Linguistics Suppletion
Ljuba Veselinova
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 November 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 August 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0125


The term suppletion is typically used to refer to the phenomenon whereby regular semantic and/or grammatical relations are encoded by unpredictable formal patterns. Standard illustrations of suppletion in English include the forms of the verb be: am, is, are, was, were, been, the present and past tense forms of the verb go: go, went cf. dance: danced; the degrees of comparison of some adjectives, for instance good: better: best cf. nice: nicer: nicest; finally, the nonderived forms of ordinal numerals from corresponding cardinals such as one: first, two: second, cf. six: sixth. The concept of suppletion in the sense outlined above will seem rather straightforward. However, its definition is more complicated than it might appear at first glance. Issues immediately pertinent to it are long debated theoretical notions such as word, morpheme, regularity, productivity, and the dichotomy between derivation and inflection. One should also be aware of a certain degree of discrepancy between uses of the concept in (some) theoretical literature and its application in more descriptively oriented work. There are models in which the term suppletion is restricted to exceptions to inflectional patterns only; consequently, exceptions to derivational patterns are not accepted as instantiations of the phenomenon. Thus, the lowest members of the set of ordinals cited above will not be good examples of suppletion and the comparative degrees of adjectives will be, at best, less prototypical examples. In descriptive work, exceptions to both inflectional and derivational patterns tend to be cited as examples of suppletion. Treatments of the phenomenon range widely, to the point of being complete opposites. A strong tendency exists to regard suppletion as an anomaly, a historical artifact, and generally of little theoretical interest. A countertendency is to view the phenomenon as a functionally motivated result of language change. For a long time, the database on suppletion, similarly to many other phenomena, was restricted to Indo-European languages. With the solidifying of wider cross-linguistic studies and linguistic typology since the 1990s, the database on suppletion has been substantially extended. Large-scale cross-linguistic studies have shown that the phenomenon is observed in many different languages around the globe. In addition, it appears as a systematic cross-linguistic phenomenon in that can be correlated with well-defined language areas, language families, specific lexemic groups, and specific slots in paradigms. The latter can be shown to follow general markedness universals. Finally, the lexemes that show suppletion tend to have special functions in both lexicon and grammar.

Definitions and General Overviews

Synchrony and diachrony have been mixed up, at times, with regard to suppletion. Rudes 1980 is representative of this tendency. This author distinguishes between genuine and pseudo-suppletion. Genuine suppletion covers forms that are etymologically different, such as go and went; the present tense forms of the verb “be” in English—am, is, are—are examples of pseudo-suppletion since they go back to one and the same Indo-European etymon. This distinction is not widely shared. Mel’čuk 1994 (p. 355) rejects it explicitly and a number of scholars follow the author in this respect. Different kinds of suppletion are distinguished depending on the kinds of linguistic signs it affects. Thus, it is customary to distinguish between affixal and stem suppletion. A case of affixal suppletion is, for example, the plural affix—en in English oxen. It is not motivated by any morphophonological rules of English, unlike other plural allomorphs such as /-z/ or /-s/ as in /bɔiz/ and /ʃops/ respectively (see Boyé 2006). A case of stem suppletion is the unpredictable change of stems in a paradigm, as in English go for the non-past tenses and went for the past tense. Corbett 2000 and Corbett 2007 restrict the term suppletion to describe exceptions to morphophonological patterns that can be strictly identified as inflection, that is, those expressing categories without which a word in a given language becomes ungrammatical. For instance, verbs in English must always be specified for tense. Consequently, the forms go: went are suppletive in his view; exceptions to derivation of verbal number are not suppletive since they are not a matter of agreement. Other works such as Dressler 1985, Mel’čuk 1994, and Veselinova 2006 allow the term suppletion to also cover exceptions to derivational patterns; further specifications of their work is provided under their reference listings below. Formally, suppletive forms have been described as strong and weak, as in Dressler 1985. This distinction is introduced to refer to the fact that some forms, such as am versus was, do not share any phonological material (strong suppletion) while others do, such as child: children (weak suppletion). Since it is not always clear where to set the limit for what counts as weak suppletion, Mel’čuk 1994 (p. 367) introduces the criterion of uniqueness. The alternation of two paradigmatically related forms counts as suppletive if it is the only one of its kind in the language. Thus child: children counts as suppletion in English whereas strong verbs such as run:ran do not since they are part of a pattern, albeit a restricted one. Suppletive forms most often alternate within one and the same paradigm. Juge 2000 brings up a rare instance of one and the same suppletive form being used in two different paradigms.

