Jerry DeNuccio

Jerry DeNuccio
Lamoni, Iowa,
September 18
Professor of English
Graceland University


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JUNE 5, 2011 9:06AM

Prefixed and Suffixed: The Grammar of Our Lives

Rate: 38 Flag

I am prefixed and suffixed.  I am a college teacher (er—one who performs an action) who teaches literature (ure—function, process) and composition (ion—result of an act or process).  I  rhapsodize (ize—engage in an activity) about Moby Dick but sometimes sneak off to see such cultural (al—of or relating to) Karmelkorn as Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.  I have hypothyroidism (hypo—deficiency; ism—state or condition).  I tend to vote democratic (crat—member or partisan of; ic—character or nature of).  I am a vegetarian (arian—believer, advocate).  I am friendly (ly—like in manner or nature) and can be social (al—tending to, fit for) but prefer solitude (tude—quality or state).  I do not own a smartphone (smart—too techie for me to operate) or a smart anything, except, occasionally a mouth.  Age catches me out these days, and I often feel seniorclysmic (OK, I made that up).  I was overweight (over—over, duh!) as a young man, but now my physician (ian—skilled in) worries that I am too skinny (y—characterized by), which is strange considering my near mitochondrial Reese’s Peanut Butter Cupitudinarianism, a craving I am able to resist about as successfully as attempting to thread a needle while being tickled.  Faced with a RPBC, my willpower comes out with its hands up.


All of who I am, it seems, is defined by bits of language that are located six doors down from the corner office of actual words—mere slivery, splintery units of linguistic structure, snippets, really, tittles and tidbits, runts in the lexical litter.  And yet, they have meaning, which means that hanging them on the fore or aft of words gives them the power to broker the coordinates of my identity.   I don’t mind.  They can, I believe, teach us something about the grammar of our lives. 


Prefixes and suffixes—along with infixes, which English does not have, except for such mildly profane exclamations as “absodamnlutely”—are classified as áffixes.   There are two types of áffixes in English: inflectional and derivational.  Only eight inflectional áffixes remain in English, all of them suffixes. Two tell us whether nouns are plural or possessive; four tell us whether verbs refer to actions that are past, present, or ongoing; and two tell us whether adjectives are comparing two things or evaluating one thing among many as superlative.  Inflectional suffixes thus refine the meaning of the word they are attached to, but more than that, they establish a word’s relationship to other words in the string of words containing it.  The “s” at the end of “grammarians” means more than one and would require the use of the pronouns “they,” “them,” and “their” when referring to them and the verb “are” in the sentence “Grammarians are fond of horseradish on their ice cream.”  The “en” on “eaten” requires a form of “have” as a helping verb and means the eating occurred in the past before another past action: “The grammarians experienced digestive distress after they had eaten horseradish on their ice cream.”


Now, indulge me in a metaphor here: because inflectional suffixes work outside the word, ligaturing to and affecting other words, let’s consider inflectional suffixes to be socially oriented. 


Derivational áffixes allow us to derive new words either by changing the part of speech of the word to which they attach or by altering the word’s meaning: add able to the verb “sustain” and, voilá, you have the adjective “sustainable.”  Add the prefix un to “sustainable and, revoilá, the meaning changes.  Add ster to “hip” and you get a noun and one very irritating guy; add ize and you verb him into action; add tion and you’ve got “hipsterization,” a monstrous transformation worthy of a horror film; add de at the beginning and you’ve returned him to human form.


All these additions are far from arbitrary.  Grammatical rules dictate what can be added to what and in what order the addition will proceed.  The suffix able attaches by rule to verbs  to make adjectives (compare-comparable).  The prefix in attaches to adjectives to render another adjective but with a different meaning.  Thus, the order of attachment for “incomparable” would have to be able first, then in.  In other words, the structure of words with affixes is hierarchical.  It occurs in steps; it spools in a precisely ordered sequence.


Now, metaphor time again.  Because the derivational áffix process occurs in words rather than, like inflectional suffixes, across words, because it is internal to a particular word, changing its, and its only, meaning and identity, ligaturing to and affecting no other words in the string of words containing it, let’s consider derivational áffixes to be individually oriented.


