Last updated

In its strictest sense, tmesis ( /ˈtmsɪs,təˈm-/ ; plural tmeses /ˈtmss,təˈm-/ ; Ancient Greek: τμῆσιςtmēsis "a cutting" < τέμνωtemnō, "I cut") is a word compound that is divided into two parts, with another word infixed between the parts, thus constituting a separate word compound. Example: "un-freaking-believable" (an emphatic way to say "unbelievable"). In a broader sense, tmesis is a recognizable phrase (such as a phrasal verb) or word that is divided into two parts, with one or more words interpolated between the parts, thus creating a separate phrase. [1] [2] [3]



Tmesis of prefixed verbs (whereby the prefix is separated from the simple verb) was thought to be an original feature of the Ancient Greek language, common in Homer (and later poetry), but not used in Attic prose.[ citation needed ] Such separable verbs are also part of the normal grammatical usage of some modern languages, such as Dutch and German.

Ancient Greek

Tmesis in Ancient Greek is something of a misnomer, since there is not necessarily a splitting of the prefix from the verb; rather the consensus now seems to be that the separate prefix or pre-verb reflects a stage in the language where the prefix had not yet joined onto the verb. There are many examples in Homer's epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey , both of which preserve archaic features. One common and oft-cited example is κατὰ δάκρυα λείβων (kata dakrua leibōn; "shedding tears"), in which the pre-verb/prefix κατά-kata- "down" has not yet joined the verbal participle λείβωνleibōn "shedding". In later Greek, these would combine to form the compound verb καταλείβωνkataleibōn "shedding (in a downwards direction)".


Tmesis is found as a poetic or rhetorical device in classical Latin poetry, such as Ovid's Metamorphoses . Words such as circumdare ("to surround") are split apart with other words of the sentence in between, e.g. circum virum dant: "they surround the man" (circumdant (circum- prefix + dant)). This device is used in this way to create a visual image of surrounding the man by means of the words on the line. In the work of the poet Ennius, the literal splitting of the word cerebrum creates a vivid image: saxo cere comminuit brum "he shattered his brain with a rock." [4]

Old Irish

Tmesis can be found in some early Old Irish texts, such as Audacht Morainn. Old Irish verbs are found at the beginning of clauses (in a VSO word order) and often possess prepositional pre-verbal particles, e.g. ad-midethar (ad- prefix) "evaluates, estimates". Tmesis occurs when the pre-verbal particle is separated from the verbal stem and the verbal stem is placed in clause final position while the pre-verbal particle/prefix remains at the beginning of the clause. This results in an abnormal word order, e.g. ad- cruth caín -cichither "[the] fair form will be seen" (where ad-chichither is the future third-person singular passive of ad-cí "sees"). [5]

Old Norse

Examples of tmesis have been found in skaldic poetry. In addition to the use of kennings, skalds used tmesis to obscure the meaning of the poem. [6] One use of tmesis was to divide the elements of personal names. [6]


The so-called separable verbs have a separable particle that changes the meaning of the root verb, but that does not always remain attached to the root verb. German sentence structure normally places verbs in second position or final position. For separable verbs, the particle always appears in final position. If a particular sentence's structure places the entire verb in final position, then the particle and root verb appear together. If a sentence places the verb in second position, then only the root verb will appear in second position; the separated particle remains at the end of the sentence. For example, the separable verb anfangen ("to start") consists of the separable particle an and the root fangen:

Root verb in second position: Ich fange die Arbeit an. ("I start the work.")
Root verb in final position: Morgens trinke ich heiße Schokolade, weil ich dann die Arbeit anfange. ("In the morning I drink hot chocolate, because afterwards I begin the work.")

However, in many other German verbs the particle (such as be- or ent-) is inseparable, always staying with the root verb.

In some verbs, the past participle prefix ge is inserted in the middle of the word, for instance:

Ich habe die Arbeit bereits angefangen. ("I have already begun the assignment.")


