KS3 grammar: word families



Word families are groups of words that are sufficiently closely related to each other to form a ‘family’.

Words can be grouped into families in two main ways:

    • they are similar in form;
    • their meanings are related.

Here are two examples of form-based word families:

wordwordy word (verb) – wordingword-list … (but not: worth, worry)

familyfamiliar unfamiliarfamiliarityfamiliarise … (but not: famine, famous)

Each of these families is bonded by a common root word, although the resultant connections of meaning are also an important bonding feature.

Here are two examples of meaning-based word families:

big – little – sizedog – puppy – kennel


Why are word families important?

Form-based families are important because they reveal sometimes hidden patterns of spelling in words that children already know; for example, the verb root pronounced ‘seev’ is spelt ceive (receive, deceive, conceive), and always corresponds to ception in the corresponding noun (reception, deception, conception).

Meaning-based families are important because they reveal links and patterns of meaning in words that children already know; for example, many adjectives and nouns are related as in the trio big – little – size. The specific meaning relations they contain (see below) are also an important component of reasoning skills.

An understanding of word families also allows either the form or the meaning of unfamiliar words to be guessed with some confidence. For example, we can guess that someone using a skate-board is a skate-boarder engaged in skate-boarding, and if we see the word unteachability we can guess from knowledge of other word families that it means ‘state (-ity) of not (un-) being able to be (-abil-) taught (teach)’.

A sound understanding of word classes is important for the study of both kinds of word families.

Form-based families

In the form-based word family teach – teacher, similarity of form is most easily explained by recognising two morphemes in teacher:

    • a root word which is also found in teach;
    • and a derivational suffix which is also found in other words such as lecturer, driver, and learner.

The family link can be shown through definitions: one word provides material out of which the other’s definition is built (a teacher is a ‘a person who teaches‘). Similarly, a duckling is ‘a small duck‘; replaying is ‘playing again’, and so on.

Morphemes are important for spelling because they tend to have the same spelling across all the words containing them, so once we know how to spell a morpheme in one word we can usually predict its spelling in another word.

Although a similarity of form is often linked with a similarity of meaning, a link of form can exist without any link of meaning. For example, understand clearly consists of under + stand (notice that even the past tense is the same as for stand: understood) but it is hard to find any kind of ‘standing’ in its meaning.

Moreover, even when form and meaning appear to be in step, this appearance may be deceptive. The traps are well known – a solicitor does not solicit, nor does an undertaker ‘undertake’; being uneasy is not the same as being difficult; fusing the lights has no meaning in common with defusing a situation or refusing an offer. Moreover, a derivational suffix does not necessarily guarantee that the morpheme to which it is attached is itself a word in its own right. For example, whereas actor contains the verb act, there is no such verb for author, tailor and doctor.

Similarities of form are of three types, all of which are very common in English:

Derivational morphology

The examples of form-based families given have involved derivational morphology, which in most cases involves the addition of prefixes or suffixes. (The exceptions are a handful of words that differ only in stress – e.g. the noun and verb both spelt convict – or in the pronunciation of the last consonant – e.g. the noun and verb both spelt house.) Click here for more information on derivational morphology.


Most prefixes are found in words derived from Latin. This is especially true of words which cause spelling problems at KS3.

In the NLS Framework KS3 spelling lists of 610 ‘difficult words’ from all school subjects, the most frequent prefixes are con- (and its variants com-, col- and cor-, depending on the next letter), dis-, ex- (and its variants ef- and e-), in- (and its variants im-, il- and ir-), per-, pre-, pro-, and re-. These prefixes occur in at least ten words in the KS3 lists. Table 1 shows the words in which they occur.


Suffixes are generally tied to a particular word class: for example, words ending in -tion are almost always nouns. However a word formed with one suffix may itself provide the root word to which another suffix is added; e.g. the noun addition may be combined with the suffix -al to form the adjective additional, which may in turn be combined with the suffix -ly to form the adverb additionally. It is the last suffix that indicates the word’s class.

The suffixes that occur in more than ten of the KS3 spelling-list words are shown in Table 2. Click here for more information on common suffixes.


A much simpler kind of similarity of form is identity, where the words have identical forms. For example, we have large numbers of verb-noun pairs that share the same root word, as in:

When I run (verb), the run (noun) usually lasts about half an hour.

A rest (noun) will do you good; rest (verb) there.

The derivation may go in either direction: a noun may be derived from a verb, or a verb may be derived from a noun, as in the verb nail (which means ‘fix with nails’); either way, they belong to the same word family.

This is a useful facility in English which KS3 pupils should be aware of, especially since it raises no extra spelling problems. However, this flexibility also has a drawback: the difficulty of classifying words due to their multiple word-class membership, which is so characteristic of English words and which can lead to word families whose members all look alike. An extreme case is the family containing the noun, adjective, verb and adverb which all share the form right and have quite closely related meanings:

I insist on the right of reply.

She held it in her right hand.

Right the boat, please!

She went right to the end of the road.

Compound words

A more complicated kind of similarity is found in compound words. In this case the derived word is formed by combining two root words, as in password.

