Two Powerful, Priceless Suffixes

Two of the most useful suffixes in business English are “-ful” and “-less.” We can add them to nouns (e.g. pain) to make adjectives (e.g. painful, painless). The suffix “-ful” means “with a lot of something”; the suffix “-less” means “without something.” So for example, if a company doesn’t have enough money to cover its costs, its managers will need to make some painful decisions (i.e. decisions that will cause a lot of pain). There are no completely painless solutions (i.e. solutions that will cause no pain), but the managers will want to find a solution that’s as painless as possible.

There are lots of pairs of words like painful/painless, where the two words have opposite meanings. For example, a marketing campaign might be tasteful or tasteless; a negotiation might be fruitful or fruitless. But sometimes the relationship between the two words is a little more complicated: a helpful coworker gives a lot of help to others, but a helpless coworker can’t even help himself/herself, so he/she needs a lot of help. A hopeful investor is full of hope (i.e. optimistic) about the future, but if you describe a person or a situation as hopeless, it means that you have no hope that he/she/it will succeed. We can talk about powerful people and powerful ideas, but only people can be powerless.

Adjectives with these endings don’t always come in pairs. For example, a resourceful designer might design a beautiful product, with lots of wonderful features. If that design is successful, the whole company will be grateful. But there are no “-less” words to match those “-ful” words.

The suffix “-less” is especially useful for describing things which don’t have what we might expect. Most offices have windows, so a windowless office is unusual (and unpleasant). These days nobody is very surprised by a wireless internet connection — we no longer think about the “Wi” in “WiFi.” But a few years ago they were still something special. Perhaps in a few years we won’t be surprised to see driverless cars: when all cars work without drivers, and driving becomes as effortless as clicking a few buttons, perhaps we’ll just call them “cars.”

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