Vocab activities for your classroom

The Descriptive Suffix "-ish"

In this Wordshop article, Susan Ebbers helps readers to distinguish between words ending in the suffix "-ish" and other types of "-ish" words. Ebbers then provides teachers with some creative suggestions for introducing students to the suffix "-ish."

Words ending with the suffix -ish are often adjectives, but this suffix has several senses. The suffix -ish is flexibly used with a base word to denote "somewhat, somewhat prone to, or somewhat like." For example, we have ticklish, reddish-blue, stylish, childish, boyish, a waspish tongue, a foolish old woman, a coldish wind.

Then we have Spanish, Irish, Scottish, Finnish, Danish, etc. These words are also typically used as adjectives (but not in "We just ate a danish for breakfast."). However, now the suffix creates a different sense. Does Scottish mean 'somewhat like a Scot?'  No, typically it implies that someone or something hails from Scotland. An exception is, "I wore a skirt that looked rather Scottish." Doubtless, we could think of additional exceptions.

However, words like astonish, admonish, tarnish, polish, varnish, and establish are not adjectives; they are typically used as verbs (but polish and varnish are also nouns). Is this even the same suffix? According to David Crystal, it is not. In the comments of his marvelous post "On -ish," he states: "This ish [in verbs like tarnish] has a completely different etymology. It's from a French (and ultimately Latin) suffix expressing the beginning of an action."

I suspect this use of -ish, to create a verb, is largely extinct in English, if it ever existed. Perhaps it is found only in verbs that passed into English via French. Do folks today freely create new verbs with -ish, as in nourish and languish? Must I reverbish this post?

To be sure, we also find words like fish, dish, wish, swish, etc. What's going on with this set of words? Do they even contain the suffix -ish? No. There is no meaning in the string of letters in these cases; it is not a morpheme in these words, not an indivisible unit of meaning. Instead, these words comprise a phonogram family.

A few lesson suggestions for the suffix -ish:

Read: Read the delightful children's book Ish by Peter Reynolds to the class. A frustrated young artist is encouraged by his little sister, for his sketch may not look exactly like a vase, but it is vase-ish. Visit Book Chatter to meet the author and set up an account to read the book for free, online.

Invent: Encourage students to invent a new -ish word. Perhaps they might name a new group of people, possibly aliens: "This is the planet Bendlandia, where we speak Bendish."

Detect: Have students play word detective, searching through magazines and newspapers for words ending with the adjective-forming suffix -ish, clipping the words and placing them on a bulletin board. This could be a homework activity. As students read books, have them stay alert for this suffix. They could write their finds on index cards and add them to the class chart.

Write: Eventually, encourage students to use this suffix more frequently in their writing. Why not try writing a poem? As I recall, even my second graders, back in my teaching days, enjoyed limericks.

Play: One way to engage students in critical thinking is to play "Will the Real Suffix Please Stand Up!" After teaching children the adjective-forming suffix -ish, say a word in context. Students stand up and shout the word if it contains the suffix and is an adjective. If not, they remain seated. Then, they write the word in the appropriate column of a two-column chart, as shown below, and they underline the base word. Notice that the base word in mulish is not as transparent as in the other words. Discussion should include the idea that spellers have to drop the final e in mule before adding a suffix that begins with a vowel, as in mule + -ishmulish.

Will the Real Suffix Please Stand Up!

(Teacher says)

Suffix -ish

No suffix

greenish   They found a greenish rock.



darkish  Wear the darkish sweater.



radish   I bit into a crisp, red radish.



dragonish   See the dragonish creature fly!



mulish   The dog is stubborn and mulish.



Sort: More verbally proficient students might sort words into three groups: adjectives that end in the suffix -ish, verbs that end in -ish, and Other. Let partners collaborate during the sorting activity. Encourage discussion and prompt students to provide a rationale for their categorization.

That's all for now. Time for dinner! I have become a bit peckish!

Susan Ebbers is the creator of Vocabulogic, an edublog focusing on word knowledge and linguistic insight. She is a former K-8 teacher and principal, a Cambium Learning curriculum author, a national literacy consultant, and a doctoral candidate. Her research interests pertain to word-learning aptitude, measurement design, and motivation theory. In her spare time she writes poetry, including the Jamie’s Journey series of children’s books. Visit her website or follow her on Facebook.

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Comments from our users:

Monday March 19th 2012, 9:22 AM
Comment by: El (Los Angeles, CA)
The article is good; but,the links are fantastic mind blowers. There are so many of them, I think I will be stuck exploring the various websites for a long time. So far I have nominally explored vocabulogic. There is a lot to explore on this link alone.
Whew, I'll be moving on now to more exploration.
Monday March 19th 2012, 9:52 AM
Comment by: El (Los Angeles, CA)
At 64 years young I still consider myself a student in this life. Susan's Cambium Learning sight is geared to helping teachers teach. I plan to treat myself to at least two of her books. I'm never too old to learn more a/b prefixes, suffixes and diphthongs.
Monday March 19th 2012, 10:14 AM
Comment by: El (Los Angeles, CA)
I can, at 64, fully identify with Jamie. I will be ordering Jamie's Journey. I was initially captivated by the illustration. Jamie is so cute, spirited and vulnerable. Then I read the offered sneak review. I do not generally care to read poetry. But this--oh I just can't wait. I hope it is offered on kindle's no wait purchasing plan. If not, I will wait it out until Jamie arrives. Susan has tapped into memories of my own sometimes loney, dreamy yet fulfilled childhood. She has tapped into a quality I tried to evoke, instill or wake up in the neighborhood kids who hung around me in the 80's and 90's. They were all deprived in different ways. I wanted them to be what I suspect Jamie will grow to be--confident, dreamy, kind and smart. (Oh well, Jamie has a lot to live up to. I hope he's not feeling pressured).
Monday March 19th 2012, 10:18 AM
Comment by: El (Los Angeles, CA)
Hi Ben: Please keep this web page forever. Thank you for another exciting journey in wordville.
Monday March 19th 2012, 12:37 PM
Comment by: SmEbbers (CA)

Thank you, El, for the kind comments and feedback. Glad you enjoyed the post and the many links. It sounds like you love learning and reading and wordlore as much as the rest of us at Visual Thesaurus.

I hope you enjoy cruising through the Vocabulogic site. Especially, see the videos, etc. at the See Spot Videos page, listed at the top of the website. Or, to make it easier, here is the link:


Also, see the dozens of hyperlinks at the foot of the website. Visual Thesaurus is listed there, including Word Routes (Ben's blog), Teachers at Work, etc.

I hope you enjoy Jamie's Journey: The Savannah. You can Search Inside the book at Amazon. It is my first just-for-the-fun-of-it children's book!

Best wishes,

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