In terms of word families, compounds represent a marriage of two families, so password unites the families of pass (passage, passer-by, etc.) and word (wording, reword, wordy, etc.). In such ‘transparent’ compounds each component element is obvious, as are the benefits for spelling of recognising these links. (Think of words such as the KS3 words copyright and playwright, not to mention copywriter.)

The only problem that such words raise for KS3 writers is one that faces any writer: where to put word-spaces. Do you write one word without a hyphen, one word with a hyphen, or two separate words? For example, we write database but data bank (or data-bank); bookshop but book token and sweetshop, sweet-shop or sweet shop. There is more on this problem in the unit on word-level punctuation.

Once again the main problems for spelling come from compounds built out of Latin or Greek material, which are generally more or less ‘opaque’ because one or both of the parts are not words in their own right. A typical example is the word agriculture: one element is a familiar word (culture) with its usual spelling, while the other element – a separate word in Latin (agri, ‘fields’) – is not used independently in English and is hardly found in other English words (except agribusiness and perhaps agrarian).

Even more challenging are words like isosceles which consist of two classical elements (in this case Greek), neither of which is an English word in its own right. Here the element iso-, ‘equal’, may be worth identifying because it recurs in words that may be used at KS3 (e.g. isobar, isochronous, isotope); but the only reason for focusing on sceles (‘legs’) is to explain its peculiar spelling.

Table 3 shows all the compounds in the KS3 spelling lists.


Meaning-based families

Some words are closely related in meaning but not in form. For example, a female lion is a lioness, but a female dog is a bitch, while a male sheep is a ram and a female sheep is a ewe. The word families dog – bitch and sheep – ram – ewe are based solely on meaning, without the additional help provided by similarity of form as in lion – lioness.

Links that are based on meaning are far richer and more extensive than those based on form. Even the most straightforward-looking word, such as book, has a multitude of meaning-based links to other words:

page, volume, journal, publication, author, publisher, title, edition, paper, cover, index, chapter, contents, novel, textbook, literature, literacy, bookseller, bookshop, bookshelf, library, read, write, consult, collect, bookworm (both meanings), bibliophile, … As can be seen from this list, similarity of form supports a few of these links, namely those in which the related word also contains the root word book: textbook, bookseller, bookshop, bookshelf, bookworm. The remaining links are no less clear or accessible for having no counterpart in form.

Meaning-based links are important for vocabulary growth, not just as an aid when guessing the meanings of new words, but also when consolidating existing vocabulary.

How to investigate meaning-based families

Such complex territory needs some kind of map, so it is helpful to distinguish three approaches to investigative study according to which kind of link is in focus:

In each case, we can assume that one word is the ‘anchor’: the word whose links are being explored; the anchor prevents us from floating off and getting lost in a sea of vocabulary.


This approach is the basis for any thesaurus. The anchor word is grouped with its ‘synonyms’ (taking synonyms in the loose sense in which wet and damp are synonyms, even though their meanings are not identical). One step is to bring the synonyms together; but an equally important step is then to look for differences (e.g. damp involves less liquid than wet). Both steps can be taken unaided, by brainstorming; however, a thesaurus is helpful for the first step and a dictionary for the second.Specific meaning relations

In derivational morphology, the suffix -er signals the do-er of an action, as in speaker, ‘a person who speaks’; but the same meaning relation can also be expressed in other ways – for example, the word for ‘a person who steals’ is not stealer, but thief. In this case the anchor word is steal, and thief can be called the ‘target’ word. A study of specific meaning relations goes beyond those reflected in the form of the words concerned, and explores the range of ways in which such specific meaning relations are expressed. Table 4 gives some other examples.

Specific meaning relations are helpful in developing reasoning skills, since they include such features as:

classification: man – cow – monkey – mammal examples: flower – violet – daffodil – rose

continuum: obese – fat – plump – slim – thin – emaciated

opposites: hard – easy; sensible – foolish


A field of meaning includes both synonyms and meaning relations, but also includes words which are related in other ways to the anchor word, as consult is to book. The list of words related to book is an example of a field; here it is again:

page, volume, journal, publication, author, publisher, title, edition, paper, cover, index, chapter, contents, novel, textbook, literature, literacy, bookseller, bookshop, bookshelf, library, read, write, consult, collect, bookworm (both meanings), bibliophile, …

As you can see, very few of these words could be described even loosely as synonyms of book – perhaps only journal, novel and textbook – and none are related to book in a way that could have been expressed by derivational morphology.


[2016 note: Unfortunately none of the original links work any more, so you can’t check your decision about an individual word; but you can check your answers against the list of answers.]

Morphology: In the following passage by a KS3 pupil, find all the words which contain more than one morpheme.

Bob was readjusting to civilisation and was even now still coming to terms with technology. He was still remarkably intelligent despite his apparent ignorance of culture, and his senses had grown incredibly sharp.

Meaning: In the same passage, repeated below, find all the words which are related in meaning to civilization.

Bob was readjusting to civilisation and was even now still coming to terms with technology. He was still remarkably intelligent despite his apparent ignorance of culture, and his senses had grown incredibly sharp.


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