English prefixes are affixes (i.e., bound morphemes that provide lexical meaning) that are added before either simple roots or complex bases (or operands) consisting of (a) a root and other affixes, (b) multiple roots, or (c) multiple roots and other affixes. Examples of these follow:
- undo (consisting of prefix un- and root do)
- untouchable (consisting of prefix un-, root touch, and suffix -able)
- non-childproof (consisting of prefix non-, root child, and root proof)
- non-childproofable (consisting of prefix non-, root child, root proof, and suffix -able)
English words may consist of multiple prefixes: anti-pseudo-classicism (containing both an anti- prefix and a pseudo- prefix).
As is often the case with derivational morphology, many English prefixes can only be added to bases of particular lexical categories (or "parts of speech"). For example, the prefix re- meaning "again, back" is only added to verb bases as in rebuild, reclaim, reuse, resell, re-evaluate, resettle. It cannot be added to bases of other lexical categories. Thus, examples of re- plus a noun base (such as the ungrammatical *rehusband, *remonopoly) or re- plus an adjective base (*renatural, *rewise) are virtually unattested.
These selectional restrictions on what base a prefix can be attached to can be used to distinguish between otherwise identical-sounding prefixes. For instance, there are two different un- prefixes in English: one meaning "not, opposite of", the other meaning "reverse action, deprive of, release from". The first prefix un- "not" is attached to adjective and participle bases while the second prefix un- "reverse action" is attached to either verb or noun bases. Thus, English can have two words that are pronounced and spelled the same and have the same lexical category but have different meanings, different prefixes, a different internal morphological structure, and different internal bases that the prefixes are attached to:
- unlockable "not able to be locked"
- unlockable "able to be unlocked"
In the first unlockable "not able to be locked", the prefix un- "not" is attached to an adjective base lockable (which, in turn, is composed of lock + -able). This word has the following internal structure:
- [ un [ [ lock ]verb able ]adj ]adj
In the second unlockable "able to be unlocked", the prefix un- "reverse action" is attached to a verb base lock, resulting in the derived verb unlock. Subsequently, the -able suffix is added after the newly created unlock adjective base deriving the adjective unlockable. This word has the following internal structure:
- [ [ un [ lock ]verb ]verb able ]adj
Only certain verbs or nouns can be used to form a new verb having the opposite meaning. In particular, using verbs describing an irreversible action produces words often considered nonsense, e.g. unkill, unspend, unlose, unring. These words may nevertheless be in occasional use for humorous or other effect.
Changes in lexical category
Unlike derivational suffixes, English (derivational) prefixes typically do not change the lexical category of the base (and are called class-maintaining prefixes). Thus, the word do, consisting of a single morpheme, is a verb as is the word redo, which consists of the prefix re- and the base root do.
However, there are a few prefixes in English that are class-changing in that the word resulting after prefixation belongs to a lexical category that is different from the lexical category of the base. Examples of this type include a-, be-, and en-. a- typically creates adjectives from noun and verb bases: blaze (noun/verb) > ablaze (adj). The relatively unproductive be- creates transitive verbs from noun bases: witch (noun) > bewitch (verb). en- creates transitive verbs from noun bases: slave (noun) > enslave (verb).
Native vs. non-native (neo-classical) prefixing
Several English words are easily analyzed as a combination of a dependent affix and an independent base, such as in the words boy-hood or un-just. Following Marchand (1969), these types of words are referred to as words formed by native word-formation processes.
Other words in English (and also in French and German) are formed by foreign word-formation processes, particularly Greek and Latin word-formation processes. These word types are often known as neo-classical (or neo-Latin) words and are often found in academic learned vocabulary domains (such as in science fields). Words of this nature are borrowed from either Greek or Latin or have been newly coined based upon Greek and Latin word-formation processes. It is possible to detect varying degrees of foreignness.
Neo-classical prefixes are often excluded from analyses of English derivation on the grounds that they are not analyzable according to an English basis. Thus, anglicized neo-classical English words such as deceive are not analyzed by Marchand as being composed of a prefix de- and a bound base -ceive but are rather analyzed as being composed of a single morpheme (although the Latin sources of these English words are analyzed as such, as Latin words in the Latin language). However, not all foreign words are unanalyzable according to an English basis: some foreign elements have become a part of productive English word-formation processes. An example of such a now native English prefix is co- as in co-worker, which is ultimately derived from the Latin prefix com- (with its allomorphs co-, col-, con-, and cor-).
