Word formation in English and Vietnamese

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Word formation in English and Vietnamese

Running head: Word formation in English and Vietnamese

Word formation in English and Vietnamese: a contrastive analysis

Pham Thi Hong Ly

HCMC University of Pedagogy


Language is a principal mean used by human beings to exchange information and communicate with each other. We use language to discuss a wide range of topics which distinguishes us with animals. In other words, language is a vital tool of communication. In order to share ideas and feelings effectively besides using gestures, intonation in speech…; a large vocabulary is also considered as a useful way. The more vocabularies you have, the clearer and more accurate ideas you express. And one of the most common ways to enrich vocabulary is word formation. It is a study of words, dealing with construction or formation of words in a certain language. As a learner of English and an English teacher in the future, I do this research to mention the similarities and differences between English and Vietnamese word formation. And then, some common errors that Vietnamese learners often make are discussed. I hope that the information in this paper will be helpful in getting a deeper look about word formation in the two languages, English and Vietnamese.

Literary review:

According to Oxford Dictionary, a word is a single unit of language which means something and can be spoken or written. According to Nguyen Thien Giap, word is the smallest unit of language, independently in meaning and form. Another definition of word is that “A word is a unit of language that carries meaning and consists of one or more morphemes which are linked more or less tightly together, and has a phonetic value” (Wikipedia). For this definition, it is simply said that word is formed from morphemes, the smallest units of meaning that a word can be divided into. There are two kinds of morphemes in English and Vietnamese words. They are free morpheme and bound morpheme. Free morpheme can occur on their own as an independent word such as man, lamp, green, black…in English or nhà, đẹp, đi, tốt in Vietnamese... Bound morpheme can not stand alone without attached to other morphemes. However, there are differences in Vietnamese and English bound morphemes. In English, bound morphemes are suffixes such as -ly, -ed, -ity… or prefixes like un-, im-, anti-… On the contrary, Vietnamese bound morphemes are separate words serve as either compounding or reduplicative elements, for example, tắc kè, bàng bạc, ăng ten… if we split them off they still has their own meaning but it is not related to the meaning of the whole compound word. In other words, adding bound morphemes into an English word can form a new word whose meaning is related to the original one, but it is unlike in Vietnamese.

In short, there are many differences in word formation in English and Vietnamese though both of them are formed by morphemes.

Word formation in English

There are some ways to build a new word. They are affixation, compounding, and other devices like conversion, clipping, blend and reduplication.


Affixation is a method in which an affix is attached to a root. English words consist of two elements: root which is considered obligatory and carries lexical meaning and affix which is optional and carries grammatical meaning or supplemental- lexical meaning. Let us take the word “teacher” as an example. In the word “teacher”, “teach” is the root which means “educate or train” and “-er” is the affix that cannot stand alone. When attached to the root, “-er” supplements to the root with meaning of “a person”.

There are many kinds of affix. It can be divided into two kinds in terms of position. According to Megginson, they are prefix and suffixes. Moreover, even the words prefix, suffix and affix are all formed from “fix” by the use of prefixes:

ad- + “fix” (attached) = “affix”

pre- + “fix” (attached) = “prefix”

sub- + “fix” (attached) = “suffix”

Prefix is an affix which is attached to the beginning of the root so that it can modify or change meaning of the word. The prefixes can be divided semantically into these following groups: quantity prefixes, locative prefixes, temporal prefixes, negation prefixes (see Appendix). However, in one such study (Ingo Plag 134), it is found that numerous prefixes do not belong to any of the four groups above. For example, prefixes express diverse notions, such as “wrong, evil” (mal-, malfunction, malnutrition), “badly, wrongly” (mis-, misinterpret, mistrial), “false, deceptive” (pseudo-), “together, jointly” (co), “in place of” (vice-)… One more type of affix is suffixes. Unlike prefixes, suffix is an affix which is attached after the root. There are four types of suffixes: nominal suffixes, verbal, adjectival and adverbial suffixes. (see Appendix)


Compounding is the most productive type of word formation process in English. A compound is a word that consists of two elements, the first of which is either a root, a word or a phrase, e.g. biochemistry, systems analysis, over- the- fence gossip…; the second of which is either a root or a word (Ingo Plag 183). Most of compounds are interpreted in such way that one element, head, is modified by others. And the compounds inherits most of it semantic and syntactic information from its head (Ingo Plag 183).

