ENGLISCH/724: Questions to Mrs. Gobbledygook (109) - Suffixes (SB)


109. Attractiveness or attractivity

Dear Mrs Gobbledygook

...I am working very hard for my English exams but I have great troubles with the difference between the suffixes -ness or -ity, both of which can be attached to adjectives to form abstract nouns, i.e. conscious - consciousness, various - variety etc. For example, in my work book I had to fill in the nominalization of attractive, which I spontaneously considered to be attractivity, which was wrong. Could you help me to differentiate this systematically?

Monika Weißhaupt (Munic)


Dear Ms Weißhaupt

Well, I'm afraid whether to attach -ness or -ity to a noun has to be learned by heart. Being a native speaker of German you probably made this mistake because of the German word "Attraktivität" which sounds very similar to the "-ity"-suffix which is, of course, a Latinate and not a Germanic suffix. But if you look it up in your dictionary you won't find a word like "attractivity" which simply doesn't exist. Instead you would find the Germanic suffixation with -ness, "attractiveness".

In fact suffixation with -ity is more limited than with -ness. Despite of the diversity in meaning there is a difference in productivity as -ity can be viewed as a "dead" suffix, and the nouns that contain it as morphological relics. Unlike -ness, which can be attached to virtually any existing or new adjective to form an abstract noun, -ity nouns either exist or they don't. There is no possibility of new ones being formed!

Suffixation with -ity and -ness seem to compete, however, in connection with adjectives ending in -ous, such as callous - callousness, rebellious - rebelliousness, gracious - graciousness. Here the -ousness describes the meanings of both fact and quality. Curious which becomes curiosity also has a sense of oddness, whereas curiousness should be used to describe the quality or state of being curious. This is the same with "monstrous - monstrosity", for example:

"Those aren't sculptures - they're monstrosities!"

Like curiosity, monstrosity has a different concrete meaning. The word monstrousness should be used to describe the quality of being monstrous. You find also a concrete different meaning in anxiety (from "anxious") or variety (from "various").

And there is another interesting generalization to be made regarding the existence of -ity nouns in connection with root adjectives ending in -ous: when a morphologically simpler base noun exists, from which the -ous adjective is derived, there is rarely -ity nominalization and the -ness nominalization is usually preferred:

fury - furious - furiousness (no furiosity)
grace - gracious - graciousness (no graciosity)
rebel - rebellious - rebelliousness

This pattern doesn't work with

vary - various - variety


Hoping that this is of some help

Mrs. Gobbledygook

14 March 2007