So, what, then, is the take away for the grammar of our lives?  The “social” nature of inflectional suffixes teaches us to possess the capacity for plural perspective taking; to attend to the tense, the historical context and contingencies, that shapes and governs the lives with which we interact, to compare qualities and ideas, and to assess them for their superiority.  The lesson of inflectional suffixes is to imagine, analyze, and evaluate; to broaden our horizons, not practice the idolatry of merely reinforcing our views; to realize that, while circumstances emplace us, we can think beyond them.


The “individual” nature of derivational áffixes teaches us deliberative and purposeful change—that who we are, what we are, what we think and feel and do and perceive can be reconfigured; that the categories in which we are placed, in which we place ourselves, can be revised; that the meanings we hold can be transformed.  Derivational áffixes instill a disposition for growth.


There is a deep structure to our lives, a biological grammar. It develops, perhaps according to Erik Erikson’s eight-staged theory of psychosocial development, or Jean Piaget’s four stages of cognitive development, or Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, or Beck and Graves’s nonlinear Spiral Dynamics model, or the Seven Ages of Man the melancholy Jacques outlines in Shakespeare’s As You Like It.  It matters little to which theory we subscribe.  What matters is what we make of our life’s stages, how we experience the urgent energy of them, how we imagine and embody them, the parameters we set within them.  What matters is not the deep structure but the surface structure, the way we express our lives, in small ways and in large.  We can change; we can catalyze ourselves, be emergent, and not simply a lingerer in a room with a wavy-glass window and a caged parrot, waiting for our number to be called.  We may be áffixed, but we are not affíxed.


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I'm glad I audited this class. Gladder I won't have to take the test.
" What matters is not the deep structure but the surface structure, the way we express our lives, in small ways and in large. We can change; we can catalyze ourselves, be emergent, and not simply a lingerer in a room with a wavy-glass window and a caged parrot, waiting for our number to be called. We may be áffixed, but we are not affíxed."

I like the paragraph...As a poet, of course, I love to play around with metaphor, but there is a deep structure to metaphor, sometimes, that stimulates the mind, and help us to see deeper, complex links between phenomena...
This is brilliant, Jerry. That you teach us here what grammar internalises has implications for other cultures, too. r.
Fun and enlightening. Your exploration of pre's and suff's was whimsical and instructive (calling to mind some whimsy of my own, if you don't mind: is a Suffix a county name, spoken with a lisp? is a Suffix a former Sufi? is a prefix what Laurel and Hardy were in just before they got into a "fine fix"?), and the last three paragraphs, your "take away," are brilliant guides to life. You said in your PM, as I recall, that you weren't sure about this one.

Cert-ify yourself. Be re-assured. This was wonder-ful.

(Though the copy editor in me kept wanting to glue hyphens to those pre's and suff's.)
Suffice to say, I was transfixed by this grammar cum philosophy lesson cum humorous piece. You are an outstanding stand-up grammarian.

Your end points seem to put Jameson's "Prison-House of Language" on its head. He feels we are imprisoned by language. On the other hand, your argument is that we have choice. I like yours better.

Btw, what about the space between the paragraphs? Do they serve as a pause between thoughts? Or as a transition between ideas? Or both? Or neither?

First of all I love this discourse, Jerry! Language is a window through wich we see and define our world, and no other language than English is more permissive to allow its speaker to do so. That has been its greatest fascination to me.

"What matters is not the deep structure but the surface structure, the way we express our lives, in small ways and in large."

I have been contemplating this, and I think that we still need an (albeit an innate) understanding of the deeper structure in order to manipulate language to express ourselves in small or larger, more effective ways.

True Ease in Writing comes from Art, not Chance,
As those move easiest who have learn'd to dance,
'Tis not enough no Harshness gives Offence,
The Sound must seem an Eccho to the Sense.
A. Pope

Thank you for an excellent, thought provoking piece. ♥R
The linguistic basis for this examination works so well because of the prominence of articulate language as a feature that distinguishes humanity from the rest of the animal kingdom. Your comparison of affixes to the social and individual aspects of human interaction and growth makes me crave a nice big bowl of morphemes and pitcher of milk to pour over them. A healthy breakfast like that each day will help me to grow up big and strong--within and without.

The synthesis at the end truly drives the point home and frees us from any single model or notion of understanding on this point.

