-ful and -less

One of the blogs I regularly read is English Language Thoughts, by Niall O’Donnell, an ESL teacher in Ireland. Yesterday, he posted about the (non-)word ruthful (the opposite of ruthless). He says “We don’t say ruthful though, do we? It sounds weird. It was used long ago though.”

In fact, there are enough occurrences of it on the interweb to conclude that people do use it, but these may be mentions, rather than uses, for example dictionary definitions and questions like ‘Is ruthful a word?’. However, ruthless is certainly far more common than ruthful.

I originally drafted “The only common -less word which does not have a corresponding -ful word is endless – nothing is endful.” I based that on the fact the Google Ngrams does not record it. However, a number of dictionaries do, but of the 54,300 results of a general Google search, I can’t find an instance of anyone actually using it. The other common -less word which is more common than its -ful opposite is homelesshomeful is defined either a ‘having a place to live’ or ‘homely, cosy’.

I found 11 pairs of words in which the -less form is reasonably common compared to the -ful form: meaningless, pitiless, colo(u)rless, useless, careless, painless, powerless, cheerless, faithless, doubtless and helpless (I’m surprised that helpless is so comparatively rare). Relatively to vanishingly rare are dreadless, peaceless, delightless, grateless (I suspect that those are fireplaces and not people), successless, wonderless, aw(e)less and beautiless (I suspect that there are many other ways to describe lack of beauty). (The spell-checkers on Pages for Mac and Worpress both do not recognise all the words in the second list.)

[edit Very soon after posting, I thought of merciful and merciless, so there are definitely more. Please don’t tell me. Curiously, this pair is the closest to equal of any – merciful is  about 1.5 times more common than merciless.

Oh dear, I’ve just searched http://www.morewords.com and found 332 words ending with -ful and 649 ending with -less. I’m going to try really hard to pretend I didn’t see that. Some pairs are false positives – armful and armless are not opposites.]

Niall says “being ruthful simply isn’t as interesting as being ruthless. Having compassion for your fellow man is great, but doesn’t make for great excitement. Ruthlessness though, shocks us by transgressing social norms.” Note the similar words pitiless and pitiful. Pitiful can describe the person feeling the pity, but is more often used to describe the person deserving it. Conversely, aw(e)ful has switched from the person feeling the awe to the person or thing causing it, whether positively (aweful or awefull) or negatively (awful). (I wonder who was the first person to use awful in its modern, negative sense, and who was the last to use it is in its original, positive sense. There is a 19th communion hymn which describes the bread and wine of holy communion as “so awful and so sweet”.)

Appendix – the full list of approximate ratios from Google Ngrams. The ratios have fluctuated over history, but these are as of 2000.

meaningful 3.5 times more common than meaningless
pitiful 4 times more common than pitiless
colourful 4 times more common etc
useful 10
careful 11
painful 14
powerful 20
cheerful 22
faithful 28
doubtful 150
helpful 475
dreadful 3,250
peaceful 5,500
delightful 14,000
grateful 20,000
successful 50,000
wonderful 70,000
awful 70,000
beautiful 120,000

ruthless 1,800 times more common than ruthful (cf dreadful v dreadless, above)
homeless 12,000 times more common than homeful (cf delightful v delightless, above)
endless infinitely more common than endful (according to Google Ngrams and 7182 time more common (390,000,000 v 54,3000) according to a general Google search)


2 thoughts on “-ful and -less

  1. That’s a great analysis, it’s really interesting to see the ratios. It’s easy to think of -ful and -less words as binary oppositions, but there are so many cases where one is used significantly more than the other.


  2. Pingback: God is terrible | Never Pure and Rarely Simple

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