning, independent of that in their corresponding full forms. On the other hand, they represent new word-formation bases that can serve for coining new complex words, as demonstrated by Adams.

The final chapter gives a useful overview of the manifold factors conditioning the identification of patterns on which new complex words are formed and of factors determining the productivity of such patterns.

The structure of this review may seem unbalanced in view of my initial remarks: despite their clearly positive content, the major part of the review has been devoted to some of Adams's problematic positions in treating theoretical issues. This is, however, understandable. While these moot points concern details, the positive features are of a conceptual nature and pertain to the book as a whole. Hence, the latter can be summarized very briefly as follows:

It is good that Valerie Adams has returned to her former love and decided to take up again the intricate issues of word formation. Her main contribution lies in her lucid, systematic, and in-depth account, extraordinary sense of detail, ability to capture the subtleties and intricacies of the individual word-formation processes and types, and ability to give a vivid picture of the latest tendencies in modern English word formation against the historical background, this being supported by a number of examples illustrating both the regularities and idiosyncrasies in context. Therefore, this book is sure to become an indispensable manual for everyone who is interested in this exciting field of linguistics.


Adams, Valerie (1973). An Introduction to Modern English Word Formation. London: Longman.

Anderson, Stephen R. (1982). Where's morphology. Linguistic Inquiry 13, 571-612.

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Bauer, Laurie (1983). English Word-Formation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

-- (1988). A descriptive gap in morphology. In Yearbook of Morphology, Geert B. Booij and Jaap van Marie (eds.), 17-27. Dordrecht: Foris.

-- (1990). Be-heading the word. Journal of Linguistics 26, 1-31.

Beard, Robert (1995). Lexeme-Morpheme Base Morphology. A General Theory of Inflection and Word Formation. SUNY Series in Linguistics. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Chomsky, Noam (1970). Remarks on nominalization. In Readings in English Transformational Grammar, Roderick Jacobs and Peter Rosenbaum (eds.), 184-221. Waltham, MA: Ginn.

Di Sciullo, Anna M.; and Williams, Edwin (1987). On the Definition of Word. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Haas, W. (1957). Zero in linguistic description. In Studies in Linguistic Analysis, 33-53. Special Volume of the Philological Society. Oxford: Blackwell.

Halle, Morris (1973). Prolegomena to a theory of word formation. Linguistic Inquiry 4(1), 3-16.

Hansen, Barbara; Hansen, Klaus; Neubert, Albrecht; and Schentke, Manfred (1982). Englische Lexikologie. Einfuhrung in Wortbildung und lexikalische Semantik. Leipzig: VEB Verlag Enzyklopadie.

Kastovsky, Dieter (1968). Old English Deverbal Substantives Derived by Means of a Zero Morpheme. Esslingen/N.: Langer.

-- (1969). Wortbildung und Nullmorphem. Linguistische Berichte 2, 1-13.

-- (1982). Wortbildung und Semantik. Tubingen and Dusseldorf: Francke/Bagel.

Lieber, Rochelle (1981). On the Organization of the Lexicon. Bloomington: Indiana University Linguistics Club.

-- (1992). Deconstructing Morphology. Word Formation in Syntactic Theory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Marchand, Hans (1969). The Categories and Types of Present-Day English Word-Formation, 2nd revised ed. Munich: Beck.

Plag, Ingo (1999). Morphological Productivity. Structural Constraints in English Derivation. Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

Selkirk, Elisabeth O. (1982). The Syntax of Words. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Stekauer, Pavol (1998). An Onomasiological Theory of English Word-Formation. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: Benjamins.

-- (2000). English Word-Formation. A History of Research (1960-1995). Tubingen: Narr. Williams, Edwin (1981). On the notions "lexically related" and "head of a word." Linguistic Inquiry 12, 245-274.
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Author:Stekauer, Pavol
Publication:Linguistics: an interdisciplinary journal of the language sciences
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 2001
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