Q: Is their a dictionary that lists bound bases?

A: Yes, if you know how to look!

The other day Neil “Word Searcher” Ramsden forwarded an email he received from a tutor of named Donna. Like so many educators, starting to work with matrices and word sums opened floodgates of learning about the spelling-meaning connection of words. As they should be, people are always amazed with the floodgating of personal learning that comes with the simple act of starting to investigate words with matricies and word sums. What makes this kind of discovery particularly astonishing is that one could learn so much about how spelling works long into a career as a literacy educator. Simply put, typical training and resources block avenues to understanding that are unlocked by these linguistic tools that draw attention to the ordered meaning structure of written Englsih.

The key point about these tools is not that they are a clever "teaching tool." Rather, they are learning tools that make it possible for teachers to learn how the spelling system really works. Appropriate instruction in any area can only be expected when teachers build that instruction on an accuaurate foundational understanding of that domain. Sure matrices and word sums are essential tools for student learning -- but they are equally essential tools for teacher learning. I think the correspondence that follows helps illustrate this larger point.

Donna had a great question about working with bound bases. (These are bases like for “break” that are not free to act as a word on their own.)

Essentially, Donna’s work with matrices and word sums brought her to the point where she saw the value of a reference that listed bound bases and their meanings. This is something I looked for when I started with this work and something that people ask about again and again. It is worth noting that this is a desire just about every teacher has who starts to work with matrices and word sums through Real Spelling and WordWorks comes to have, but it is a need we never could have perceived before we started working with these tools!

With Donna’s and Neil’s permission, I am happy to share Donna’s question and the follow-up responses from Neil and I. Since it’s such a common question, Real Spellers was the obvious venue. I have not changed wording from their emails, but edited them together and made hot links where appropriate. Any additional commentary is in square brackets. I have edited/expanded my own email at the end for this wider audience.

First, from Donna to Neil:

I am a one-on-one tutor for children with dyslexia (trained under the Masonic Learning Centers program). I am currently devouring Pete Bowers’ “Teaching How the Written Word Works” which I acquired at the National Dyslexia Conference in Chicago (I did go to his seminar too so I have “seen” how it works). I love the Word Searcher he points us to, linked to your webpage. What I need in addition to this, however, is a good resource to tell me the meaning of the bases. The free bases can, of course, be found in the dictionary. I need a resource to help me (my students) with the meanings of the bound bases.

[I apologize for the crass self-interest of including, and hot-linking Donna’s comment on my book, but mine or not, I do see it as a useful starting point for people interested in this work.]

Next, from Neil’s response including quotes from a follow-up correspondence from Donna:

Neil: My first instinct reading your question is that if your dictionary has etymologies (or better still, you've a number of resources with etymologies), then you already have a good tool for finding the denotation of bound bases. Generally, they're more motivating to find in this way as you come across a word or groups of words, rather than going through some kind of crib-list.

The etymological root of a target word, or related words, will generally tell you what you need to know.

Having said that there are a few other resources that are worth mentioning.

Etymology on-line can be very useful, not least because you can also search on roots, eg. Old English . See: http://www.etymonline.com


"Word Stems" by John Kennedy is close to what you've asked for, but at the least needs some interpretation for his 'stems' to work as English 'bases' (eg. proper consideration of final silent ).

[Additional note from Pete on “Word Stems”: Many students and teachers find this to be a particularly useful resource. I use it all the time. However, to make use of this reference, it is crucial that the user understands the distinction between etymological and morphological families. This is an ETYMOLOGICAL dictionary. When teachers think of it as an MORPHOLOGICAL dictionary, they cannot help but run into confusion. First you need to understand the distinction between morphological and etymological families. Each entry has examples of words that share the same root (etymological relatives). It is up to the user to use a word sum to determine which of those etymological relatives are ALSO morphological relatives. See this link for more on this topic which is also addressed on page 37 of my book. The other key piece of information about this book is that it does not include single, silent s in its listings. This means the user has to work out for themselves if the base they are looking for must have a single, silent or not.]


"Unlocking Literacy" by Marcia Henry also includes appendices of bases with Latin and Greek roots.

"Word Origins" by John Ayto is worth a look. It isn't quite what you were asking, but it's great for the stories of words and their interrelationships. (I'm more a fan of discovery rather than lists, so this would be my personal favourite of the three books.)

Neil quoting email from Donna:

I love what I am learning and am anxious to get started on the more in-depth aspects with one of my more advanced students. We already do word sums, but have been working only with free bases up to this point.