Thanks for the refresher on linguistics, by the way.
Jerry, this is marvelously conceived and executed. I'm particularly fond of the second paragraph, which feels very Hopkinsian, and your last two sentences. I confess freely to being that lingerer in a room with a wavy-glass window and a caged parrot, preefed and suffed.
Be careful about "hypo". A hypodermic is not deficient in anything. Your discourse is basic in understanding language but prefixes and suffixes vary in meaning as do words.
Good to reflect that while grammar imposes its own rules, we have the power to reflect on them, and our circumstances as well, and think beyond them. Good exercise, beautifully done.
Permit me to preface my comment with a compliment. Suffice it to say, this was worth it for this line alone: "attempting to thread a needle while being tickled". I shan't say more for fear of offending pedants -- or should that have been pendants?
I'll just take the last para and run with it. You have quite a mind, Jerry.
I read this twice..You are the man Jerry. Although I will never be 1/8 as smart as you I stand and read in awe.
Rated in hugs
I'm not a grammarian but I am gray and my name is Mary. And yesterday I am not kidding, I enjoyed a bit of horseradish and then a cup of French vanilla ice cream--one after the other. So I must ask: was the horseradish ON the ice cream or was the ice cream made with horseradish as an ingredient?

“The grammarians experienced digestive distress after they had eaten horseradish ice cream.”

But before that you wrote:

“Grammarians are fond of horseradish on their ice cream.”

I apologize for being a pain in the apostrophe.

(I LOVED ALL THE REST OF THIS POST: pre, in and suff!!!!!)
If something is inflammable
It also can be flammable
Which makes the crazy word
Somewhat nuts - absurd,
And equally quite damnable.
Now, loosen and unloosen
Both can have their use in
Untangling tight knots
While logic, silent, rots.
So prefixes make mixes
That crosses things and nixes
Good sense out of grammar
And might cause one to stammer.
Yeah, what Leon said. Clever and highly informative, as always, Jerry. And I, too, with a deeply felt empathetic superficiality, cannot deny the particular helplessness I experience Reese’s Peanut Butter Cupitudinarianismistically to which you confess. Yum, indeed.
Thanks for sharing this piece with us Professor Jerry. It's a needed grammer review for me, as well as an excellent kick in the pants to stage engaged and dynamic. I hadn't realized before reading this how illuminating the subject could be.
Language is beuatiful, isn't it? I enjoyed this very much.
Actually, “a whole ’nother” is arguably an infix, though it's the only non-profane instance I know of. Maybe there's some technical grounds on which it's ruled out by some because it has no easy way of writing it down. But everyone uses it.

(And did you know the infixed profanities always immediately precede a stressed syllable?)

But it's a good point about the way grammar relates to our perception of life. Such amazing care went into the design of the words we use, and sometimes indeed I think we do fall short of the aspirations the designers may have had for our use of those concepts.

If I had more time, I'd make an analogy here to western square dance calling, which began with dances and subparts of dances in fixed form and worked backward to impose morphemes upon them and then to build a whole ecology of dance based on the ability to mix and match them. If I understand your intent here, that might be a metaphor for what language is really capable of doing if unleashed. For more information, maybe start with the discussion of challenge square dancing at Wikipedia, though a quick glance at Google searches says no one has really summarized this culture very well in a way that's accessible to outsiders. Maybe a topic for me for another day.
Say what???????? Excuse me, professor. I'm craving a horseradish sundae. :D

"That don't make no nevermind, no how."

Very good commentary Jerry, especially for an older guy. R
Will this be on the final? That was one huge lesson for one blog. Perhaps brevity might make all of this really interesting stuff a bit easier to deal with. What you say is wonderfully interesting and informative but the way you are saying it (interrupting your own sentences and thoughts) makes it more complicated than it need be I think. Still I plowed through it and it was terrific. r
"biological grammar"--ahh...nice to know we can move off the base.

I read this piece twice and will want to read it several more times. In its erudition and clarity, it reminds me of the best of William Safire. You really ought to have taken his place over at the NYT ;-)
Delightful. Have not had such an enjoyable read on language since William Safire wrote his Sunday columns.