Colloquial examples include un-bloody-believable and several variants. Numerous English words are joined with the vulgar infix -fucking-, such as "unfuckingbelievable".[ citation needed ]

English employs a large number of phrasal verbs, consisting of a core verb and a particle. A phrasal verb is written as two words that are analyzed semantically as a unit, but the unit may be separable under certain circumstances. For example, regarding a phrasal verb that has a transitive sense:

Turn off the light OR Turn the light off. (optional tmesis)
Hand in the application OR Hand it in. (optional tmesis)

Similarly, tmesis can occur regarding a phrasal verb that has an intransitive sense. For example:

Come back tomorrow OR Come on back tomorrow. (adjunctive tmesis)
Let's head out OR Let's head right out. (adjunctive tmesis)

The intervention of an adverb or transitive object in the middle of the phrasal verb can be viewed as a form of tmesis even though the semantic unit being separated is written as two words even when not separated.[ citation needed ]

See also

Related Research Articles

In morphology and syntax, a clitic is a morpheme that has syntactic characteristics of a word, but depends phonologically on another word or phrase. In this sense, it is syntactically independent but phonologically dependent—always attached to a host. A clitic is pronounced like an affix, but plays a syntactic role at the phrase level. In other words, clitics have the form of affixes, but the distribution of function words.

In grammar, a part of speech or part-of-speech is a category of words that have similar grammatical properties. Words that are assigned to the same part of speech generally display similar syntactic behavior, sometimes similar morphological behavior in that they undergo inflection for similar properties and even similar semantic behavior. Commonly listed English parts of speech are noun, verb, adjective, adverb, pronoun, preposition, conjunction, interjection, numeral, article, and determiner.

Prepositions and postpositions, together called adpositions, are a class of words used to express spatial or temporal relations or mark various semantic roles.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">English compound</span> Aspect of English grammar

A compound is a word composed of more than one free morpheme. The English language, like many others, uses compounds frequently. English compounds may be classified in several ways, such as the word classes or the semantic relationship of their components.

In syntax, verb-second (V2) word order is a sentence structure in which the finite verb of a sentence or a clause is placed in the clause's second position, so that the verb is preceded by a single word or group of words.

Although not widely accepted in linguistics, the term preverb is used in Caucasian, Caddoan, Athabaskan, and Algonquian linguistics to describe certain elements prefixed to verbs. In the context of Indo-European languages, the term is usually used for separable verb prefixes.

Tagalog grammar is the body of rules that describe the structure of expressions in the Tagalog language, the language of the Tagalog region of the Philippines.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Tzeltal language</span> Mayan language of Mexico

Tzeltal or Tseltal is a Mayan language spoken in the Mexican state of Chiapas, mostly in the municipalities of Ocosingo, Altamirano, Huixtán, Tenejapa, Yajalón, Chanal, Sitalá, Amatenango del Valle, Socoltenango, Las Rosas, Chilón, San Juan Cancuc, San Cristóbal de las Casas and Oxchuc. Tzeltal is one of many Mayan languages spoken near this eastern region of Chiapas, including Tzotzil, Chʼol, and Tojolabʼal, among others. There is also a small Tzeltal diaspora in other parts of Mexico and the United States, primarily as a result of unfavorable economic conditions in Chiapas.

Turkish grammar, as described in this article, is the grammar of standard Turkish as spoken and written by educated people in the Republic of Turkey.

A nonfinite verb, in contrast to a finite verb, is a derivative form of a verb that lacks inflection (conjugation) for number or person. In the English language, the nonfinite verb cannot perform action as the main verb of an independent clause, while in French, the first verb is typically the only finite one. In English, nonfinite verbs include infinitives, participles and gerunds. Nonfinite verb forms in some other languages include converbs, gerundives and supines. The categories of mood, tense, and or voice may be absent from non-finite verb forms in some languages.

