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What Is a Combining Form?

By John Markley
Updated May 23, 2024
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In linguistics, a combining form is a type of word component based on an independent word that has been modified to be joined with another word or combining form to create a compound word. Every combining form has its own semantic meaning, but unlike their source words, combining forms generally cannot stand alone as complete words by themselves. Combining forms are part of many English words and are especially common in areas such as science, medicine, and technological terms.

In English and many other European languages, combining forms are frequently based on Latin or classical Greek words, and so compound words made from them are commonly called classical compounds. The English versions can sometimes be several steps removed from their original language. For example, the suffix -graphy originated as the English version of the French -graphie, which comes from the Latin -graphia. The Latin term, in turn, comes from the Greek graphein, which means to write.

Combining compounds that appear at the beginning of a word are often created by changing the word it is derived from to end in a vowel. For example, the classical Greek words bios, which means life, gives us the combining form bio- that appears in familiar words like biology and biography. The chief exception to this rule is when the part of the word following the initial combining form begins with a vowel. For example, the English words monarchy and oligarchy, which respectively refer to a government controlled by one person and by a small group of people, derive their second combining base from the Greek word for authority, arche. Thus the initial combining forms of the words based on the Greek words for one and few, monos and oligos, are ended with consonants.

Many scientific, scholarly, and medical disciplines have names made from combining forms. The most common is -logy, derived from the Greek logos, which means a word, statement, or explanation. Thus, biology is the study of life (bios), anthropology is the study of humans (anthropos), and theology is the study of God (theos). In medicine, a doctor who specializes in medical issues specific to women (gune) is called a gynecologist, while a specialist in diseases and disorders of the blood (haima) is hematologist.

Other terms used to refer to fields of study or knowledge include -nomic and the previously mentioned -graphy. The former term comes from the Greek word for law, nomos. Individual technical terms in many fields, such as the names of species in biology, the names of scientific techniques, and the names of physical or social phenomena, are also commonly classical compounds.

The names of many familiar technologies contain combining forms. For instance, the words telephone, television, and telescope all begin with the combining form tele- derived from the Greek tele, meaning distant. The word technology itself is a classical compound based on the Greek term for skill or craftsmanship, techne.

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