I've heard people claim ‘phrasal affix’ is a synonym for ‘clitic’, and heard others who disagree. I have also seen titles of papers which say,

Some Language Feature as a Phrasal Affix / Affix / Clitic

indicating a common definition, or some shared prototypical features.

What is the precise difference between an affix, a phrasal affix, and a clitic?

(The definition may vary wildly between different contexts and specializations.)

  • 1
    What would you call the "particle" up in look up 'find in a reference work'? It's not a verb, if it's a preposition it's intransitive, but it's attached to the verb and follows syntactic rules: look it up, look the reference up, look up the reference, but not *look up it? It seems to make the verb a phrase, and its attachment to the verb seems to be on a rubber band, but it certainly is different from most clitics. This isn't a definition; I don't use the phrase, but I'm trying to figure out what it might refer to.
    – jlawler
    Jun 10, 2023 at 17:48
  • 1
    @jlawler Are you saying that you don't use the phrase "Phrasal Affix"? or "Intransitive Preposition"
    – awe lotta
    Jun 12, 2023 at 4:06
  • 2
    I don't use the phrase "phrasal affix" because it isn't clear what it means. "Intransitive preposition" is a useful innovation of CGEL's that may catch on to describe phrasal verb particles.
    – jlawler
    Jun 12, 2023 at 15:36
  • ✍️ Suggested edits: perhaps, give us at least some definition of each term (if you can), what you may or may not think the difference may be, and any examples if possible of the use and interchangeable use you have seen anywhere, in videos, articles, etc. Thanks ✌️ Jun 19, 2023 at 8:55

2 Answers 2


The difference between an affix and a clitic is usually discussed in most textbooks on intro morphology.

e.g. the textbook we used in grad school was Bauer 2003. Here's how he explains this.

Even though both affixes and clitics are obligatorily bound morphs, there are some differences between them.

  1. Affixes attach to lexical categories, clitics may attach to phrasal categories;

  2. Affixes tend to attach to specific categories, for clitics the specific category of the word it attaches to is usually irrelevant.

  3. Affixes show lexically conditioned allomorphy, clitics don't;

  4. Affixes cannot attach to bases containing clitics, whereas clitic can attach to bases containing affixes or other clitics.

Also there is a very useful chart in Haspelmath and Sims 2010 (Table 9.3, p. 202) that summarizes very succinctly the difference between affixes and clitics.

If you want to delve even deeper, take a look at

Nevis, Joel A.. "Clitics" In 1. Halbband: Ein internationales Handbuch zur Flexion und Wortbildung edited by Geert Booij, Christian Lehmann, Joachim Mugdan, Wolfgang Kesselheim and Stavros Skopeteas, 388-404. Berlin • New York: De Gruyter Mouton, 2000. https://doi.org/10.1515/9783110111286.1.6.388

As for phrasal affixes, I personally don't use this term. Some linguists use it interchangeably with the term clitic (also sometimes known as postlexical affixes) or to denote a special subclass of clitics e.g. possessive 's,

cf. "The morpheme s [...] is historically a genitive suffix, but it has developed into a clitic that can be attached at the end of the possessor phrase. Hence, it is sometimes called a phrasal affix. Whereas suffixes are attached to words of particular categories, the morpheme s attaches not only to nouns but to whatever word happens to occur in phrase-final position [...]" (Booij 2007: 167).


Here are some links and information regarding the question, to add context and provide reference information to help get an answer.

Online Reference

Book Chapters


Further Research tools

  • To-do: extract bibliography metadata + abstracts for the links, and begin compiling into notes. Jun 19, 2023 at 8:54

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