One easy boost to your writing: Using affixal negation to improve your vocabulary

27 February, 2023

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Today we talk about an easy way to improve your vocabulary: affixal negation. Writing is a big part of academic life. For ESL (English as a Second Language) learners and academics, it can be a particularly daunting task. You are expected not only to write in a language that is not your own but also at a level that is as good as your native English-speaking peers. There are many challenges to consider when it comes to writing at school or university; hitting word counts, scoring well on tests and, this may go without saying, ensuring that you produce high-quality discourse.

As we have discussed before, there is a relatively straightforward way to improve the quality of your writing: improving your vocabulary.

One of the most obvious factors that determine the quality of your writing is vocabulary. Readers can discern your fluency in English by measuring your lexical knowledge (simply put, your knowledge of words and meanings). It is also a definite way to improve your scores on essays and other writing exercises. Studies show that using ‘good’ vocabulary can help students get higher scores on tests [1].

By good vocabulary, I am referring not just to domain-specific terminology but also to words that add more depth of meaning to and improve the overall register of your text. In other words, vocabulary that makes you sound academic. To that end, we propose a deceptively easy method, affixal negation. 

What is affixal negation?

Affixal negation refers to the use of affixes (prefixes & suffixes) that negate the meaning of the words to which they are attached.

But, what is an affix and how can we negate affixally?

Affixes are units of meaning (or pieces of words) that attach themselves to a word in order to alter its meaning. They are different from words because they cannot occur in isolation, they must be attached to something. For example, you can’t write ‘un’ by itself, it can only be used when it is put at the beginning of a word, e.g. unbecoming, unrealistic. In English, there are two types of affixes; prefixes and suffixes.

Prefixes are affixes that are attached to the beginning of a word, or a root. For example, happy / un-happy, function / mal-function, sufficient / in-sufficient. 

Suffixes, on the other hand, are attached to the end of words. For example, character / character-less, child / child-ish. 

In this blog, we will go through 3 ways in which affixal negation can improve your writing.

1). Differentiate between direct and indirect negation. 

Direct negation is very straightforward, it can be represented by ‘not something’, for example when something is insufficient, it is not sufficient.

Indirect negation on the other hand may not appear straightforward but is negation in terms of connotation [2] [3]. For instance, it can suggest the following types of meaning:

  • Reversal of action; (tie/untie, do/undo) untying something is different from not tying it. This subtle difference in meaning is conveyed by the prefix un- in this context.
  • Inferiority; (sensitive / hypersensitive) in this example the affix hypo- connotes less than normal, and not the total absence of, sensitivity.  
  • Insufficiency; (total/subtotal, urban/suburban) suburban does not simply mean ‘not urban’ it refers to a difference in level or urban-ness. 
  • Badness/wrongness; (famous/infamous, conduct/misconduct) the affix mis- in ‘misconduct’ refers not to the lack of conduct but to objectionable conduct or conduct that can be considered wrong.
  • Opposition; (conformist/non-conformist, bacterial/anti-bacterial) a non-conformist is someone that is actively against conforming. Similarly, anti-bacterial refers to something that is meant to prevent the growth of bacteria.
  • Removal; (anglicize / de-anglicize, bug / debug) debugging something refers to removing an existing bug, not an absence of bugs.
  • Absence; (child / childless, care / careless) saying someone is childless does not mean that they are not a child, it means that they do not have children. In this context, the suffix -less tends to refer to the absence of something, generally the root to which it is attached. 

As highlighted in the examples above, negating affixes adds breadth (as in the number of words known) and depth (as in the quality of your knowledge of words) to your vocabulary that syntactic negation simply can’t achieve [4]. 

This is admittedly a bit tricky. For the very reason mentioned above, you can’t just replace every instance of not + adjective with an affixally negated word. On top of that, some words may not have negating affixes.

Take for instance the two sentences below: 

‘Despite his immense contribution to the field of journalism, Brian Deer is not famous in journalists’ circles.’ 

‘Despite his immense contribution to the field of journalism, Brian Deer is infamous in journalists’ circles.’ 

In this case, the use of the prefix in- is not acceptable because it completely changes the meaning.

Therefore, writers must be careful when opting to negate using affixes. To be sure, use a dictionary and find out if the word you are using fits the context. Through this exercise, we hope that you spare more thought to your choice of words and improve your vocabulary in the process.

2). Make your writing more concise. 

What syntactic negation can do in 2 or 3 words, affixal negation does in 1. This is especially true for directly negated words.

E.g. They did not spell ‘countenance’ correctly.

        They spelt ‘countenance’ incorrectly. OR

        They misspelt ‘countenance’.

Hence, when facing strict word limits, using affixally negated words will help to cut down on the word count. 

3) Maintain the register of your writing. 


Register refers to the kind of language used for a particular purpose in a particular situation. It is a cumulation of linguistic characteristics that can help us identify the communicative purpose of a text. In linguistics, it also refers to the level of formalness employed while speaking or writing [5].

Academic writing is expected to be formal. Academics write to present their ideas and even to convince readers of their points of view [6]. Hence, when writing an article, or presenting people with your views and research, it is best to adhere to prescriptive norms present in the academic domain. This refers not just to journal specifications or guidelines provided by your professors but also to the general style of writing that is practiced here. A lot of research has been conducted to define what kind of language can be referred to as ’academic’ and there are several distinct characteristics that contribute to its register [7]. 

Affixal negation helps with that as well, it elevates the quality of your writing and helps you hit the vocabulary requirements recommended for students. Apart from making your writing appear more formal, affixally negated words also make it appear more objective and hence engage your readers better. 

Admittedly, affixal negation is not a one-stop shop to fix your writing. It is, however, an extremely easy and efficient consideration you can make while writing your next essay or article. The next time you write ‘not something’ in your work, instead try and think of an affixal alternative.

Summary

Affixal negation is an easy and accessible grammatical process that you can employ to improve your vocabulary and, by extension, the quality of your writing. It involves using affixes, i.e. prefixes and suffixes, to negate words.

In sum, affixal negation can improve your writing firstly by improving the breadth and depth of your vocabulary, as using affixally negated words can exhibit a better working knowledge of English vocabulary. Secondly, affixal negation can help you be more succinct in your writing. Instead of using 2 or three words, using negating affixes can help you negate in one word. Finally, affixal negation can improve the register of your writing. Using affixally negated words can make your writing sound more objective and formal. 

References

(1) Cumming, Kantor and Powers (2002), Decision Making while Rating ESL/EFL Writing Tasks: A Descriptive Framework, The Modern Language Journal 86.

(2)Karakoç, D. and Köse, G.D., 2017. The impact of vocabulary knowledge on reading, writing and proficiency scores of EFL learners. Journal of language and linguistic studies, 13(1), pp.352-378.

(2) Joshi (2012), AFFIXAL NEGATION – DIRECT, INDIRECT AND THEIR SUBTYPES, Syntaxe et Semantique, Presses universitaires de Caen.

(3) Joshi (2020), Affixal Negation, The Oxford Handbook of Negation, Oxford University Press.

(4) Dabbagh and Enayat, (2017), The role of vocabulary breadth and depth in predicting second language descriptive writing performance, The Language Learning Journal.

(5) Joos, M., 1967. THE FIVE CLOCKS–A LINGUISTIC EXCURSION INTO THE FIVE STYLES OF ENGLISH USAGE.

(6) Biber, D., & Conrad, S. (2009). Register, Genre, and Style (Cambridge Textbooks in Linguistics). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

(7) Paltridge, B., 2004. Academic writing. Language teaching, 37(2), pp.87-105.

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