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'Y' as a suffix

21 January 2020

Spoken grammar: lexico-grammatical features of conversation highlighted in corpus research.


'Y' as a suffix


This is my fourth entry on the subject of vague language (see 'P is for ... placeholders', 'Q is for ... quantities, vague' and 'V is for ... vague categories') and the final entry in the A-Z . (No entries for X or Z, I’m afraid, but do let me know if you have any ideas!)


‘Y’ (and ‘ish’) are suffixes that we can add – normally to nouns or adjectives – to express the idea of ‘approximately/similar to/in that category’, e.g.:

salty, plasticky, vinegary                                childish, shortish, elevenish

– This wine is a bit vinegary, isn’t it?            – That’s him. The shortish guy with brown hair.

Words with these suffixes range from the standard items that you would find in any dictionary, such as ‘sporty’ or ‘foolish’, to vaguer - ‘bluey-pink’ or ‘slowish’ - and more creative forms:

She's got this huge, Japanesey print of the sea in her room. 

It’s an arty, noirish kind of film.

I’m feeling a bit end-of-yearish.

What makes us choose one of these suffixes over the other? Opinions vary, but here are a few comments:

1. ‘Y’ is often used for substances, tastes and smells: woody, tinny (‘this speaker has a tinny sound’), oily, sugary, fruity, flowery, garlicky.

2. ‘Ish’ (more common generally) tends to be used for numbers, times and dimensions:

fiftyish, nineish (‘I hope to be there by nineish/nine-ish/ninish’), tallish, deepish (‘a deepish river’), steepish

3. Both can be used for colours: orangey, reddish, bluey, bluish, pinky-red etc. (Is there any difference between ‘reddish-brown’ and ‘reddy-brown’? ‘Reddish’ may be vaguer or more brown; ‘reddy’ may suggest more of an even mix of the two colours.)

4. The final sound in the base word may influence the choice, particularly in more creative forms. So if something tastes a bit like strawberries, you’d probably describe it as ‘strawberryish’ rather than ‘strawberry-y’; and if a dance looks like it originated in Spain, you might call it ‘Spanishy’ rather than ‘Spanish-ish’!


Whether you’ve been following this A-Z all the way through or dipped into it, I hope you’ve enjoyed it! And if you want to follow it up by reading around, here are some suggestions:


Biber, D. 2009. ‘A corpus-driven approach to formulaic language: multi-word patterns in speech and writing,’ International Journal of Corpus Linguistics 14: 381-417

Biber, D., S. Johansson, G. Leech, S. Conrad  and E. Finegan. 1999. The Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English. Longman.

Carter, R. 1998 ‘Orders of reality: CANCODE, communication and culture,’ ELT Journal 52/1: 43-56

Carter, R. and M. J. McCarthy. 1995. ‘Grammar and the Spoken Language,’ Applied Linguistics 16(2): 141-158.

Carter, R. and M. J. McCarthy. 1997. Exploring Spoken English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Carter, R. and M. J. McCarthy. 2015. ‘Spoken Grammar: Where Are We and Where Are We Going?,’ Applied Linguistics 2015: 1-21

Carter, R. and M. McCarthy. 2004. ‘Hyperbole in everyday conversation,’ Journal of Pragmatics 36: 149-184

Carter, R. and M. McCarthy. 2006. Cambridge Grammar of English. Cambridge University Press.

Carter, R., M. J. McCarthy, G. Mark, and A. O’Keeffe. 2011. English Grammar Today. Cambridge University Press.

Carter, R., R. Hughes and M. J. McCarthy. 2000. Exploring Grammar in Context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Channell, J. 1994. Vague Language. Oxford University Press.

Crystal, D. 2011. Internet Linguistics. Routledge.

Goh, C. 2009. ‘Perspectives on spoken grammar,’ ELT Journal 63/4: 303-12

Halliday, M. A. K. 1985. Introduction to Functional Grammar. Edward Arnold

Leech, G., M. Hundt, C. Mair, and N. Smith. 2009. Change in Contemporary English: A Grammatical Study. Cambridge University Press.

McCarthy, M. and R. Carter. 1995. ‘Spoken Grammar: what is it and how can we teach it?,’ ELT Journal 49(3): 207-218.

Norrick, N. R. 2012. ‘Listening practices in English conversation: the responses responses elicit,’ Journal of Pragmatics 44/5:566-76

Paterson, K., C. Caygill and R. Sewell. 2011. A Handbook of Spoken Grammar. Delta Publishing.

Sindoni, M. G. 2013. Spoken and Written Discourse in Online Interaction. Routledge.

Timmis, I. 2012. ‘Spoken language research and ELT: where are we now?,’ ELT Journal 66/4: 514-22


To find out about teaching spoken grammar, you are welcome to visit my online course, Spoken Grammar: A Guide for English Language Teachers.


Best Wishes,