Combining form

Combining form

In the linguistics of word formation, a combining form (also neoclassical element) is a bound base designed to combine with another combining form or a free word. For example, "bio-" combines with "-graphy" to form "biography".

Words with combining forms are variously called combining form compounds, neoclassical compounds, and classical compounds.

A vowel usually facilitates the combination: in "biography", the Greek thematic vowel -"o"-, in "miniskirt", the Latin thematic -"i"-. This vowel is usually regarded as attached to the initial base ("bio-", "mini-") rather than the final base ("-graphy", "-skirt"), but in Greek-derived forms it is sometimes shown as attached to the final base ("-ography", "-ology"). If, however, the final base begins with a vowel (for example, "-archy" as in "monarchy"), the mediating vowel has traditionally been avoided (no *"monoarchy"), but in recent coinages it is often kept and generally accompanied by a hyphen ("auto-analysis", "bio-energy", "hydro-electricity", not *"autanalysis", *"bienergy", *"hydrelectricity").


There are hundreds of combining forms in English and other European languages. As traditionally defined, they cannot stand alone as free words, but there are many exceptions to this rule, and in the late 20th century such forms are increasingly used independently: "bio" as a clipping of "biography", "telly" as a respelt clipping of "television". Most combining forms translate readily into everyday language, especially nouns: "bio-" as ‘life’ "-graphy" as ‘writing, description’. Because of this, the compounds of which they are part (usually "classical" or "learned compounds") can be more or less straightforwardly paraphrased: "biography" as ‘writing about a life’, "neurology" as ‘the study of the nervous system’. Many combining forms are designed to take initial or final position: "autobiography" has the two initial or preposed forms "auto-", "bio-", and one postposed form "-graphy". Although most occupy one position or the other, some can occupy both: "-graph-" as in "graphology" and "monograph"; "-phil-" as in "philology" and "Anglophile". Occasionally, the same base is repeated in one word: "logology" the study of words, "phobophobia" the fear of fear.

Preposed and postposed

Forms that come first include: "aero-" air, "crypto-" hidden, "demo-" people, "geo-" earth, "odonto-" tooth, "ornitho-" bird, "thalasso" sea. Many have both a traditional simple meaning and a modern telescopic meaning: in "biology", "bio-" means ‘life’, but in "bio-degradable" it telescopes ‘biologically’; although "hypno-" basically means ‘sleep’ ("hypnopaedia" learning through sleep), it also stands for ‘hypnosis’ ("hypnotherapy" cure through hypnosis). When a form stands alone as a present-day word, it is usually a telescopic abbreviation: "bio" biography, "chemo" chemotherapy, "hydro" hydroelectricity, "metro" metropolitan. Some telescoped forms can be shorter than the original combining forms: "gynie" is shorter than "gyneco-" and stands for both "gynecology" and "gynecologist"; "anthro" is shorter than "anthropo-" and stands for "anthropology". Forms that come second include: "-ectomy" cutting out, "-graphy" writing, description, "-kinesis" motion, "-logy" study, "-mancy" divination, "-onym" name, "-phagy" eating, "-phony" sound, "-therapy" healing, "-tomy" cutting. They are generally listed in dictionaries without the interfixed vowel, which appears however in such casual phrases as ‘ologies and isms’.


Some combining forms are variants of one base.

Some are also free words, such as "mania" in "dipsomania" and "phobia" in "claustrophobia".

Some are composites of other elements, such as "encephalo-" brain, from "en-" in, "-cephal-" head, and "-ectomy" cutting out, from "ec-" out, "-tom-" cut, "-y", a noun-forming suffix.


In Greek and Latin grammar, combining bases usually require a thematic or stem-forming vowel. In "biography", from Greek, the thematic is -"o"-; in "agriculture", from Latin, it is "-i-". In English, which does not inflect in this way and has no native thematic vowels, an element like -"o"- is an imported glue that holds bases together. Its presence helps to distinguish classical compounds like "biography" and "agriculture" from vernacular compounds like "teapot" and "blackbird". Generally, English has acquired its classical compounds in three ways: through French from Latin and Greek, directly from Latin and Greek, and by coinage in English on Greek and Latin patterns. An exception is "schizophrenia", which came into English through German, and is therefore pronounced ‘skitso’, not ‘skyzo’. The combining forms and the compounds built from them are as much a part of English as of Latin and Greek, and as much a part of French, Spanish, Italian, and any other language that cares to use them. They are an international resource.

