Derivative Definition. What is a Derivative?


Derivative Definition

Derivatives are extremely useful. They’re one of the most powerful tools we can use to build our vocabulary quickly and easily. Derivatives are the product, extension, or object taken from a separate root origin. The word derivative comes from the verb “derive”, which means the action of having or taking something from an underlying source.

Here are a few examples of derivatives in daily life:

  • Orange juice is a derivative of oranges.
  • Wood is a derivative of a tree.
  • The word herb is a derivative the Latin word, herba, meaning grass.


In language, derivatives are words formed from other “root” words. They’re often used to transform their root word into a different grammatical category. For example, making a verb into a noun.

Or an adjective into an adverb.  But there are many more things Derivatives do too. There three main types of linguistic derivatives, which we’ll discuss in this post, namely: Morphological Derivation, Inflection, and Etymological Derivation


Morphological Derivation

Morphological Derivation is when we change a root (base) word using letter structures called affixes. There are always at least two parts to a derivative word. For example: childish = child (root) + -ish (affix).

What is an Affix?

Affixes are groups of letters stuck to a word which changes its meaning. When we place them in front of the word, they’re called a prefix. When placed at the back, they’re known as a suffix.


Here are a few examples:


Honest = a root word meaning to speak the truth.

Dis- = a prefix used to create a negative.

Dis+ Honest = dishonest = a derivative of honest that means not to speak the truth.



Honor = a root word meaning high respect.

-able = a suffix meaning that something is possible or can be done.

Honor + able = honorable = a derivative of honor meaning something or someone that is respected.


There are hundreds of affixes in the English language. But, here are a few of the most common Affixes and their meanings. If you’d like to learn more useful affixes, check out our BIG List of Prefixes and Suffices and their meanings.


Common Prefixes:

Pre –                 before

Inter –             between

Ir-,Im-,In-         negative/not

Uni –                one

Trans –            Across or beyond

Tri –                 three


Common Suffixes:

-dom               a place or state of being

-ity, -ty            quality of

-ment              condition of

-fy, -ify             to make or become

-ful                  notable for

-less                 without



Inflection is when we change a root word to adhere to grammatical rules to illustrate tenses, gender, number, person, and mood. Similarly to derivatives, inflection makes uses of affixes to alter each word.

The difference between derivation and inflection is that inflection doesn’t change the word’s category, whereas derivation does.  Here are a few examples of inflection:

Jump – jumped.          Inflection for past tense.

Swim – swimming.      Inflection for progressive tense.

Pencil – pencils           Inflection for number of objects


Etymological derivation

Etymology is the study of word origins. English is a melting pot of various languages, predominately Old German, Latin, Greek, and French. (visited a café, lately?) Etymological Derivation is when a modern English word originates from a different root word. In truth, all modern English language could be considered Etymological derivation.

For example

Physics: derived from the Greek word Phusis, meaning nature.

Happy: derived from the Viking word Hap, meaning luck.

Tree: derived from the old English word Treo.


How well do you know Derivatives?

Now that you’ve learned all about Derivatives, can you tell us how many derivatives are in the first two sentences? List them in the comment section below.

 P.s. Did you know?

The word “derivative” is used in a negative way in the art world where is means to copy someone else’s work.



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