English prefix

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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 suffix -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).

In English, all prefixes are derivational. This contrasts with English suffixes, which may be either derivational or inflectional.

Selectional restrictions[edit]

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.[1]

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[edit]

Unlike derivational suffixes, English derivational prefixes typically do not change the lexical category of the base (and are so 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[edit]

Several English words are analyzed as a combination of a dependent affix and an independent base, such as those found in words like boy-hood or un-just. Following Marchand (1969), these types of words are formed by native word-formation processes.

Other words in English (and also in French and German) are formed via foreign word-formation processes, particularly processes seen in Greek and Latin word-formation. 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), as well as in inkhorn terms coined in the 17th and 18th centuries. 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.[2]

In some analytic frameworks, such neo-classical prefixes are excluded from analyses of English derivation on the grounds that they are not analyzable according to a mostly synchronic (that is, relatively productive or easily recognizable and relating to present-day idioms) English (that is, "native") basis.[3] Conceptualized 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 "native" Latin components in the Latin language).[4] Similarly, pairs such as defend/defense and double (or duple)/duplicity are not considered morphologically related in Marchand's treatment of English word formation and are thus excluded too, though they are regarded as derivatives of the shared roots in Jespersen's and Koizul's, while in others, they may be seen as allomorphs or variants (like deep/depth, a pair formed of Germanic components). However, not all foreign words are unanalyzable according to such an English basis: some foreign elements have been nativized and 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-); and ex- as in ex-soldier, which derives from the Latin ex-.

Initial combining forms vs prefixes[edit]

List of English prefixes[edit]


Prefix Meaning Example
a- verb > predicative adjective with progressive aspect afloat, atremble
after- following after, behind aftermath, afterlife
back- behind an object/structure (locative/directional) backporch, backhoe, backfire
be- equipped with, covered with, beset with (pejorative or facetious) bedeviled, becalm, bedazzle, bewitch
by- near to, next to byway, bypass, byproduct
down- from higher/greater to lower/lesser download, downright, downbeat
en-, em- to make into, to put into, to get into empower, enmesh
fore- before, in front forearm, forerunner, forebode
hind- after hindsight, hindquarters
mid- middle midstream, midlife
midi- medium-sized midi-length, Midibus
mini- small minimarket, mini-room, minivan
mis- wrong, astray misinformation, misguide, misfortune, misbehave, misspell
off- non-standard, away off-color, offish, offset
on- immediate proximity, locative onset, onlook, ongoing, oncoming
out- better, faster, longer, farther outreach, outcome, outlier
over- excessive, above overreact, overact, overbearing
self- self self-sufficient, self-explanatory
step- family relation by remarriage stepbrother, stepmother, stepfather, stepsister
twi- two twibill, twilight, twins
un- not, against, opposite of unnecessary, unequal, undesirable, unhappy
un- reverse action, deprive of, release from undo, untie, unexpected, unlock
under- below, beneath, lower in grade or dignity, lesser, insufficient underachieve, underpass, understand, undergo
up- greater, higher, or better upgrade, uplift, upright
with- against, back, away (from) withstand, withhold


