To say that John ate something, you say John ate (something), and it's always grammatical. To talk about the state or time of filling some role, you append -hood or -ship, as in womanhood, but for most roles this method fails. Is there a name for this (or have I identified a salient distinction at all)?


For affixes in particular, you can talk about how productive they are. So for instance, -er is highly productive — you can add it to just about any verb — and -ship is much less productive.

Some affixes have become entirely unproductive: for instance, we've got a few leftover plurals in -en, like oxen and children, but you can't coin new ones (except as a joke).

With syntactic constructions, it turns out that most are pretty productive. (Though I guess you could argue that old frozen phrases — like "hallowed be thy name" or "o'er the ramparts we watched" — represent unproductive constructions.) The restrictions you do see on syntactic constructions tend to be mostly about semantics and not grammar. For instance, you can persuade a person of something, but you can't persuade a rock of anything. Still, the sentence "I persuaded that rock to get out of my way" is perfectly grammatical — it's just that if you take it literally, it doesn't make any sense.

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