There are three types of compounds: open compound, hyphenated compound and solid compound. An open compound consists of two or more words written separately, such as salad dressing, Boston terrier, or April Fools’ Day... A hyphenated compound has words connected by a hyphen, such as age-old, mother-in-law, force-feed... A solid compound consists of two words that are written as one word, such as keyboard or typewriter (The American Heritage book of English usage).

Compounds are divided into four types in terms of word class: nominal, adjectival, adverbial and neoclassical compounds. First, let us explore noun compound or nominal compound. Most compound nouns in English are formed by nouns modified by other nouns or adjectives such as book cover, salesman, blackboard… (learnenglish). In compound noun, the first part modifies or describes the second one to tell us kind of object or person and its purpose; and the second part identifies the object or person in the first one. For example, in the word “book cover”, the first part “book” gives us information about the type of object; and the second part is “cover”.

Compound nouns can also be formed using the following combinations of words:



Noun + Noun

toothpaste, car park

Adjective + Noun

monthly ticket, good- fellow

Verb + Noun

swimming pool, skating- rink

Preposition + Noun

underground, overdose

Noun + Verb

haircut, manhunt

Noun + Preposition

hanger on, timeout

Adjective + Verb

dry-cleaning, good- living

Preposition + Verb

output, input

In addition, a compound may be classified as permanent or temporary. A permanent compound is fixed by common usage and can usually be found in the dictionary, whereas a temporary compound consists of two or more words joined by a hyphen as needed, usually to modify another word or to avoid ambiguity. In general, permanent compounds begin as temporary compounds that become used so frequently they become established as permanent compounds (The American Heritage book of English usage).

Another type of compounding word is adjectival compound. Compound adjective is a complex and challenging formation. It modifies the noun, with the two or more worded adjective phrase, to create a new adjective. The adjective phrase is usually written in with a hyphen (-). Its meaning is usually clear from the words it combines (Muthusami, par.3). There are many ways to build a compound adjective.



adjective + noun

second- hand, hi- tech, long- distance

adjective + noun + “-ed”

blue-eyed, light- hearted, clear- sighted

adjective + past participle

low-paid, cold-blooded, high- handed

adjective + present participle

good-looking, long- acting, easy-going

noun + adjective

world- wide, sugar- free, knee- deep

noun + present participle

time-consuming, heart- breaking, labor- saving

noun + past participle

hand- operated, handmade, manmade

adverb + past participle

ill-equipped, well-behaved, well- prepared

adverb + present participle

newly- born, low-flying, well- known

number + noun (sing)

seven- year- old (boy), four- bed- room (flat)

With this kind of word formation, it will be easier and more convenient to express more accurately and lively our ideas and feelings.

Next type of compounding is compound verb. A compound verb or complex predicate is a multi-word compound that acts as a single verb (Wikipedia). Sometimes compound verbs and phrasal verbs make us confused. In fact, there are some differences between them. If we can add an object between two words, it is phrasal verb. For instance, it is safe to say “He takes his hat off.” but it is impossible to say “He ill his dog treat.” Another difference between phrasal verb and compound verb is that the second component of phrasal verb is a preposition, whereas it can be a noun or a verb for compound verb. And following table is some common ways to form a compound verb:



noun + verb

hand- feed, baby- sit, proof- read, chain- smoke

verb + noun

do-time, go public, dry- nurse

verb + verb

dry- clean, stir- fry, freeze- dry

adjective + verb

double- check, broadcast, ill-treat

adverb + verb

outdistance, overdo, under-act

Derivation without affixation

We have just dealt with some affixational word formation process and compounding. However, there are some more ways to build a new word without affixation. They are conversion, clipping and blending.


