If you are a teacher or learner of English, you are probably familiar with advice beginning You do not …, You cannot …, Be careful …, and WARNING! Older coursebooks, especially, used ‘strikethrough’ to herald the errors that you must simultaneously notice and unlearn, e.g.: I need to concentrate
myself. Strikethrough is a curious convention: the veiled words self-destruct immediately upon impact with eye and brain; they are both there and not-there.
This particular oddity aside, learner’s resources inevitably get a lot of mileage from contrasting ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ uses; they remain largely prescriptive and rule-bound. So it is refreshing to encounter any feature that is productive – that you can exploit creatively and with confidence, where innovation is the norm and the rules bend easily.
In English, a well-known productive feature is the free use of nouns as modifiers of other nouns. Your audience will try to understand what you mean by that crocodile joke, the goose v turkey argument, the missing trousers mystery, or your pub quiz ambitions. These are all real examples, although their meanings are not obvious out of context.
Some productive prefixes are micro-, mini-, super-, mega-, and other informal size assessments. Take micro-. Apart from technical or sub-technical terms like microsecond, micro-organism, micro-manage, and micromessaging, micro– shows up in creative coinages like the answer given by the excellent Ben Goldacre (author of Bad Science) to an interviewer’s enquiry about his ‘high public profile’: I’m not famous, but I do recommend my own level of highly contextual microfame.
At the other end of the scale, there are 2,000-plus lines for the prefix mega– in ukWaC (accessed via Skylight):
… fellow Tory MP, incurable Euro-baiter and mega-bore Kevin [name changed] … mega-cities like Mumbai and Tokyo
… the industrial mega-machine
… mega-successful video poker games
Suffixes too are flexible. We all know and love (or hate) the versatile suffix –ish, meaning ‘fairly’ or ‘approximately’. Hyphens are fluid in English: you tend to put one before –ish for all but the most straightforward combinations – hence youngish, fattish, tallish BUT thirty-ish, trendy-ish, more-ish, and Doctor Who-ish (definitely not Whoish). And there is a blogger out there encouraging his colleagues to go ahead and talk about something meme-ish, which is about where my enthusiasm for innovation starts to wear thin(nish).
The combining trend is gathering momentum. There is a host of words that are grabbing a hyphen and attaching themselves to everyday nouns: management-speak and text-speak, future-proof systems and idiot-proof recipes, fragrance-free shampoo, irony-free comedy, and traffic-free greenways. Is the hyphen-free sentence on its way out?
But these predictable combinations are only the beginning. Hyphens are at the centre of a vast and expanding web of compounds: one-size-fits-all solutions, no-win-no-fee lawyers, easy-come, easy-go attitudes. And this is from an angling magazine, a genre that is unaccountably over-represented in some corpora:
This caravan cafe … is one of a dying breed of all-night, cheap-and-cheerful, no-nonsense, warm-and-welcoming transport cafes that used to punctuate the British road network.
Forget nominalisation! What better way could there be of packaging information into neat bundles than recruiting the versatile hyphen? It is also a sneaky way for a long-winded writer to beat that stringent word limit. A poster advertising David Attenborough’s TV series Natural Curiosities features the rare Arctic sea-mammal the narwhal. A large glossy narwhal glides across the double-page spread, preceded by its single long near-straight spiralled tooth. Revolving around it in the shadowy blue depths are small glowing satellites of information, one of which begins:
The deep-diving, squid-munching, Arctic-living narwhal …
You can just see the writer sitting back in satisfaction at having achieved so much in only five ‘words’, relieved that once again the battle against over-length has been fought and won, well, more-or-less fairly.