She is ready for all of this…..I just have to get ready first!


Mmm. I do think it's the journey rather than just the arrival. One way to practice travelling is just to try out some words - bound bases behave identically to free bases morphologically, so the same reasoning carries across.

Neil quoting from Donna:

Hello again. Okay, I just finished Pete Bowers’ teacher guide and I “get” that it is all about discovery…looking up words with similar bases in the dictionary and discovering what the base meaning is that way. Still, I would love a teacher “cheat” (quick) resource if you have one to recommend.

Neil finishes with:

The above suggestions might help with that; but I think that you'll always need to read any given reference critically.

[As you will see from my follow-up email, Neil has identified exactly the same point I emphasize -- about using etymological references to get the information she is looking for. Mainly, I just try to add is some specific examples of what the process of doing this looks like.]

From Pete:

Hey Donna & Neil,

Neil has offered fine suggestions for references. I'll just add a couple of ideas to see if they help.

I think what you are asking for is how do you know what a bound base means, and that the reason you are asking is because a dictionary includes free bases (base words) but not bound bases like <rupt> or <struct>.

What you really need to understand is that to identify the underlying denotation of any base (free or bound) can be researched by looking that the history -- the etymology -- of the word in which that base is found.

The meaning of the original root of a word provides the underlying denotation of that word.

So, for example, let’s say you were curious about the meaning of bound base <rupt> that you identify by making word sums with words such as <disrupt>, <corrupt> and <interrupt>. The problem you are struggling with is that you can't just look up <rupt> in a dictionary. But you can look up any of these words and find the root from which all these words originate. Here is what I get under "Origin"  in my Mac dictionary for this word:

ORIGIN late Middle English: from Latin interrupt- ‘broken, interrupted,’ from the verb interrumpere, from inter-‘between’rumpere ‘to break.’

See how you can use this information to deduce that <rupt> must come from the Latin root 'rumpere' for "to break".

Now I should say that it is not always so straight forward to find the ultimate root that links words of the same base. But, in general, investigating the etymology is the means by which you can find the underlying denotation of the base (bound or fee) of any word by. So the good news is that you have your wish. The meanings of bound bases are to be found in any good dictionary!


A very handy thing to know about is how you can take advantage of what dictionaries call "combining forms". I encourage you to go to www.realspelling. look in the Real Spelling Gallery. Look for the album on orthographic morphology, and click on the tutorials on "combining forms" and "connecting vowel letters”.

Here's why.

What dictionaries call "combining forms" are almost always bound bases with a connecting vowel letter. When that is the case, it is misleading to call it “A form” as that implies that it is a single unit - and a bond base AND a connecting vowel letter is clearly not A form, but TWO forms.

Furthermore, if by happenstance what a dictionary calls a “combining form” overlaps with the spelling of a bound base, why add the unnecessary additional term when “bound base” does just fine? (See the links above for a more.)

Let’s look at an example of what I mean. You may be familiar with the "combining form" for "life" See this definition in my Oxford:

bio- |ˈbaɪoʊ|

comb. form

1 of or relating to life: biosynthesis.

• biological; relating to biology: biohazard.

• of living beings: biogenesis.

2 relating to or involving the use of toxic biological or biochemical substances as weapons of war: bioterrorism.

ORIGIN from Greek bios ‘(course of) human life.’ The sense is extended in modern scientific usage to mean ‘organic life.’

This is actually a bound base <bi> with an <-o-> connecting vowel letter. Consider the words <biology> and <biome>.

My Oxford cites <bio-> and <-ology> as combining forms and <-ome> as a suffix.

Accepting these structures results in incoherent word sums:

bio + ome → *bioome

bio + ology → *bioology

Where morphological analysis that identifies the deepest structures that account for the greatest number of cases has no need for combining forms.

bi + o + log + y → biology

bi + ome → biome

I encourage you study those tutorial films at Real Spelling to make sense of that analysis. For now, the key point is that listings of combining form entries in dictionaries offer you what you were looking for. When you see a combining form, in a dictionary, you have likely identified a bound base once you remove the connecting vowel letter. By checking the etymology, you have the underlying denotations of that base.

Finally, if you have the Real Spelling Tool Box, you have an excellent ebook entitled “Root Base and Stem” This would be a good time to work through that material as well.

Here is a page on my website with more on this issue that grew from an investigation of <automatic> and how it relates to the word <autism>.