Yiddish grammar is the system of principles which govern the structure of the Yiddish language. This article describes the standard form laid out by YIVO while noting differences in significant dialects such as that of many contemporary Hasidim. As a Germanic language descended from Middle High German, Yiddish grammar is fairly similar to that of German, though it also has numerous linguistic innovations as well as grammatical features influenced by or borrowed from Hebrew, Aramaic, and various Slavic languages.

Tariana is an endangered Maipurean language spoken along the Vaupés River in Amazonas, Brazil by approximately 100 people. Another approximately 1,500 people in the upper and middle Vaupés River area identify themselves as ethnic Tariana but do not speak the language fluently.

Historically, grammarians have described preposition stranding or p-stranding as the syntactic construction in which a so-called stranded, hanging or dangling preposition occurs somewhere other than immediately before its corresponding object; for example, at the end of a sentence. The term preposition stranding was coined in 1964, predated by stranded preposition in 1949. Linguists had previously identified such a construction as a sentence-terminal preposition or as a preposition at the end. This kind of construction is found in English, and more generally in other Germanic languages.

A separable verb is a verb that is composed of a lexical core and a separable particle. In some sentence positions, the core verb and the particle appear in one word, whilst in others the core verb and the particle are separated. The particle cannot be accurately referred to as a prefix because it can be separated from the core verb. German, Dutch, Afrikaans and Hungarian are notable for having many separable verbs. Separable verbs challenge theories of sentence structure because when they are separated, it is not evident how the compositionality of meaning should be understood.

German verbs may be classified as either weak, with a dental consonant inflection, or strong, showing a vowel gradation (ablaut). Both of these are regular systems. Most verbs of both types are regular, though various subgroups and anomalies do arise; however, textbooks for learners often class all strong verbs as irregular. The only completely irregular verb in the language is sein. There are more than 200 strong and irregular verbs, but just as in English, there is a gradual tendency for strong verbs to become weak.

German sentence structure is the structure in which the German language adheres to. German is an OV (Object-Verb) language. Additionally, German, like all Germanic languages except English, uses V2 word order, though only in independent clauses. In dependent clauses, the finite verb is placed last.

German verbs are conjugated depending on their use: as in English, they are modified depending on the persons (identity) and number of the subject of a sentence, as well as depending on the tense and mood.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Isthmus Zapotec</span> Language

Isthmus Zapotec, also known as Juchitán Zapotec, is a Zapotec language spoken in Tehuantepec and Juchitán de Zaragoza, in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. According to the census of 1990 it has about 85,000 native speakers, however this number is rapidly decreasing, as speakers shift to Spanish.

Neverver (Nevwervwer), also known as Lingarak, is an Oceanic language. Neverver is spoken in Malampa Province, in central Malekula, Vanuatu. The names of the villages on Malekula Island where Neverver is spoken are Lingarakh and Limap.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">English phrasal verbs</span> Concept in English grammar

In the traditional grammar of Modern English, a phrasal verb typically constitutes a single semantic unit composed of a verb followed by a particle, sometimes combined with a preposition. Alternative terms include verb-adverb combination, verb-particle construction, two-part word/verb or three-part word/verb and multi-word verb.


  1. "tmesis". Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press. Archived from the original on 23 December 2012. Retrieved 19 August 2014 via
  2. The Oxford Companion to the English Language. Oxford University Press. 1992. p. 1044. ISBN   0-19-214183-X.
  3. "tmesis". Retrieved 19 August 2014.
  4. Cruttwell, Charles Thomas. A History of Roman Literature: From the Earliest Period to the Death of Marcus Aurelius. Archived from the original on 2017-01-05. Retrieved 2013-12-20.
  5. Russell, Paul (2014). An Introduction to the Celtic Languages. London: Routledge. p. 288.
  6. 1 2 Ross, Margaret Clunies (2005). A History of Old Norse Poetry and Poetics. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer. pp. 109–110. ISBN   1-84384-034-0.