Initial combining forms vs prefixes
List of English prefixes
|a-||verb > predicative adjective with progressive aspect||afloat, atremble|
|anti-||against, opposite||anti-freeze, antivirus, anticlimax|
|arch-||supreme, highest, worst||arch-rival, archangel|
|be-||equipped with, covered with, beset with (pejorative or facetious)||bedeviled, becalm, bedazzle, bewitch|
|co-||joint, with, accompanying||co-worker, coordinator, cooperation|
|counter-||against, in opposition to||counteract, counterpart|
|de-||reverse action, get rid of||de-emphasise|
|dis-||not, opposite of||disloyal, disagree|
|dis-||reverse action, get rid of||disconnect, disinformation|
|en-/em-||to make into, to put into, to get into||enmesh, empower|
|ex-||former||ex-husband, ex-boss, ex-colleague|
|fore-||before, in front||forearm, forehead, forehand, forerunner|
|mis-||wrong, astray||misinformation, misguide, misfortune|
|out-||better, faster, longer, beyond||outreach, outcome|
|over-||excessive, above||overreact, overact, overbearing|
|post-||after, behind||post-election, post-graduation, post-war|
|pre-||before||prevent, previous, pre-election, pre-enter, pre-select|
|pro-||for, forward, in favor of||propulsion, propound, pro-life|
|re-||again, back||redo, revisit, rerun, reorganise|
|step-||family relation by remarriage||stepbrother, stepmother|
|trans-||across, from one place to another||transatlantic, transSiberian|
|un-||not, against, opposite of||unnecessary, unequal, undesirable|
|un-||reverse action, deprive of, release from||undo, untie, unexpected|
|under-||below, beneath, lower in grade/dignity, lesser, insufficient||underachieve, underground, underpass, underdeveloped|
|up-||greater, higher, or better||upgrade, uplift, upsurge|
|Afro-||relating to Africa||Afro-American, Afro-Caribbean|
|amphi-||around, two, both, on both sides||amphiaster, amphitheatre, amphibian|
|an-/a-||not, without||anemic, asymmetric|
|ana-, an-||up, against||anacardiaceous, anode|
|Anglo-||relating to England||Anglo-Norman, Anglo-Saxon, Anglo-American|
|ante-||before||antenatal, antechamber, antecedent|
|apo-, ap-||away from, detached||aphelion, apogee, apomorphine|
|astro-||star||astrobiology, astrology, astronomy|
|auto-||self||autobiography, automatic, autonomy|
|cis-||on this side of||cislunar|
|con-/com-/col-/cor-/co-||together or with||confederation, commingle, colleague, correlation, cohabit|
|di-||two||dicotyledon, digamy, dioxide|
|dis-/di-/dif-||apart||differ, dissect, divide|
|electro-||electric, electricity||electro-analysis, electromagnetic|
|en-, el-, em-||in||ellipsis, emphasis, energetic|
|epi-, ep-||upon, at, close upon, in addition||ephemeron, epicentre, epidermis|
|ex-||out of||exit, export, explore, explode, exploit, expel|
|Franco-||French, France||Francophile, Franco-British, Franco-German|
|geo-||relating to the earth or its surface||geography, geology, geometry|
|gyro-||spinning on an axis||gyrosphere, gyrocopter, gyroscope|
|hydro-||relating to water, or using water||hydroelectricity, hydrant|
|hypo-||under or below something, low||hypothermia|
|ideo-||image, idea||ideograph, ideaology|
|idio-||individual, personal, unique||idiolect, idiopathic|
|in-||in, into||insert, include|
|Indo-||relating to the Indian subcontinent||Indo-European|
|in-, il-, im-, ir-||not, opposite of||illicit, impossible, inexact, irregular|
|inter-||among, between||interact, intercede, international|
|maxi-||very long, very large||maxi-skirt|
|mega-, megalo-||great, large||megastar, megalopolis|
|meta-||after, along with, beyond, among, behind||metabolism, metaphysics|
|mono, mon-||sole, only||monogamy, monotone, monosyllabic|
|multi-, mult-||many||multicultural, multi-storey, multitude|
|omni-||all||omnipotent, omnipresent, omnivore|
|ortho-||correcting or straightening||orthodontics, orthotropic|
|pan-||all, worldwide||pan-African, pandemic, panorama|
|para-||beside, beyond||parallel, paranormal|
|per-||through, completely, wrongly, exceedingly||permeate, permute|
|peri-||around, near or adjacent||periphrase, perihelion|
|post-||after||postfix, postpone, post-war, postscript|
|pre-||before||predict, prepare, preview|
|preter-||beyond, past, more than||preternatural|
|proto-||first, original||protoplasm, prototype|
|quasi-||partly, almost, appearing to be but not really||quasi-religious|
|socio-||society, social, sociological||sociopath|
|sub-, sup-||below, under||support, submarine, suburban, subterranean|
|super-||above, over||supervisor, superintendent|
|sur-||above, over||surreal, surrender|
|syn-/sy-/syl-/sym-||together, with||synthesis, symbol, syllable, system|
|tele-||at a distance||telegraph, television, telescope, telephone|
|trans-||over, through, across||transverse|
|ultra-||beyond||ultraviolet, ultramagnetic, ultrasonic|
|uni-||one, consisting of only one||unicycle, universal|
|vice-||deputy||vice-president, vice-principal, vice-admiral|
|y-||inflectional prefix||yclad, yclept (both archaic words)|
- Occasionally, these selectional restrictions are violated for stylist effect, as in the coinage of the word Uncola in Seven-Up soft drink advertisements. The prefix un- meaning "not" is typically added to adjectives, thus adding it to a noun cola makes the word more noticeable.
