Reading French 10 : Words, Words, Words

© 2015, Greg Lessard

Words and word formation

French, like a number of other languages, has means of making more complex words out of simpler ones. This is called word formation. In what follows, we will look at four devices for word formation:

In what follows, we will look at each of these classes in some detail and practice using them to identify words in French. In addition, since French and English make use of a common stock of Latin and Greek roots, you may find that these techniques will help you better identify words in English as well.

In each of the following tables, before you mouse over the examples in French to see their meaning, try to guess what it might be based on the meaning of the base word and the nature of the prefix, suffix, etc.


As we noted in an earlier module, French has several open class parts of speech, including nouns, verbs and adjectives. Sometimes when we are producing a sentence, we have a meaning but we need a particular part of speech. For example, consider the following examples, all having to do with teaching. Remember also that the French verb for teaching is enseigner.

In the first case, we need a noun to describe someone who teaches, while in the second we need a noun to describe the act of teaching. This is where suffixes come in. In fact, in French, we can write:

We can see that adding -ant to a verb lets us designate someone who does the action of the verb (with in addition here the addition of -e to show that we're talking about a woman), and adding -ment to a verb lets us designate the action of the verb. The forms -ant and -ment are suffixes.

We can think of this system as a sort of triangle, with nouns, verbs and adjectives at the points and suffixes as the means of joining the points, in one direction or another, as below:


Let us now add some examples to this image to show some actual words and their relations. Follow the dotted arrows to see which word formations are attached to each suffix. Note that clou means 'a nail', while clouer means 'to nail', France is the name of a country and français means having to do with France, rare has the same meaning as in English, while rareté means 'rarity'. Solide has the same meaning as 'solid', while solidité means the state of being solid. Finally, accepter means 'to accept' and acceptable means capable of or worthy of being accepted.


Some frequent suffixes

In what follows, we will show some of the more frequent French suffixes, together with some examples where they are used. Try to remember as many of these as possible. In some cases, suffixed words have long been in the language, but new ones are constantly being created as well.

Note also that sometimes a suffix will not change the part of speech. For example, the suffix -ier in French is added to the names of fruits to give the trees that carry those fruits. So, les pommes grow on les pommiers, les poires grow on les poiriers, and so on.

Suffixes used to form nouns

In the table below, the symbols N, V and A stand for Nouns, Verbs and Adjectives respectively. Note that some suffixes can have more than one meaning, depending on the base they are attached to, while there are also suffixes that are synonyms (they mean the same thing).

Suffix Role Meaning Examples
-tion V to N 'action of V' autorisation, punition
-ment V to N 'action of V' arrangement, tremblement
-euse V to N 'person or machine who does V' coiffeuse, arroseuse
-ant V to N 'person who does V' étudiant, combattant
-eur V to N 'person who does V' lanceur, acheteur
-té A to N 'quality of being A' honnêteté, sincérité
-ée N to N 'quantity measured by N' assiettée, brassée
-ois N to A or N 'having to do with some place, or being a citizen of some place' Québécois/québécois, Chinois/chinois
-ien N to A or N 'having to do with some place, or being a citizen of some place' Ontarien/ontarien, Parisien/parisien

Suffixes used to form verbs

Verbs can be formed from either adjectives or nouns. The suffix often presents some action based on the noun or designed to achieve the state described by the adjective. As a result, such forms are often found in discussions of projects or activities. For example, at the start of a project, one would planifier.

Suffix Role Meaning Examples
-iser A to V 'to make A' légaliser, fragiliser
-ifier A to V 'to make A' intensifier, authentifier
-er N to V 'use N to do some action' clouer, agrafer

Suffixes used to form adjectives

Adjectives can be formed from either nouns or verbs. As in the cases we have just seen, it is prudent to look at the base form to ask whether it is a noun or verb.

Suffix Role Meaning Examples
-ble V to A 'capable of being V'ed prévisible, réparable
-aire N to A 'having to do with N' cellulaire, stellaire
-al N to A 'having to do with N' national, ancestral
-ique N to A 'having to do with N' atomique, métallique
-aire N to A 'having the typical characteristics of N' dantesque, livresque

A special case: adjectives to adverbs

So far, we have looked at ways of changing between nouns, verbs and adjectives. There exists also one other possible transformation in French. Many adjectives can be changed into adverbs by the addition of the suffix -ment. The suffix is often added to the feminine form of the adjective and gives the meaning 'in the manner of A'. So, for example, the adjective lent may be made into the adverb lentement. Similar cases are rapidement, silencieusement and certainement.

