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Roots, suffixes and prefixes: Intro

Sample lecture Course syllabus


The fastest way to increase and retain English vocabulary is to learn the meaning of roots, prefixes and suffixes since so many English words are made up of these word parts. Prefixes come before roots, and suffixes come after roots. The root, also called a stem, is the primary lexical unit of a word as it carries the main semantic content. Roots can be connected to other roots, prefixes, and suffixes. These word parts have specific meanings that, when added together, can help us understand the meaning of the word as a whole. These are examples of words that have a prefix, root and suffix:

egregious = e-greg-ious (out of - flock - full of)

= full of being out of the flock → shocking, outrageous

infallible = in-fall-ible (not - to deceive - capable)

= not capable of deceiving → faultless 

analgesic  = an-algest-ic (without - pain - characteristic)

=  (of a drug) relieving pain 

Once we understand the meanings of the roots, prefixes and suffixes, we can even infer the meaning of words that we have never seen before. This ability is especially useful when reading academic texts as scholars constantly create new words using the word parts.  So in this chapter, we learn these building block words and their example words in alphabetical order.

Prior to doing this, we should understand some characteristics relating to roots, prefixes and suffixes. First, not all words have both prefixes and suffixes attached to the roots. Some  words can be viewed as having only roots as they cannot be analyzed any further: e.g., see, run, eat. These words have a prefix and root: 

rerun = re-run (to show a TV program again) 

inspect= in-spect (to look at something closely, examine)

And these words have a root and suffix: 

spectacular (a thing to look at → striking, breathtaking) 

specious (full of looks → misleadingly attractive, deceptive, false)

Secondly, words can have more than one prefix, root, or suffix. For example, these are words with two roots: 

philosophy (to love + wisdom) 

chlorophyll (green + leaf)

belligerent (war + to bear + of the characteristic → aggressive) 

magnanimous (great + soul + full of → noble) 

These are words with two prefixes: 

insubordination = in-sub-ordin-ation (not under + order/rank + state) 

 → the state of not being placed in a lower rank

→ defiance of authority; refusal to obey orders

noncompliance = non-com-pli-ance (not + together + fold + property)

→ the property of not folding together

→ failure to act in accordance with a command, insubordination

These are words with two suffixes:

carelessly = care-less-ly 

→  in a casual way

falsification = falsi-fy-cation

→ the action of making something false

Third, the spelling of roots, prefixes and suffixes can change depending on the sound that comes before or after the other parts of the word. For example, the Greek prefix “a-,” which means ‘not’ becomes “an-” before stems beginning with a vowel or “h.” These are example words: 

abyss (without bottom)

apathy (without feeling → indifference)

analgesic (without pain → relieving pain)

anhedonia (without pleasure) 

anarchy (without chief → no government)


Care should be taken when analyzing words into their building blocks since some building blocks have the same spelling but different meanings. For example, the prefix “a-” can have four entirely different meanings: without, into, away and to. The reason is that “a-”  is derived from different origins: Greek, German and Latin-French. From the Greek origin, it means ‘without’; from the German origin, it means '‘into’; and, from the Latin-French origin, it means ‘to’ or ‘away,’ as it is a different form of ‘ab-’ or ‘ad-.’ These are example words with “a-” having four different meanings:

apathy (without feeling)   

asleep (into sleeping)

abate (away from beating → to lessen, die down)

adjoin (to join together)

Similarly, some roots have  the same spelling as some prefixes. For example, di- can have several different meanings: two, not, daytime.

dichotomy (two cuts → disjunction)

diffidence (not having confidence, shyness)

diurnal (of the daytime)

Consider these two words: 

dismal, dismiss

In “dismal,” ‘dis’ means daytime (a different spelling of di-), and ‘mal’ means bad.  So,

dismal (bad days → dreary, depressing)

On the other hand, in “dismiss,” ‘dis’ means away and ‘miss’ means to send. So,

dismiss (to send away, let go)