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.