Prefix Meaning Examples
a- not, alpha privative acyclic, asexual, atonal, atheist
Afro- relating to Africa Afro-American, Afro-Caribbean
ambi- both ambidextrous, ambitendency
amphi- around, two, both, on both sides amphiaster, amphitheatre, amphibian
an-/a- not, without anemic, asymmetric, anarchy
ana-, an- up, against anacardiaceous, anode, analog
Anglo- relating to England Anglo-Norman, Anglo-Saxon, Anglo-American
ante- before antenatal, antechamber, antedate
anti- opposite, against antagonist, antivenom
apo-, ap- away from, detached aphelion, apogee, apomorphine
arch- ruling, dominating, most extreme (pejorative) archangel, archaen, archconservative
astro- star astrobiology, astrology, astronomy
auto- self autobiography, automatic, autonomy
bi- two bicycle, biped, bisexual, binomial, bigamy, binary
bio- life, biological biology, biotic
circum- around, surrounding circumlocution, circumnavigate, circumference
cis- on this side of cislunar, cisgender
con-, co-, com-, col-, cor- together or with cohabit, colleague, commingle, confederation, correlation
contra-, contro- opposite contradict, contraindication
counter- against, in opposition to counteract, counterpart
cryo- ice cryogenics
crypto- hidden, secret cryptography
de- down depress, descend
demi- half demigod
demo- people democracy, demography
deuter- second deuteragonist, deuterogamy
di- two dicotyledon, dioxide
dia- through dialysis, diameter
dis-/di-/dif- apart differ, dissect, divide
du-/duo- two dual, duet
eco- ecological ecosystem
electro- electric, electricity electro-analysis, electromagnetic
en-, el-, em- in ellipsis, emphasis, energetic
epi-, ep- upon, at, close upon, in addition ephemeron, epicentre, epidermis
Euro- European Eurocentric
ex- out of exit, expel, explode, exploit, explore, export
extra- outside extracurricular
Franco- French, France Francophile, Franco-British, Franco-German
geo- relating to the earth or its surface geography, geology, geometry
gyro- spinning on an axis gyrocopter, gyroscope, gyrosphere
hetero- different heterochromia, heterogeneous, heterotroph, heterozygous
hemi- half hemimorphic, hemisphere
Hispano- Spanish, Spain Hispanoamérica, hispanophobia
homo- same homogeneous, homogenize, homologous, homophone, homozygous
hydro- relating to water, or using water hydroelectricity, hydrant
hyper- excess, above, over hyperthermia
hypo- deficient, under or below something, low hypothermia
ideo- image, idea ideograph, ideology
idio- individual, personal, unique idiolect, idiopathic
in- in, into include, insert
Indo- relating to the Indian subcontinent Indo-European
in-, il-, im-, ir- not, opposite of illegal, illicit, impatient, impossible, inappropriate, inexact, irregular, irresponsible
infra- below, beneath infrared
inter-[6] among, between intercede, internet, international
intra-[6] inside, within intravenous
iso- equal isochromatic, isotherm
Italo- Italian, Italy italophilia, italophobia
macro- long macrobiotic
mal- badly malnourish, maladjusted
maxi- very long, very large maxi-skirt, maximum
mega-, megalo- great, large megastar, megalopolis
meso- middle, intermediate, halfway mesosphere, mesoderm, mesozoa
meta- after, along with, beyond, among, behind, transcending, self-referential metabolism, metaphysics, metacommunication
micro- small microbacillus, microscope
mono-, mon- sole, only monogamy, monotone, monosyllabic, monomial, monobrow
multi-, mult- many multicultural, multi-storey, multitude
neo- new neolithic, neoether
non- not nonexistent, non-fiction
ob- to, against object, obligate
omni- all omnipotent, omnipresent, omnivore
ortho- correcting or straightening orthodontics, orthotropic
paleo- old paleolithic
pan- all, worldwide pan-African, pandemic, panorama, pansexual
para- beside, beyond parallel, paraplegic, parasail
ped- foot pedal, pedestrian
pen- almost peninsula, penultimate, penumbra
per- through, completely, wrongly, exceedingly permeate, permute
peri- around, near or adjacent perihelion, periphrase
photo- light photoelectric, photography, photosynthesis
pleo- more pleonasm, pleroma
pod- foot podiatrist
poly- many polygon, polyhedron, polygamy
post- after postfix, postpone, postscript
pre- before predict, prepare, preview, preschool, prewrite, prefix
preter- beyond, past, more than pretermit, preternatural
pro- for, substitute, deputy proconsul
pro- before procambium
pros- toward prosthesis, prostrate, prose
proto- first, original protoplasm, prototype
pseudo- false, imitation pseudonym
pyro- fire pyrokinetic, pyrotechnic
quadri- four quadrilateral, quadrinomial
quasi- partly, almost, appearing to be but not really quasi-religious
retro- backwards retrograde
semi- half semicircle
socio- society, social, sociological sociopath
sub-, sup- below, under submarine, subterranean, suburban, support
super- above, over supervisor, superintendent
supra- above, over suprarenal
sur- above, over surreal, surrender, surplus
syn-, sy-, syl-, sym- together, with syllable, symbol, synthesis, system
tele- at a distance telegraph, telephone, telescope, television
trans- across, over transatlantic, transverse, transform, transgender
tri- three tricycle, tripartite, triangle, tricolor, trinomial
ultra- beyond ultramagnetic, ultrasonic, ultraviolet
uni- one, consisting of only one unicycle, universal
vice- deputy vice-president, vice-principal, vice-admiral


Prefix Meaning Example
gain- against gainsay
umbe- around umbestound
y- inflectional prefix yclad, yclept (both archaic words)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ 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.
  2. ^ See Marchand (1969: 7).
  3. ^ See, for example, Quirk et al. (1985).
  4. ^ 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."
  5. ^ a b Bauer, Laurie; Lieber, Rochelle; Plag, Ingo (2013). The Oxford Reference Guide to English Morphology. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780-19-957926-6.
  6. ^ a b "Inter- vs Intra- Everything After Z by Dictionary.com". Dictionary.com. Dictionary.com, LLC. December 23, 2016. Retrieved October 2, 2017.


  • 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.
  • Bauer, Laurie; Lieber, Rochelle; Plag, Ingo (2013). The Oxford Reference Guide to English Morphology. Oxford, UK: Oxford 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.

External links[edit]