  • Boyé, G. 2006. Suppletion. In Encyclopedia of language & linguistics. Vol. 12. Edited by Keith Brown, 297–299. Amsterdam: Elsevier

    Stem and affixal suppletion are presented here together with a discussion on the relation between suppletion and stem allomorphy. The author also offers a summary of the semantic and morphosyntactic properties of suppletive forms, mainly in verb paradigms and a presentation of the distribution of suppletive forms in verb paradigms. A diachronically oriented discussion concludes the entry.

  • Corbett, Greville G. 2000. Number. Cambridge Textbooks in Linguistics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139164344

    The focus of this work is number as a grammatical category. However, it is important as regards suppletion since it highlights a theoretical debate that is not always clear. Suppletion is restricted to cover exceptions to inflectional patterns only. Consequently, exceptions to derivation of verbal number as in Mupun cīt “beat.SG.ACTION” versus nás “beat.PL.ACTION” are discarded as instances of suppletion.

  • Corbett, Greville. 2007. Canonical typology, suppletion, and possible words. Language 83:9–42.

    DOI: 10.1353/lan.2007.0006

    Suppletion is defined within the framework of canonical typology. A number of criteria are offered to distinguish canonical cases of suppletion from noncanonical ones. Corbett argues that inflectional suppletion is more prototypical, and ultimately closer to the canon, than derivational suppletion since it reflects a semantic distinction typically made for all or nearly all members of a given lexical class.

  • Dressler, Wolfgang. 1985. Suppletion in word-formation. In Historical semantics, historical word formation. Edited by Jacek Fisiak, 97–112. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

    DOI: 10.1515/9783110850178

    Suppletion is found to violate the principle of transparency, which involves semantic and morphotactic transparency. The latter is measured by an eight-point scale, from most transparent, such as excite versus excite-ment, to least transparent, such as child: children and be: is. Suppletion is defined as a gradable phenomenon, weak and strong. A topic related to this issue is stem allomorphy (see Mark Aronoff, Morphology Now [Albany: State Univ. of New York Press, 1992], and Mark Aronoff, “Morphological Stems: What William of Ockham Really Said,” Word Structure 5.1 [2002]: 28–51).

  • Juge, Matthew. 2000. On the rise of suppletion in verbal paradigms. In Proceedings of the Twenty-Fifth Annual Meeting of the Berkeley Linguistics Society, 12–15 February 1999. Edited by Steve S. Chang, Lily Liaw, and Josef Ruppenhofer, 183–194. Berkeley, CA: Berkeley Linguistics Society.

    Suppletion typically occurs within one and the same paradigm. Juge brings up a rare instance of overlapping suppletion, that is one and the same stem being used in two different paradigms, as in the Spanish verb ir (“go”) and ser (“be”) in which the stem fui- is used for the preterite forms of both verbs, cf. voy “go.1.SG.PRS,” soy “be.1.SG.PRS” versus fui “go/be.1.SG.PRET.

  • Mel’čuk, Igor. 1994. Suppletion: Toward a logical analysis of the concept. Studies in Language 18.2: 339–410.

    DOI: 10.1075/sl.18.2.03mel

    Suppletion is determined and illustrated abundantly based on formal definitions of a number of morphological notions, the most important of which are morph and regularity. The latter is defined by the existence of any kind of rules regardless of their productivity. Consequently, exceptions to any kind of patterns are taken to be instances of suppletion and, thus, the concept is pushed to its utmost.

  • Rudes, Blair. 1980. On the nature of verbal suppletion. Linguistics 18:655–676.

    DOI: 10.1515/ling.1980.18.7-8.655

    This work is currently seen as somewhat old-fashioned in that it brings in diachrony as a factor when defining synchronic language facts. It is, however, useful since the author brings up awareness of this pitfall. Further on, it shows interesting instances of suppletion in Romanian.

  • Veselinova, Ljuba. 2006. Defining the concept. In Suppletion in verb paradigms. By Ljuba Veselinova, 4–18. Typological Studies in Language 67. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

    DOI: 10.1075/tsl.67

    The author analyzes the criteria used in 20th-century linguistics to identify instances of suppletion. For her, exceptions to any regular morphological pattern count as suppletion provided the latter is productive and general enough. A distinction between categorical and noncategorical suppletion is introduced. The first covers suppletive forms associated with one grammatical category only, the second is for forms that incorporate several categories.

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