My suffix fixation
Angela Mathew | Wednesday, April 5, 2023
To this day, I remember second grade as the time I started to love school. Before then, I was extremely reticent, allergic to socializing and participating in class, but my homeroom teacher, Mrs. Bhatia, was the first teacher who seemed to see me for something other than being shy. I would sit with my classmates at colorful six-seater tables in our class, sunlight and the raucous honks of Mumbai traffic streaming in through the open doors, as we learnt about multiplication tables and metamorphosis.
While the actual classes were delightful, what I remember most about that year was the magnum opus I produced — my list of words ending in “tion” and “sion.”
By the age of eight, I had obviously heard of words like these before (“information,” “rotation” and “station”). However, when Mrs. Bhatia began teaching us about spelling rules and suffixes, I became mesmerized by words ending in “tion” and “sion.” During lulls in class and at recess, I would write lists of these words down on sheets of blank A4 size paper (without consulting the Internet, dictionary or any other external sources). It became a strange obsession.
I think the main reason I made this list is because I was fascinated by the patterns in the English language. This may sound odd, but I still think my word list with these suffixes was a microcosm of the entire language.
Firstly, the list was so long (I ended with something like 17 double sided pages), that I had words starting with every letter of the alphabet and with a broad range of definitions. Secondly, and more importantly, learning words with these suffixes involves understanding a lot of the root concepts of English. Words ending in “tion” are generally nouns formed from verbs. For example, “information” formed from the verb “inform” and “permission” formed from “permit.” But other words ending in “tion” can be nouns that are not formed from any verbs like “nation” or words that can be either nouns or verbs depending on the context like “caution.”
Listing out these words and trying to figure out their roots intrigued me. For me, it was the linguistic equivalent of going back to the source to understand why things are the way they are. It was an extremely satisfying task, especially for a language like English with rules that are famously idiosyncratic and inconsistent.
I worked on my list for a few months, trying to keep it in alphabetical order. I would painstakingly rewrite it when it grew disorganized. Though I was generally quite private about my geeky pursuits, my classmates got to know about this one because I would take my list with me everywhere I went. Instead of making fun of me for it, like I expected they would, other kids started making their own lists too. It became somewhat competitive as everyone tried to think of more complex words. I vividly remember catching one of my friends looking up words in the dictionary to add to her list and everyone in class embarrassing her for cheating.
This childhood obsession with words left its imprint on me. I would go on to compete in spelling bees for which I would make more word lists (with a dictionary this time). I still love everything about wordplay — puns, idioms, anagrams.
Whenever I’m home, my mom and I solve the New York Times crossword everyday. I hold the phone (because I’m the faster typist), as we squint at the black and white grid, shouting out answers on easy Mondays and oohing and aahing at the revelation of themed clues in quirky Thursday puzzles. We don’t savor it as much as Notre Dame Magazine editor and his wife do, idyllically passing a puzzle from kitchen counter to couch over a week, filling in the squares with a trusty pencil.
We also play the New York Times’ Spelling Bee. This is a digital game where you make as many words as possible from a “honeycomb” of seven letters, where each word must contain the central letter. Our attitude is similarly intense, trying to solve the puzzle and attain the high score of the day, known as Queen Bee. Now at college, I often get WhatsApp messages from my mom gleefully announcing that she made Queen Bee without my help. I tell her that maybe she isn’t so different from a certain Pulitzer Prize winning book reviewer.
My logophilia didn’t just extend to games however. Making those word lists as a second grader meant that I was exposed to a lot of words even if I didn’t actually know how to use all of them. Just recognizing all of the patterns made me think of language as an elegant logical system. When I really think about it, what first drew me to writing was not my desire to express myself or tell important stories, but my fascination with the mechanics of language.
In high school, I rather misguidedly enjoyed writing not for the arguments I was fleshing out or the actual substance of my paragraphs. Instead I loved the process of unscrambling stream-of-consciousness sentences into (what I thought) was the most grammatically efficient or rhythmically satisfying prose.
Even now, while I do think more about the content of my pieces, I believe that if I have enough time to chip away at something, there is a satisfying, methodical structure that I can reach, one that just “clicks” in place.
While tutoring at the writing center, I often encounter students who tell me they are “bad writers.” The societal misconception that talent in writing is dependent on something elusive and mysterious like creativity is sad. Through making my suffix lists, I internalized from a young age that English, like math or any other discipline, is a skill that you can develop with exposure and practice, and through gamification (lists are my idea of fun)!
I try to make my students look at writing as a logical process — making flowcharts to organize an essay or using the logic of root words to help explain a grammatical concept to a multilingual student.
The joy of words did of course translate to me really enjoying creative, academic and journalistic writing. What’s more precious to me however, is loving words for their own sake and not just because they serve a final purpose like an Observer inside column. So I’m going to keep my inner second grader swinging through the monkey bars of language as long as I can.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.