I must point out to Jan San that "hypo' does not mean "deficient in", but derives from the Greek "under". Hypodermic needle means a needle that goes under/beneath/below (hypo) the dermis (dermal/skin). "Hypodermis" are those cells just UNDER the top layer of the skin. A hypothesis is an UNDERlying supposition, the foundation of a mental construct. Hypo can mean "less than" in a mathematical sense, but not "deficient" in a normative/judgmental sense. Hypothermia means, literally, less temperature than normal; hypothyroid, less thyroid activity than normal, etc, as compared to baseline numbers. Your doctor might explain your hypothyroid condition to you in terms of your thyroid being "deficient", but that's his normative conclusion. Literally, Hypo means under, nothing more; your thyroid is under performing. Some words with "hypo" in the structure--hypocrite, for instance--derive from Old English or Old French words and spellings and have nothing to do with Greek/hypo/under.
Will this be on the test, Professor? Rated excellent.
Will this be on the test, Professor? Rated excellent.
"We can change, we can catalyze ourselves, be emergent and not simply a lingerer in a room...."
Simply brilliant. I love visiting your blog. I don't get here enough...Rated with admiration.
I am fully aware that "hypo" refers to under and not a deficiency. And I am also pretty sure that professor DeNuccio is also aware of this. I merely cautioned him to be a bit precise in his observations. As someone delighted in the way words can be assembled and reconstructed on the logical use of the standard understandings of prefixes and suffixes I am also aware that language is dependent upon common usage which can result in wonderfully cockeyed word meanings and the extraordinary variance of English spelling to pronunciation which must drive non-natives speakers crazy. The words I played with in my poem are only quick samples of how frustratingly illogical language can be.
The cited example of "eaten" always needing "have" as a modifier, for example is violated in the example "He is eaten by vengeance." which is in the present, not the past. Since English has several root sources for it words it is not only quite strange in its word construction, it is also wonderful in a source for humor. The classic Groucho Marx observation "Time flies like an arrow, fruit flies like a banana." illustrates how elusively flexible the language can be.
Having read this, I'd like to point out that I am both mayed and gruntled.
Sorry Jan baby,
You made a definitive statement, you said hypo means "deficient in", your words. Now, you try to dodge it to the effect that you and the Prof--of course!!! you do-- know the meaning of hypo. He likely does. you did not/ do not. Nice try. Hypocrite.
I'm terribly sorry, BadScot if your reading comprehension is deficient and thereby energizing your hair trigger aggressiveness but I never said "hypo" indicated deficiency. My first comment indicated that a hypodermic is not deficient and my second comment was to the effect that professor DeNuccio was most probably aware that "hypo" indicated under and not deficient.
Since you refer to me as "baby" I can assume you are much older than me. I am only 85 and still in fairly good mental shape but as we progress in time, as you seem to have done well beyond me, mental capabilities seem to crumble. You have my sympathy.
Jan, You wrote, Your words: "Be careful about "hypo". A hypodermic is not deficient in anything. Your discourse is basic in understanding language but prefixes and suffixes vary in meaning as do words."

There they are , your words. If at 85 I can still spin baloney as well as you I'll be a happy camper, although I may not know where the campsite is located. Meanwhile, spinning this sort of pablum is unbecoming a gentleman of your stature. Youse was wrong. Fess up.
This is my total post in which you contend I proclaim "hypo" means "deficient".
Quote: Be careful about "hypo". A hypodermic is not deficient in anything. Your discourse is basic in understanding language but prefixes and suffixes vary in meaning as do words.

It clearly indicates that the word "deficient" is not applicable to a hypodermic. It does not indicate that I believe "hypo" is a prefix indicating deficiency. On the contrary, my choice of "hypodermic" demonstrates that "hypo" in that word has another indication.

The impetus for your aggressiveness strikes me as some sort of mental distortion. Very curious.
I read this post yesterday until I came upon Mr. Gardner's comment and the mention of testing scared me away.

I find that very few people can explain language in such a way as to make it understandable and fun and (yeah, humbling, too). Others (like me) putter around with it as if we were working in a garage workshop, trying to make something else. I am profoundly in awe of those who can converse in higher forms than I could possibly attempt (this post being an example and Pilgrim's comment, of course.)

Congratulations on the EP and cover!
Your writing is always a pleasure to read. But in your summary of possible ways grammar develops in the human mind, you left out the most important modern view of all--that of Noam Chomsky. (I admit to not being entirely objective about this; I'm one of his intellectual grandchildren--my dissertation advisor was one of his advisees.) Chomsky holds the counterintuitive--but I think, correct--view that language is a cognitive skill independent of other modules of knowledge, rather than a reflection of them. For instance, stroke victims may be brilliant, but unable to speak, read, or write; while people suffering from Williams Syndrome have profound developmental delays but better-than-average language skills. Small children use prefixes and suffixes correctly --even with nonsense words, such as made-up nouns (Google "wug test") --but have no idea why they do so. Our ability to use morphological processes productively is thus not a reflection of our talent for metaphor, but a reflection of the miracle of language itself--how are we able to do so much with a complex system few of us consciously understand?