Conversion is particularly common in English because the basic form of nouns and verbs is identical in many cases. According to Ana and Gustavo, conversion is extremely productive to increase the English lexicon because it provides an easy way to create new words from existing ones. There are four main types of conversion: noun to verb, verb to noun, adjective to verb and adjective to noun. (see Appendix)

Clipping or truncation

According to Ingo, truncation is a process in which the relationship between a derived word and its base is expressed by the lack of phonetic material in the derived word. (156)

For instance:

Mike (  Michael)

Rob (  Robert)

Andy (  Andrew)

lab (  laboratory)

math (  mathematics)

demo (  demonstration)


Blending is a way of forming word from parts of two other words. It is often the first part of the first elements combined with the second part of the second element (Igno Plag 166). We can form a rule with A, B, C and D as parts of elements:


For example:

motor + hotel  motel breakfast + lunch  brunch

goat + sheep  geep smoke + fog  smog

Sometimes, it is possible to combine the first part of the elements together.

For instance:

modulator + demodulator  modem cybernetic + organism → cyborg


In linguistics, reduplication is a repetition of a syllable, a morpheme or a word, e.g chit- chat, murmur, hush- hush, ping- pong…. Most of reduplication in English imitates the sound. However, it is really an interesting phenomenon in which it is used as informal expressive vocabulary.

Word formation in Vietnamese

Words in Vietnamese are the smallest meaningful unit that functions as a mean of naming things, can be used and occur independently in speech to build a sentence (ngonngu.net). To some extents, word formation in Vietnamese is different from the way words built in English. Words in Vietnamese are not formed by adding affixes as in English. These are some familiar ways to form words in Vietnamese: compounding, conversion, clipping, blends and reduplication. It is the same to words in English.


Based on relation of components, compound words in Vietnamese can be divided into two types: coordinated compound words (từ ghép đẳng lập) and principal-and-accessory compound words (từ ghép chính phụ). Coordinated compound words are words in which elements are equal of meaning. That coordinated compound words express general and synthetic meaning is a feature making them different form principal- and- accessory compound words. Let us take the word “ăn nói” as an example. “ăn” and “nói” have their own meaning when they stand alone. And they are on the same level of meaning. So we can combine it to create a new word “ăn nói” as a coordinated compound word. On the contrary, principal- and- accessory compound words are words in which components depend on each other. The accessory element classifies and modifies the principal one. For example, in the word “cà chua”, “chua” is the accessory element that modifies “”. So “cà chua” is a kind of “” and its feature is “chua”.

Similar to compound words in English, compound words in Vietnamese is also divided into three types in terms of word class: compound nouns, compound adjectives and compound verbs. Most of compound nouns in Vietnamese are built based on Han- Viet words. Or they can be the combination of two Nôm words, or Han- Viet words plus Nôm words.



Han Viet + Han Viet

ái quốc, ám muội, thi sĩ

Nom + Nom

quần áo, nhà cửa, ruộng vườn

Han Viet + Nom or Nom + Han Viet

nhân nghĩa, súng trường


One more similar method of creating a new word in Vietnamese is conversion. Conversion means to create a new word with the same spelling but different meaning to the original one. According to Nguyen Thien Giap, liguistics discovered essential phenomena of conversion: enlarge or narrow the meaning of a word; metaphor and metonymy; changing word-class (84).

For example:

chân vịt (leg of a duck) chân vịt (a screw )

ốc ( snail- a kind of animal) ốc ( a nut in technical field)

diêm ( sunphur- a kind of chemical) diêm (match)

Above words are examples of enlarging meaning of words that is a process of develop meaning of a word from particular to general, from specific to abstract, e.g. adjective “đẹp” is used in certain field of form but later “đẹp” is also used in domain of sense and relation such as “đẹp lòng”, “đẹp nết”… And these following are examples of narrowing meaning of words that is a opposite process to enlarging meaning of words. For instance, “Miếng thịt này có mùi rồi.”.mùi” in this sentence means “smell bad or putrid”.