- See Marchand (1969: 7).
- See, for example, Quirk et al. (1985).
- Marchand's (1969:5-6) argumentation: "Bearing in mind the bi-morphemic, i.e. two-sign character of derivatives and the ensuing opposability of both elements, it seems a little embarrassing to revert to the topic of the analysis of conceive, deceive, receive described as bimorphemic by Bloomfield, Harris and Nida. Newman establishes such suffixal derivatives as horr-or, horr-id, horr-ify; stup-or, stup-id, stup-efy. What are the bases horr- and stup- and what are the meanings of the suffixes? With the exception of ‘‘stupefy’’, which by forced interpretation could be made to look like syntagma, none of the 'derivatives' is analysable into two significates.... The fact that we can align such formal series as con-tain, de-tain, re-tain; con-ceive, de-ceive, re-ceive does not prove any morphemic character of the formally identical parts as they are not united by a common significate. The preceding words are nothing but monemes. Conceive, deceive, receive are not comparable to syntagmas such as co-author 'joint-author', de-frost 'remove the frost', re-do 'do again', the correct analysis of which is proved by numerous parallel syntagmas (co-chairman, co-defendant, co-hostess; de-gum, de-horn, de-husk; re-furbish, re-hash, re-write). If the two series con-tain, de-tain, re-tain / con-ceive, de-ceive, re-ceive, through mere syllabication and arbitrary division of sound complexes yield morphemes, why should we not be allowed to establish the similar morpheme-yielding series ba-ker, fa-ker, ma-ker / bai-ling, fai-ling, mai-ling? If we neglect content, how can we expose such a division as nonsensical? .... In fact, nobody would think of making the wrong morpheme division as our memory keeps perfect store of free and bound morphemes as significant/significate relations. It is only with a certain restricted class of words of distinctly non-native origin that we fall into the error of establishing unisolable morphemes.... If conceive, deceive, receive, are matched by the substantives conception, deception, reception, this is so because Latin verbs in -cipere are anglicized as verbs in -ceive while the corresponding Latin substantives conceptio, deceptio, receptio in English have the form given above. The alternation -sume vb/-sumption sb is obviously restricted to pairs corresponding to the Latin alternation -sumere vb/-sumptio sb. Nobody, unless he was trying to be witty, would extend the correlative pattern to pairs of words outside the particular structural system to which the words ultimately belong.... The natural synchronic description will therefore deal with foreign-coined words on the basis of the structural system to which they belong."
- Adams, Valerie. (1973). An introduction to modern English word-formation. London: Longman.
- Ayers, Donald M. (1986). English words from Latin and Greek elements (2nd & rev. ed.). Tucson: The University of Arizona Press.
- Bauer, Laurie. (1983). English word-formation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Brown, Roland W. (1927). Materials for word-study: A manual of roots, prefixes, suffixes and derivatives in the English language. New Haven, CT: Van Dyck & Co.
- Cannon, Garland Hampton. (1987). Historical change and English word-formation: Recent vocabulary. New York: P. Lang.
- Jespersen, Otto. (1942). A modern English grammar on historical principles: Morphology (Part 6). London: George Allen & Unwin and Ejnar Munksgaard.
- Marchand, Hans. (1969). The categories and types of present-day English word-formation (2nd ed.). München: C. H. Beck.
- Quirk, Randolph; Greenbaum, Sidney; Leech, Geoffrey; & Svartvik, Jan. (1985). Appendix I: Word-formation. In A comprehensive grammar of the English language (pp. 1517–1585). Harlow: Longman.
- Simpson, John (Ed.). (1989). Oxford English dictionary (2nd ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.