Okay, I'll shut up now!
◎★◎i very like web==lets go◎★◎

believe you will love it.


lets go

There are many fashion clothes high-heeled shoes
I prefer this post to the diagramming of sentences.
So glad I didn't miss this lesson, but like others, I'll have to read it again and again and again. -R-
"... you verb him into action;" Is "verb" conjugated like a regular verb?

Your piece is more informative than a semester of freshman rhetoric.
Delightful class, truly, mein professor!

Can you speculate at all on what will happen to the language,
the English one,
when at
some point we collectively actually REACH Maslow's
ultimate need: self-actualization, not in today's watered-down
sense of 'enlightened'-self-interest-Individualism
(i.e. an ego on steroids)
but true, er, to use an overused phrase, "cosmic consciousness",
akin to that reached only by a select few genetic mutants like
the usual gang of suspects: christ, buddha, Lao Sue, and those
wacky zen-masters & heretic mystics of the West...

they all have in common that they speak in paradox,
in parable, in tortured-German, other words, they
have truths that their tongues can't quite get out,to be


The logical deep structure must be the base from which to build
a new language, or, should i say: evolve the one we are stuck with.
I daresay music will be important in this endeavor.
That's probably how it all started, anyway.
It probably should be acknowledged that pragmatic utility and tradition rather than clean self consistency is the basis for the evolution of each language and these rather illogical forces are not necessarily subject to either good sense or clean logic. Each word and its component elements has the possibility of multiple meanings and it is common usage that keeps it from total insanity. And usually it is the native speaker who can sort out what is intended by any vocal effort, a situation that may be totally illogical. The only language that is totally logical and self consistent is mathematics and it seems to have a life of its own beyond human control (at least to my perceptions which find mathematics quite alien and a bit forbidding). No doubt logic and self consistency, like captured animals, attempt to struggle to give language some sort of uniform good sense but language itself seems to have feral qualities that resent taming. Its an amusing and fascinating battle.

I am electing to refrain from being hypo critical.
I can picture Abraham Lincoln as a vampire hunter but it's a little harder to imagine you watching him as one. I love the way your humor infuses your posts and if it spills over to the classroom as I'm sure it does, your students are quite fortunate. Sorry about your condition (RPBC) although I'm a little irritated you can eat as many of those things as you like.
Rather an organic tonic this a.m. for me. Saying something selfishly so lazily later I'd (if it rains) repeat read, JN.

The more I read the fewer people I speak with and it suits me so finely.

Red-lining as we lean forward gracefully!
We can indeed. And while it is difficult, it is not nearly as difficult as it first appears.

What a delight this was!
a born writer, very clever
Rereading, entertained by your scholarship.

Marvelous piece, JD.
It's always bothered me that the word prefix contains a prefix but the word suffix doesn't contain a suffix. That seems unfair in some way, like suffix is being slighted. Or maybe prefix is just full of itself.

Nothing personal.
Again: mighty fine scholarly rap.
Bookmarked it as soon as i read it.
I am fascinated with the Language.
Alas, all i can handle is English.
I am going to reinvent it ,
I hope.

Not reinvent so much as get it in good working order
so that we whiteys dont gotta jive-ass sixty
words when six'll do ya.
There are some old stalwarts who
smart at the supposed devolution of the language.

I say unto them: the liberal ones:
the , um, blue guys:

imagine this in yer abstract cranium, my man:

someday the "masters of war" whose funeral we wish
as soon as possible
will wake and like
in a twilight zone
episode not get
nothin no more.

even the whiteys.
Brilliant, Jerry. Thank you.
For a person that owns 8 dictionaries in English alone, this was wonderful and made me giggle too.
you, sir, defamed me. sayin some shit like:
my head is fun to be inside, though a bit dis-

i am all for english, but i like to fuck with it.

id= where it all happens.
my naughty linguistical tomfoolery.
also i lissen to black people a bit more carefully than

ironic= i am not only prefixed but suffixed by the whitest
wasp heritage imaginable.

hope you take on twain for his flagrant use of boring

or huck finn for
his naughty mouth.

one of em, i do not care whom.

hey, when's it cool to say whom?

i say it too much. unlike artjames.
who never says it, the damn high falluting hick.