One complication should be borne in mind. We saw earlier that -ment can be used to turn a verb into a noun, as in enseignement. So how to tell the difference? The trick is to look at the base word. If it's a verb, like enseigner, then the form in -ment is a noun. If the base form is an adjective like égal, then the derived form is an adverb, as in également.

Exploring suffixed forms

We have seen that suffixes can carry a variety of meanings. Take the quiz below to determine whether you can identify the meaning of the suffix in each of the following words.


Unlike suffixes, prefixes don't change a base form's part of speech. So if we add the negative prefix in- to the adjective acceptable, the resulting form, inacceptable is still an adjective.

The role of prefixes lies rather in adding broad semantic characteristics. We will focus on five here: negation, degree, attitude, aspect and relative position in space and time.

Negative prefixes

French has a number of negative prefixes, as the following table shows. There is sometimes a subtle difference in meaning from one to another. Thus, in- is often applied to adjectives with the notion of degree (more or less), while non- is often applied to nouns with the sense of not being part of some class, and a- often means the absence of some trait.

Prefix Added to: Meaning Examples
in-/im-/il-/ir- depending on the following word A 'not A' imprévisible, irréparable, illisible, inacceptable
a- A 'absence of the trait A' amoral, anormal
non- N 'not N' non-fumeur, non-croyant

Degree prefixes

Like Goldilocks, we often judge things on a scale: just right, more than, or less than. French, like English, has prefixes to talk about those things that are above or below some point of comparison. Some of these differences from the norm are seen as positive (a surhomme is seen as good), but some aren't (l'hypertension is seen as a medical condition needing treatment). The following table gives some of the most frequent degree prefixes for areas above the norm.

Prefix Added to: Meaning Examples
extra- A 'more than usually A' extra-fort, extra-fin
ultra- A 'more than usually A' ultraconservateur, ultra-secret
hyper- N or A 'more than the usual N or A' hypersensible, hypermarché
super- N or A 'more than usually N or A' super-puissance, supersonique
sur- A or N or V 'more than usually A or N or V' surnaturel, surcapacité, surestimer

On the other hand, the following table shows prefixes which indicate a level below the norm:

Prefix Added to: Meaning Examples
hypo- N or A 'more than the usual N or A' hypotension, hypoallergénique
sous- A or N or V 'less than usually A or N or V' sous-développé, sous-estimer, sous-chef

Prefixes of attitude

French shares with English two opposing prefixes whose role is to show that one is in favour or against something, as well as a form much like the English counter, which designates an opposing mirror image.

Prefix Added to: Meaning Examples
pro- N or A 'in favour of N or A' pro-nucléaire, pro-Canada
anti- A or N or V 'opposed to N or A' anti-nucléaire, anti-Canada
contre- N 'opposed to N' contre-révolution, contre-culture

Prefixes of aspect

Some actions can be done, undone or redone. French has prefixes similar to English for undoing and redoing, as the following table shows:

Prefix Added to: Meaning Examples
re- V 'do V again' refaire, refermer
sous- V 'undo V' défaire, débrancher

Prefixes of relative position

One of the important functions of language is to situate us in space and time. Like prepositions (think of sur/sous, avant/après, prefixes often describe moments or places located with respect to some point of reference, as the following tables show. Interestingly, language often has similar forms to talk about both space and time, with time often making use of spatial images. Think of a verb like come in English. We can use it to talk of space (The train is coming down the track) and time (The weekend is coming). Study the following table to see some examples of this in the case of prefixes.

Prefix Added to: Meaning Examples
avant- N 'before N' avant-bras, avant-veille
après- N 'after N' après-rasage, après-guerre
pré- N or V 'before N, or V before' préchauffer, prénuptial
post- N or V 'after N or V after' postmodernisme, postdater
intra- N 'inside N' intramusculaire, intraveineux
extra- N 'outside N' extraordinaire, extraterrestre

To sum up, we can think of prefixed forms as little condensed phrases, where the prefix and the base combine to describe some complex state of affairs. As you read texts, pay particular attention to the prefixes they contain and to the similarities between French and English prefixes.

Exploring prefixed forms

We have seen that prefixes can carry a variety of meanings. Take the quiz below to determine whether you can identify the meaning of the prefix in each of the following words.


