usage rules for "-able" suffix

Discussion in 'English Only' started by Kaittara, Jun 25, 2009.

  1. Kaittara New Member

    Toronto, Ontario, Canada
    English - General American
    As far as I understand the following adjectives are considered acceptable by the native english speaker:


    while the ones below are not acceptable:
    'diable' (die+able, as in "mortal")
    'smilible/ smilable' (smile + able)

    At first, I thought it had something to do with the origin of '-able' (being a suffix from a romance language) but 'laugh' in 'laughable' is quite similar to 'lachen' from german - so why is it that a latin/french suffix '-able' can go on a german word? and also, why is 'downloadable' salient while a similar word 'downable' is not?
    Last edited: Jun 25, 2009
  2. MichaelW Senior Member

    English (British)
    I don't think there is a rule.

    If you replace -able with "I can ---- it", I can download it, I can laugh at it, etc.

    I can down it - I can die it - I can simile it: don't work, they don't really make any sense. At a guess it doesn't work with intransitive verbs.
    Last edited: Jun 25, 2009
  3. Woofer Senior Member

    English, USA
    I haven't got an answer for you (the smilable-laughable difference just has me stumped), but "downable" is allowable when "down" has the meaning of "shoot down a flying object, such as an airplane". It's just very rare.

    In response to the first response, what I don't get is:

    I can laugh at it. I can smile at it. It makes me laugh. It makes me smile. But it's laughable, not smilable.

    I think the difference is just usage and tradition, but I'm not sure at all.
  4. Cagey post mod (English Only / Latin)

    English - US
    We use -able as a suffix on verbs, to create an adjective meaning that something has the capacity to be the object of that action, or to be subject to that action.
    downloadable = something that can be downloaded
    laughable = something that can be laughed at
    fallible = something (or someone) that can fall
    downable will make sense only if down is taken as a verb, for instance meaning to "bring down". Then it would describe something that could be brought down.

    cannot be used this way, because die is not transitive, and someone cannot 'be died".

    is a noun, and cannot work with this suffix.
  5. Kaittara New Member

    Toronto, Ontario, Canada
    English - General American
    in reference to 'smile' I'm interpreting it as a verb "She smiled at him (becuase he was cute)" or "He smiles often", in which case, logically, 'smilible' works: "something that can be smiled at"

    I was asked this question by a Chinese friend, and it' stumped me. :(
  6. MichaelW Senior Member

    English (British)
    I think for "smilable" the -able suffix doesn't work because say by this definition

    a suffix, expressing capacity, fitness to do that which can be handled or managed, suitable skills to accomplish something; capable of being done, something which can be finished

    it is hard to see how someone could be "capable of being or fit to be smiled at", it doesn't take any special capability to be smiled at.

    Laughable though implies that someone or something has some special feature which makes them risible, in contrast to many people or things which are not.
  7. Cagey post mod (English Only / Latin)

    English - US
    Yes, in the right context, smilable would be understood as something to that can be smiled at.

    In your original post you have simile, which is a different word entirely.

    (I see that I disagree with the above post concerning smilable, but I still think it is a coinage that would be understood. For example:

    His effort to help wasn't exactly laughable, but it was smilable.)
  8. Kaittara New Member

    Toronto, Ontario, Canada
    English - General American
    sorry for that spelling error, i'll fix that now. :)
  9. panjandrum

    panjandrum Occasional Moderator

    Belfast, Ireland
    English-Ireland (top end)
    Did someone say that you can't, generally, add -able/-ible to an intransitive verb?
    For <noun> to be <verb>able, it has to be possible for <verb> to act on <noun> - to have <noun> as an object - to be transitive.
  10. Woofer Senior Member

    English, USA
    Well, things are also not grinnable, guffawable, chortlible, titterable, snickerable, snortable or cacklable. In other words, I don't think it can be the definition of laugh/laughable that makes the difference if none of its synonyms work this way either.

    I'm inclined to agree with Cagey here that "smilable" works fine as a neologism. As I said originally, I think it's just usage and tradition that makes it sound funny.

    So I think we're left with the idea that verbs are "able"-able if they take either a direct or indirect object.
  11. Kaittara New Member

    Toronto, Ontario, Canada
    English - General American
    Would "laugh", then, be an exception? because to me, laugh acts as a intransitive verb.

    Structurally, smile and laugh are quite smiliar:
    "She laughed at him"
    "She smiled at him"

    The preposition, "at" seems to be necessary in both cases, while "at" is not used in established transitive verbs like: "throw" or "eat"

    **"She eats at fruit"/ "She eats/ ate fruit"
    **"He threw at the ball"/ "He threw the ball"
  12. Woofer Senior Member

    English, USA
    I find that idea laughable. ;) I laugh it.
  13. panjandrum

    panjandrum Occasional Moderator

    Belfast, Ireland
    English-Ireland (top end)
    Think more carefully about these two sentences.
    She laughed at him.
    She smiled at him.
    Laughing at and smiling at are very different.
    I'm going to have serious difficulty in explaining the difference that is in my head, but I'll try.
    In the first, she was laughing because of something he did or something about him.
    In the second, her smile was a deliberate act - a communication to him.

    Also, the adjective laughable is odd.
    It doesn't mean that something can be laughed.
    Nor does it mean that something is funny - amusing.
    It has come to mean that something is ludicrous, ridiculous - and often not at all funny.
  14. se16teddy

    se16teddy Senior Member

    London but from Yorkshire
    English - England
    I can easily imagine someone saying That's a very downable (meaning drinkable) pint. I wouldn't necessarily recommend downable for formal writing.
  15. _Yanni_ Member

    Hello Cagey,

    Does this rule also apply to the suffix "-ible"? It seems that the rule can explain the formation of most of the words ending in "-ible", e.g.,

    accessible = something that can be accessed
    resistible = something that can be resisted
    comprehensible = something that can be comprehended
    digestible = something that can be digested
    flexible = something that can be flexed
    gullible = something that can be gulled

    Is "possible" the only exception? (I just don't know which verb this adjective is derived from....:confused:)


  16. exgerman Senior Member

    English but my first language was German
    Possible is borrowed straight from Latin possibilis, built on the Latin verb posse, which never made it into English.

    By the way, Cagey got a little carried away. Fallible means something that can fail, not something that can fall. In this case too the -ble adjective comes directly from Latin, even though the underlying verb made it into English via French, where it acquired its I.
    Last edited: Jan 26, 2013
  17. Loob

    Loob Senior Member

    English UK
    Yes, it does:).
  18. _Yanni_ Member

    I have to use a word which I have barely used before to describe the feeling when I saw your post: ecstatic. :p:D Thank you, genius! :thumbsup:

  19. _Yanni_ Member

    Thanks Loob! :) I'm even happier. :D

  20. JuanEscritor

    JuanEscritor Senior Member

    English - AmE
    Apparently fallible entered the language fully-formed—it also has nothing to do with falling—, so we can't really look there if we want to get an idea of how the productive affix -able functions in English.
    Last edited: Jan 26, 2013

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