Another method of conversion is metaphor which is a process of changing meaning of words based on the similarities of things taken to compare together, e.g. a ugly girl is called “Thị Nở”, a person who is always jealous in love is called “Hoạn Thư” or “Otenlo”… One more method is metonymy that is a method of changing meaning of words based on logic relation of things, e.g. “Nhà có năm miệng ăn.” means “Nhà có năm người ăn.” or “Anh ta là một chân sút xuất sắc.” means “Anh ta là một cầu thủ xuất sắc.” In these examples, a part of body represents the whole body.

Similar to conversion in English, Vietnamese new words can be formed by changing their word class.

e.g. “thơ” (noun) “rất thơ”/ “thơ lắm” (adjective)

“đỏ” (adjective) “đỏ ra” (verb)

“(mua) cuốc” (noun) “cuốc (đất)” (verb)

In brief, with method of conversion, the treasure of vocabulary is increasing ceaselessly and the speech will become more vividly.


Clipping in Vietnamese and in English are the same. It is a way of shortening a long word to a short one. For example, we can say “ kí lô/ ki lô” instead of “kilogram” or “Đảng” instead of “Đảng Cộng Sản Việt Nam”… The speakers may use this kind of word formation on the purpose of saving.


Blend is a method in which we can break the structure of words by adding some more words in. This method in Vietnamese is the same in English. For instance:

khổ sở

lo khổ lo sở

ngặt nghẽo

cười ngặt cười nghẽo

danh lợi + ham chuộng

ham danh chuộng lợi

tìm hiểu

tìm mà không hiểu

đánh đổ

đánh mà không đổ

This kind of word formation is varied and for common purpose of playing on words to create many new and interesting words.


Reduplication in Vietnamese is similar to reduplication in English. According to ngonngu.net website, the minimum length of reduplication in Vietnamese is two words and maximum is four words. However, the first one is the most typical. For two words, there are three types of reduplication. The first one is two elements are completely the same, e.g. “cào cào”, “khăng khăng”, “đùng đùng”… The second type is reduplication in tone, e.g. “phơi phới”, “thoang thoảng”, “hau háu”… The last one is reduplication in syllable, e.g. “bập bẹ”, “chan chát”, “anh ách”…In short, reduplication creates a large number of words in Vietnamese. And it is often used in music and poem.

Common errors

As non-native speaker and Vietnamese leaner of English, making errors when transforming ideas from mother tongue into foreign language and vice versa is obvious and unavoidable. In this part, I classify learners’ errors in three common types: errors with affixation, with compound words, with conversion and errors with clipping and blend.

Errors with affixation

Since many prefixes and suffixes whose meaning is the same, learners will be confused which one goes with which word. For instance, prefixes “un-”, “il-”, “im-” mean “not or the opposite of”, but we must use “uninteresting”, “illogical” or “impossible”… One more difficulty for learners is unclear understanding about meaning of prefixes and suffixes. For example, the words “misuse” and “disuse” have different meaning but learners may not understand clearly the meaning of “dis-” and “mis-”. Therefore, they assimilate these two words and think that they have the same meaning while “misuse” means using something in wrong purpose and “disuse” means no longer being used. To solve this problem, the teacher must make students notice in the meaning of some high- frequently used prefixes and suffixes.

Errors with compound words

Learners of English often make many mistakes with compound words. The difficulties of students are the order and meaning of compound words. First, about the order, in Vietnamese, students always say “bãi đậu xe”, “lực lượng lao động”…so when they translate them into English, they might say “park car” or “force labor” instead of “car park” and “labor force”. Secondly, about the meaning of compound words, it is easy for learners to give wrong meaning of compound words because they misunderstand compound words and phrases. For example, to the words “greenhouse” and “black ball”, they may say that “green house” is “ngôi nhà màu xanh” instead of “nhà kính” and “black-ball” is “quả bóng màu đen” not “phiếu chống/ phiếu đen” in an election. Thus, the solution for this error is that when teaching, the teacher should give clear distinction between compound words and phrases by marking stress. For example:

noun compound noun phrase

‘blackball a black ‘ball

phiếu chống quả bóng đen

‘greenhouse a green ‘house

nhà kính ngôi nhà màu xanh
One more error that students likely make is that they often forget to omit “-s” in a noun to create a compound adjective. So they might say “five-minutes (break)” not “five- minute (break)”.

