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English’s Invisible Suffix

I recently heard an NPR reporter misplace the accent on a word and it reminded me of the invisible suffix in English. I did not write down the specific word (I’ve heard this error many times on radio and TV) but it was a word like survey, which is pronounced both survey and survey. Both are legitimate words. Do you know the rule which governs where the accent falls? Here are some more examples:

  • reject : reject
  • increase : increase
  • subject : subject

If you think accent on the second syllable indicates a verb and accent on the initial syllable indicates a noun—you’re right.

This difference in accent may legitimately be called an invisible (though not inaudible) suffix since it distinguishes verbs from nouns as surely as -ment does in state and statement or -ation does in form and formation. The rule is very simple: two syllable verbs with accent on the second syllable are converted into nouns by simply shifting the accent to the first syllable. (The words generally have to be made up of two distinguishable constituents or morphemes such as re- and -ject in reject and in- and -crease in increase.)

The meaning of the noun created this way is “the result of the action signified by the underlying verb”, just as a statement is the result of stating and and formations result from forming. The result of surveying is a survey and if we reject something, it becomes a reject.

This rule is particularly productive (active) among verbs with the prefix re-. If you recap the news, the result is a recap, the result of retreading a tire is a retread, anything we remake turns out to be a remake. I could go on all night and through most of tomorrow but I think these examples are enough to show that this accent shift is an active rule of the English language.

Sometimes the meaning is simply the process of the verb, as a reboot of a computer is simply the act of rebooting, but the same duality of meaning can be found in nouns ending on -(at)ion and -ment. English has so few suffixes that all of them serve multiple functions.

The important point is that the language does provide a means of distinguishing between many verbs and nouns that are spelled identically and we should be careful to observe the rule that maintains this distinction when we utter these words.

One Response to “English’s Invisible Suffix”

  1. Jennifer Says:

    I know how we put accents on different parts of words but I never heard this explanation before as far as the verb and noun. Thank you. Very interesting site which has just gone in my favorites!

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