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An A to Z of spoken grammar: Y

21 January 2020

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


Y is for ... '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 that I’ve been posting since October last year. (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 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 observations:

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, ninish (‘I hope to be there by 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; ‘reddy’ may suggest more of a 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’!


If you’ve been following this A-Z, I hope you’ve enjoyed it! If you would like to see some more, or all, of the entries, please use this index.


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


Best Wishes,