Errors with conversion

Word class in Vietnamese and in English is somehow different. That also leads Vietnamese students to make mistakes while interpreting their ideas into English. In Vietnamese, it is safe to say “Cô ấy hát không hay.” but it is impossible to say “She sings not good/ beautiful.” as some students often do. Or we cannot translate the sentence “Đá bóng là sở thích của tôi.” into “Play football is my hobby.” because it makes no sense in grammar.

Errors with clipping and blend

Using clipping and blend in English too much may cause students to forget the spelling of the original words so they tend to use the clipped or blended ones.


Word formation is a method of creating a new words so that it make our treasure of vocabulary enrich. In English and in Vietnamese, there are some similar ways of building new words: compounding, conversion, clipping, blend and reduplication. However, in each certain method, many differences occur on process of word formation. In addition, new words in English can be formed by adding affixes, but it is impossible to do this in Vietnamese.

In general, to master a language, learners must have thorough grasp of how words are formed and how to use it effectively.


(1996). The American Heritage® Book of English Usage. Boston: Houghton Mifflin

Ana I. Hernández Bartolomé and Gustavo Mendiluce Cabrera. (2005). Grammatical Conversion in English. Retrieve December, 20, 2009, from http://accurapid.com/Journal/31conversion.htm.

Compound noun. Retrieved December, 18, 2009, from http://www.learnenglish.de/grammar/nouncompound.htm

Compound verb. Retrieve December, 18, 2009, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Compound_verb.

Megginson, David. (2007). Word formation. Retrieved December, 20, 2009, from http://www.writingcentre.uottawa.ca/hypergrammar/wordform.html.

Muthusami. (2008). Compound Adjectives in English: A brief overview. Retrieve December, 20, 2009, from http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/1135622/compound_adjectives_in_english_a_brief.html?cat=4.

Nguyen, T.G. (2006). Dan luan ngon ngu hoc. Ha Nam: Education Publishing


Plag, Ingo. Word-formation in English. United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2003

Tu trong tieng Viet. Retrieve December, 20, 2009, from http://ngonngu.net/index.php?p=207 .

Word. Retrieved December, 20, 2009, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Word.



  1. Quantity prefixes:






    unilateral, unification


    two/ twice

    bilateral, bifurcation



    multipurpose, multicolor



    semiannual, semi- desert

  2. Locative prefixes:






    intracellular, intrados



    interbreed, intergalactic



    transmigrate, transcontinental


    on/ over

    epiglottis, epi-central

  3. Temporal prefixes:




    pre- / fore-


    pre-determine, forefather



    post-modify, postmodern

  4. Negation prefixes:





not/ opposite of

disable, dishonest



irregular, irrelevance



impossible, imperil



unreal, uninteresting


  1. Nominal suffixes:





    quality/ state/ property

    solidity, formality


    process/ result

    assessment, treatment


    state/ condition

    friendship, membership



    contestant, assistant

  2. Verbal suffixes:




    randomize, characterize


    broaden, blacken


    identify, solidify

  3. Adjectival suffixes:




readable, acceptable


childish, selfish


beautiful, colorful


careless, homeless

  1. Adverbial suffixes:




carefully, daily


lengthwise, crosswise


1. Noun to verb

the file to file

the water to water

the Google to google
2. Verb to noun

to call a call

to dump a dump

to guess a guess

3. Adjective to verb

light to light

empty to empty

open to open

4. Adjective to noun

poor the poor

rich the rich

blind the blind

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