One of the more powerfull means of making new nouns in French is to combine nouns, verbs and adjectives into larger units. The resulting units are called compound nouns. Like prefixed forms, compound nouns may be thought of as little condensed phrases. English also has compounds. The difference between the two languages often lies in the structure used. Consider, for example the following French compounds, and mouse over them to see their equivalents in English.

Notice how in the first example, verre à vin, French uses the structure NOUN à NOUN (literally, 'something for something', and here 'glass for wine'), whereas English glues two nouns together (wine and glass). The order is also different. Think about the concept of a wineglass? What is it? It's a sort of glass. So in English, the general class appears at the end: wine and then glass. The word naming the general class is called the head of the compound.

French does the opposite. The word which names the class is at the start: a verre à vin is a sort of verre. Remember this important principle when you see compounds in French. Look left to find the head. Check this principle against the second example above. What is the head of tableau noir?

In what follows, we will look at a number of compound structures found in French.

Some frequent compound structures in French

The following table shows some of the most frequent compound structures in French. Try to memorize them. They will often be found in texts, so you should be sensitive to the possibilities they offer. Notice that in all cases, the head is on the left.

Structure Meaning Examples
NOUN + NOUN 'a NOUN for NOUN' une assurance-vie, un café-filtre, une boutique-cadeau
NOUN + à/de + NOUN 'a NOUN for NOUN' un four à micro-ondes, des lunettes de soleil, un homme d'affaires
NOUN + à + VERB 'a NOUN used for VERBing' une machine à laver, une chambre à coucher, un fer à repasser
NOUN + ADJ 'a NOUN with the trait ADJ' un arbre fruitier, l'énergie solaire, un poisson rouge

As always, life is not entirely simple. There are two compound structures in French which do not follow the rule of 'head on the left'. One is not too frequent, the second very frequent. Here they are:

Structure Meaning Examples
ADJ + NOUN 'a NOUN with the trait ADJ' un petit pain, un grand-oncle, un haut-parleur
VERB + NOUN 'a thing which VERBs some NOUN' un porte-avions, un chauffe-eau, un taille-crayon

It is the second of the two structures which is the most frequent, so we will spend a bit of time talking about it. Note first that neither of the words in the compound names the object. So a porte-avions is neither a porte nor an avion: it's a ship. Note also that the verb and the noun are connected by a hyphen. This is an important clue. Finally, notice that all of the examples given here are masculine. This is another clue. Compounds of this type are masculine, except when they are used to talk about females. So, we say une porte-parole if that person is a woman and un porte-parole if it's a man.

To check your understanding of compound words, read each of the following words and attempt to determine what they might mean. Then mouse over each word to check your answer.

Latin and Greek roots

As we saw earlier when talking about cognates, both English and French make use of Latin and Greek roots to create new words, especially in scientific, medical and technical language. Because many of these learned forms are similar between the two languages, they provide a valuable clue to the meaning of a text. We will extend that basic knowledge a bit here to consider the structure of Latin and Greek forms in more detail.

Consider the following table:

Form1 Form2 Combined Meaning
aqua- -phobie aquaphobie 'water + fear'
omni- -vore omnivore 'everything + eat'
anémo- -mètre anémomètre 'measure + wind'
poly- -glotte polyglotte 'water + fear'

It should be clear from these examples that Latin and Greek roots tend to place the head of the word at the end. When you come upon one of these forms, start in the final position and try to determine what the element can mean. It will either be a noun or a verb. Then, look at the first element and try to determine what it might mean. It might be an adjective or a noun (or more rarely, a verb).

To check your understanding of Latin and Greek roots, read each of the following words and attempt to determine what they might mean. Then mouse over each word to check your answer.

Reading passages

You should now have a better understanding of how complex French words are constructed. This should help you in dealing with unfamiliar words which might nevertheless be built up from simpler words you know. To test your knowledge of this, try reading the following passages which contain a number of complex French words. Try to apply the strategies we have just seen, but remember to use the usual scaffolding:

A news story about changes in postal delivery (Source: La Presse)

Dès lundi, il n'y aura plus de livraison à domicile pour 74 000 adresses de Charlemagne, Repentigny, Bois-des-Filion, Rosemère, Lorraine, Calgary, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Oakville et Halifax.

Le passage vers les boîtes postales communautaires ne fera alors que commencer. D'ici 2019, pas moins de cinq millions de foyers à travers le pays subiront le même sort.