The conservative tradition

From the Renaissance until the mid-20th century, the concept of derivational purity has generally regulated the use of combining forms: Greek with Greek, Latin with Latin, and a minimum of hybridization. "Biography" is Greek, "agriculture" Latin, but "television" is a hybrid of Greek "tele-" and Latin "-vision" (probably so coined because the ‘pure’ form "telescope" had already been adopted for another purpose). "Kiddology" facetiously combines vernacular "kid" and "-ology" to produce ‘the science of kidding people’. Most dictionaries follow the "OED" in using "combining form" ("comb. form") to label such classical elements, but the name is not widely known. In appendices to dictionaries and grammar books, combining forms are often loosely referred to as roots or affixes: ‘a logo …, properly speaking, is not a word at all but a prefix meaning word and short for logogram, a symbol, much as telly is short for television’ (Montreal "Gazette", 13 Apr. 1981). They are often referred to as affixes because some come first and some come last, but if they were affixes, a word like "biography" would have no base whatever. While affixes are grammatical (like prepositions), combining forms are lexical (like nouns, adjectives, and verbs): for example, "bio-" translates as a noun (life), "-graphy" as a verbal noun (writing). They are also often loosely called roots because they are ancient and have a basic role in word formation, but functionally and often structurally they are distinct from roots: the "-graph" in "autograph" is both a root and a combining form, while the "-graphy" in "cryptography" consists of root "-graph-" and suffix "-y", and is only a combining form.

Contemporary developments

By and large, combining forms were a closed system from the 16c to the earlier 20c: the people who used them were classically educated, their teachers and exemplars generally took a purist's view on their use, contexts of use were mainly technical, and there was relatively little seepage into the language at large. However, with the decline of classical education and the spread of technical and quasi-technical jargon in the media, a continuum has evolved, with at least five stages:

Pure classical usage

In the older sciences, combining forms are generally used to form such strictly classical and usually Greek compounds as: "anthocyanin", "astrobleme", "chemotherapy", "chronobiology", "cytokinesis", "glossolalia", "lalophobia", "narcolepsy", "osteoporosis", "Pliohippus", "sympathomimetic".

Hybrid classical usage

In technical, semitechnical, and quasi-technical usage at large, coiners of compounds increasingly treat Latin and Greek as one resource, to produce such forms as: "accelerometer", "aero-generator", "bioprospector", "communicology", "electroconductive", "futurology", "mammography", "micro-gravity", "neoliberal", "Scientology", "servomechanism", "Suggestopedia".

Hybrid classical/vernacular usage

In the later 20c, many forms have cut loose from ancient moorings: "crypto-" as in preposed "Crypto-Fascist" and "pseudo-" as in "pseudoradical"; postposed "-meter" in "speedometer", "clapometer". Processes of analogy have created coinages like "petrodollar", "psycho-warfare", "microwave" on such models as "petrochemical", "psychology", "microscope". Such stunt usages as "eco-doom", "eco-fears", "eco-freaks", common in journalism, often employ combining forms telescopically: "eco-"standing for "ecology" and "ecological" and not as used in "economics". In such matters, precision of meaning is secondary to compactness and vividness of expression.

Combining forms as separate words

In recent years, the orthography of many word forms has changed, usually without affecting pronunciation and stress. The same spoken usage may be written "micro-missile", "micro missile", "micromissile", reflecting the same uncertainty or flexibility as in "businessman", "business-man", "business man". When used in such ways, combining forms are often telescopic: "Hydro substation" Hydro-Electricity Board substation, "Metro highways" Metropolitan highways, "porno cult" pornography cult.

New combining forms

The mix of late 20c techno-commercial coinages includes three groups of post- and non-classical forms: (1) "Established forms": "econo-" from ‘economic’, as in "econometric", "Econo-Car", "mini-" from ‘miniature’, as in "miniskirt", "mini-boom", "-matic" from ‘automatic’, as in "Adjustamatic", "Instamatic", "Stackomatic". (2) Less established forms, often created by blending: "accu-" from ‘accurate’, as in "Accuvision"; "compu-" from ‘computer’, as in "Compucorp"; "docu-" from ‘documentary’, as in "docudrama"; "dura-" from ‘durable’, as in "Duramark". (3) Informal vernacular material in pseudo-classical form: "Easibird", "Healthitone", "Redi-pak", "Relax-a-Cisor" (relax, exerciser).

ee also

* Classical compound

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