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Are there infixes in English? Abso-freaking-lutely.

English doesn't use very many infixes, but that doesn't mean they don't exist. 

Here's the thing: they're out there, but most of them aren't fit for print or our airwaves. We'll come back to that. 

Wondering what exactly an infix is? Here's a hint -- they're related to a pair of other grammatical elements that may a bit more familiar. 

A prefix is an element that hooks on to the beginning of a word to change its meaning. For example, "dis" in "dishonest," or "im" in "impossible." Similarly, suffixes hook on the end, such as "ful" in "grateful" or "able" in "comfortable."

With that in mind, you may be able to deduce that an infix goes in the middle of the root word. But can you come up with an example?

It's tough. Other languages use infixes very effectively to change the meaning and grammar of words, but English doesn't use them very often. 

"I used to actually teach with a textbook that said English has no infixes," says English Professor Anne Curzan. "I would have to go into class and say, 'That's not true. It's just that the textbook doesn't want to talk about them.'"

That's because the infixes that are used in English are pretty much all taboo words.

Think about the word "fantastic." If we break it up into "fan" and "tastic," what's a word that would fit really well right in the middle? If you're in mixed company, don't say it out loud.

Though other more colorful words may come to mind, we'll go with the euphemism "freaking." Fan-freaking-tastic!

Because of their playful and slightly taboo nature, infixes may seem like a grammatical free-for-all. That's not the case though. There's a pattern, and it's all about location.

Think about this. Would you say "fantast-freaking-ic" or "absolute-freaking-ly"? Probably not, unless you're hoping to garner some strange looks.

For an infix to sound right, it has to go right before the stressed syllable. In "fantastic," the stress is on the second syllable "tast," so the infix goes right before that. In "absolutely" the stress is on "lute," so we say "abso-freaking-lutely."

Can you think of some infixes in English that we'd be allowed to say on the air? Let us know below!


Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Radio. She also co-hosts Michigan Radio’s weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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