Sunday, February 5, 2012

Polysemous Prefixes over- and under- (Survey Results)

Thanks for participating in the recent survey! The prefixes under- and over- are among the top 20 most commonly used prefixes, according to the The American Heritage Word Frequency Book (Carroll, Davies, & Richman, 1971). According to that source, in the school texts examined, the prefix over- was the 8th most common, and the prefix under- was the 20th most common. More Words shows 406 words that begin with the letter string under and 1,681 words that begin with over.

The poll is closed. The results are shown below, and general discussion follows, including application to the Common Core State Standards and implications for instruction.

Post publication note: Most of the words in the survey are compound words. In the comments below, the point is made that over- and under- are not actually prefixes, but instead bases. Please see the comments for more elaboration on this excellent point.

Frankly, I had a tough time responding to this poll myself (yes, I know, I created it!!). Trying to be devious (do I get absolution for admitting that?), I included a word that begins with the prefix un-, yet looks like under- (underived). I also included a word that is misspelled (*overian, for ovarian). No one fell for my tricks (attributing the 2% to statistical error for underived).

The survey question that surprised me was #2: underage--undersized. I expected more people to view these two words as sharing the same prefix, with the same meaning 'not enough, insufficient' but only 72% did so (136 of 190 respondents). Not sure why. I could be missing something important. I was also surprised by overlearn--overboard (I view them as different senses of the prefix) and by overfed--overnight (different, I'd say). Some words are just too nuanced for me, as with underlying--undergoing. A colleague thought they do share the same meaning, where the prefix means 'beneath, under'. She said, "Any underlying cause rests beneath all the symptoms, and when you undergo surgery, you go under anesthesia, or under the knife." If we can get students to explain their thinking in such ways, we are hitting the jackpot.

Think Map, Visual Thesaurus
To help me understand one survey item, I turned to the Visual Thesaurus. The Think Map to the left, generated for the targeted word underhanded, helps explain why 32 respondents felt that underarm and underhanded shared the same sense of the prefix. One colleague said that underhanded and underarm are different, because underarm suggests something spatial, directional, and physical, like a baseball pitch, but underhanded suggests something hidden and covert (sneaky, as shown in the Think Map). However, another colleague disagreed, stating that her husband is a coach, and her first thought was that you can throw an underarm pitch or an underhanded pitch (also included in the Think Map). Context matters! Prior experiences with the word make a difference! Instructional discussions matter, too.

Rather than going over each survey item, let's discuss the various meanings of the prefixes and several instructional applications. (Even without knowing the "right answer" to the survey items, the thought process is beneficial. This is an exercise teachers might share with students, but using known words, and providing some context.)

Native English speakers and Dual Language Learners might assume that over- means 'on top of, above' and under- means 'beneath, below' (as in overcoat, undershirt) but that is not the only interpretation. Over- also suggests 'too much' and under also suggests 'insufficient, not enough' (as in overexcited and underexposed). Words that contain the prefixes over- and under-  are more likely to suggest the notion of 'too much' or 'not enough', compared to a spatial meaning.

These are broad interpretations of the two prefixes. However, a closer consideration reveals more than two meanings for each prefix. Michael Quinion, at, provides a brief summary of the various interpretations of the prefix over-.  He states, "Its meanings are rather variable and diffuse, and difficult to categorize."  (Yes, indeed!)

Quinion describes multiple ways the prefix over- is used to convey word meaning:
1) suggests 'something beyond what is usual or desirable, even excessively so' (overambitious, overcareful, overfull, overprecise)

2) suggests ‘utterly’ or ‘completely’ (overawed, overjoyed, overcome) [as in overcome with emotion]

3) suggests 'a spatial sense of something above or higher up' (overhang, overarching, overlook)

4) suggests a figurative sense of 'something that is superior' (overseer, overlord, oversight committee)

5) suggests something 'outer' (overcoat, overshoes)

6) suggests something 'extra' (overtime, overpay) [an oxymoron]

7) suggests 'a motion forward and down, and hence of inversion' (overturning, overbalance, overthrow, overboard)

8) suggests 'covering a surface' (overpaint, overgrowth).

Implications for instruction: I can see no reason why a typical language user needs to know all these nuanced senses of the prefix, but school children should know the most commonly used interpretations. Furthermore, they should learn to think about this type of word analysis. With so many nuanced meanings of the prefix over- (and the prefix under-) it is clear that we cannot rely on simply memorizing lists of morphemes and their meanings. We might also encourage children to think about how morphemes and words interact together, with context, to convey meaning. The value is in the critical thinking and the discussion that students engage in when working collaboratively through these types of questions. Tip: When asking students to sort meanings, an "other" category is useful, for those words that are difficult to classify, and an "unknown" category helps separate the others from the unknowns.

Why bother? Teaching children to think in these ways increases their level of morphological awareness. Readers who reflect on various aspects of language are more likely to comprehend words, phrases, and passages (see post on metalinguistic awareness). In addition, interpreting affixes is one of the learning goals outlined in the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts.

Application to The Common Core State Standards
      Vocabulary Acquisition and Use

  • L. 1. 4 [First Grade] Use frequently occurring affixes as a clue to the meaning of a word.
  •  L.2.4 [Second Grade] Determine the meaning of the new word formed when a known prefix is added to a known word (e.g., happy/unhappy, tell/retell).
  • L. 3. 4 [Third Grade] Determine the meaning of the new word formed when a known affix is added to a known word (e.g., agreeable/disagreeable, comfortable/uncomfortable, care/careless, heat/preheat).
    Source: English Language Arts Standards (Language subsection)
Questionable Lesson Plan: I searched the Web and found a lesson plan for teaching the prefix over-. I won't name the site, but it was not related to the Common Core. According to the webpage, the lesson applies to Grades 2 and 3.  I was happy to see the lesson, but only one meaning of over- is taught. Here is an excerpt:
Step 4. Define the meaning of over-, as well as words containing the prefix over-.  Look at the list of words with the prefix over-. Who knows what over- means? Over- means “too much.” Look at overwork. Overwork means “to work too much.” When the prefix over- is added to work, it changes the meaning of the word. Can anyone tell us what overslept means? What about overdo?
There is no additional instruction, no mention of the other meanings of over-, but the good news is that this is the most frequently occurring sense of the prefix. Nonetheless, students --and teachers-- who try to interpret overnight, overseer, and overcoat with the notion of 'too much' will run into trouble (especially since there is no context provided).

Note: Vocabulogic readers have participated in a number of surveys on common affixes. For examples, see The Popular Prefix in- (Survey)  and The Slippery Suffix -er (Survey).