La porte-parole de Postes Canada, Anick Losier, soutient que cette opération de conversion à grande échelle est loin d'avoir été improvisée.

Elle précise que l'idée d'effectuer ce changement s'est progressivement imposée car «au cours des six dernières années, les Canadiens ont dramatiquement changé leur façon d'utiliser le service postal et n'envoient presque plus de lettres».

Mme Losier affirme que pour éviter que son organisation «ne devienne un fardeau pour les contribuables» et «pour assurer son avenir, il a fallu songer à se réajuster à cette nouvelle réalité».

S'il faut en croire le président de la section locale de Montréal du Syndicat des travailleurs et travailleuses des postes, Alain Duguay, de pareilles justifications ne suffiront certainement pas à faire taire la grogne populaire.

M. Duguay affirme que «des facteurs lui disent constamment qu'ils parlent à des citoyens qui sont vraiment furieux contre Postes Canada».


As of Monday, there will no more home mail delivery for 74,000 addresses in Charlemagne, Repentigny, Bois-des-Filion, Rosemère, Lorraine, Calgary, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Oakville and Halifax.
The change to community postal boxes will then have just begun. Between now and 2019, no less than five million households across the country will see the same thing.
The spokesperson for Canada Post, Anick Losier, maintains that this large scale conversion operation was not decided on the spur of the moment.
She points out that to avoid the situation where her organization becomes "a burden on taxpayers", and "to ensure its future, it was necessary to adjust to this new reality."
If one is to believe the president of the local of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, Alain Duguay, such justifications will certainly not be sufficient to quiet the general unhappiness.
Mr. Duguay says that "mail deliverers constantly tell him that they are speaking to citizens who are really furious with Canada Post."

An article on mobile phones (Source:

La téléphonie mobile, ou téléphonie cellulaire est un moyen de télécommunications par téléphone sans fil (téléphone mobile). Ce moyen de communication s'est largement répandu à la fin des années 1990. La technologie associée bénéficie des améliorations des composants électroniques, notamment leur miniaturisation, ce qui permet aux téléphones d'acquérir des fonctions jusqu'alors réservées aux ordinateurs.

L'appareil téléphonique en lui-même peut être nommé « mobile », « téléphone portable », « portable », « téléphone cellulaire » (en Amérique du Nord), « cell » (au Québec dans le langage familier), « natel » (en Suisse), « GSM » (en Belgique et au Luxembourg), « vini » (en Polynésie française). Quand il est doté de fonctions évoluées, c'est un smartphone, ordiphone ou téléphone intelligent.

Sa fonction d'usage est la communication vocale mais le téléphone mobile permet aussi d'envoyer des messages succincts, appelés « SMS ». Avec l'évolution de l'électronique, le texte a pu être agrémenté d'images, puis de photographies, de sons et de vidéos. Des équipements embarqués associés à des services à distance permettent aussi de :


Mobile telephony, cellular telephony is a means of telecommunications by wireless telephone (mobile phone). This means of communication became widespread at the end of the 1990s. The technology used has benefitted from improvements in the electronic components, particularly their miniaturisation, which has allowed phones to acquire functions previously reserved for computers.
The device itself may be called a "mobile", a "portable telephone", a "portable", a "cell phone" (in North America), a "cell" (in Québec familiar speech), "natel" (in Switzerland), "GSM" (in Belgium and Luxembourg), "vini" (in French Polynesia). When it includes advanced features, it is a smartphone, "ordiphone" or intelligent telephone.
Its usual function is oral communication but a mobile phone also allows for the sending of short text messages "SMS". With the evolution of electronics, texts could be combined with images, then photographs, sound and videos. On-board equipment associated with remote services also make possible:
Reading and writing email
Navigating the Internet
Playing games
Taking photographs and videos
Listening to music
Watching television
Obtaining assistance for navigation and travel
Listening to the radio
Using the phone as a modem for a computer

Summing up

You should now feel somewhat comfortable with the following elements of word formation in French:

We are now approaching the end of the course. The next two modules are based on applying what we have learned to texts in two main areas. In Module 11, we will look at texts in the fields of business, science and technology, and in Module 12, we will examine texts from the humanities and social sciences. You should also now begin to feel confident enough to begin looking for texts on your own. Focus first on areas that you are familiar with in English and use these to practice the strategies we have seen to date.