A prefix is a way to customize a word to fit your exact desired meaning. Americans, as a culture, love to customize as much of their life as possible. From coffee orders to subscription boxes, if we can tailor it to our exact needs, we will. While prefixes aren’t delicious, stylish, or ‘grammable, they will help you deliver your thoughts more clearly to a reader.
Prefixes are a group of letters added to the beginning of the word to change its meaning. They can make a word negative (un-), show repetition (re-), and even indicate distance (tele-).
The word prefix has it’s own prefix (pre-), which means “before” or “in front of.”
What is a Prefix?
As mentioned above, a prefix is a group of letters that are used at the beginning of a word to change the word’s meaning.
Many, many common English words have prefixes attached to them. So many, you’re probably using them without even knowing it!
One benefit of knowing common prefixes is that it can help you define a word if you don’t know the meaning. For example, “sub” means below, so when you see the word “submarine,” you know the first half means below, marine means water, so without even looking it up, you can glean a basic definition of the word!
And submarine is not the only word you can do this with! There are thousands of words with prefixes that we can easily define without a dictionary.
Why Should I Know Prefixes?
Aside from being able to impress your friends with your ability to define words on the fly, understanding prefixes can help you academically.
When you have an understanding of common prefixes, you can more easily define words during high-stakes exams like the ACT. You can also write more articulately, knowing that the words you are using accurately capture your intended meaning.
As you grow your vocabulary, you will be more comfortable using prefixes, and even more, you’ll be able to use them observing any grammar rules correctly.
When you can write clearly, your reader doesn’t have to struggle through your text to figure out the meaning.
Think about walking through knee-deep mud, trying to get to dry land. Your feet catch on the thick mud, sticks, leaves, and other debris. By the time you make it to the other side, you’re tired and sweating, just thankful to be through it.
Now imagine you had to walk through knee-deep clear water. You can easily navigate your steps because the water is still and clear. There are no sticks to move or leaves to wade through. When you reach the other side, it has taken little effort, and so you’re ready for more.
Think about your writing: is it thick mud or clear water? When your reader has to use all of their energy just to reach the ending, they probably aren’t grasping the actual meaning of your writing.
When you write, with a command of the English language, you are presenting your reader with clear waters prime for walking!
Prefix Usage Rules
One of the most important things to remember about using prefixes is that there are specific rules that you must follow to use them correctly.
Many prefixes require that you hyphenate apart from the root of the word. If you are unsure if a word should be hyphenated or not, always consult a dictionary. If you are working with a required style guide for a class (for instance, APA, MLA, or Chicago), the stylebook will most likely have hyphenation rules for you to follow.
I always had the most success Googling “word” + style guide + hyphenate when looking for specific information for coursework. Always make sure to use a reputable source.
Generally, a good rule of thumb when it comes to hyphenated is that if that word is attached to a proper noun, you should hyphenate the prefix.
Common Spelling Mistakes
When a prefix is added to a root word, the root’s spelling and the prefix’s spelling should not change. Even if there are double consonants, always follow the rule and maintain the correct spelling of both parts of the word.
Some prime examples of this include dissipate, cooperation, and irrefutable.
Many rules in the English language require you to alter the spelling to accommodate consonants and vowels; however, in the world of prefixes, you should never change the pieces of the word.
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|Anti-||against, opposing||antibiotic, antidepressant, antidote|
|De-||off, down, away, from||devalue, defrost|
|Dis-||opposite of||disagree, disappear, disapprove|
|Epi-||upon, close to, after||epicenter, episode|
|ex-||former, out of||ex-boyfriend, exterminate|
|extra-||beyond, more than||extracurricular, extraordinary|
|fore-||before||forecast, foresee, forward, foremost|
|il-, im-, in-, ir-||not||impossible, illegal, indefinite|
|non-||not, without||nonsense, nondescript|
|re-||again||return, rediscover, reunite|
|super-||above, over||superfood, superimpose|
|un-||not||unfriendly, unfinished, undone|
Prefixes and Numbers
Prefixes are very commonly used in math and science. Widely used with the metric system, prefixes help notate changes in length, weight, and density.
Here is a shortlist of all of the metric prefixes that are used:
These prefixes are helpful when using the metric system because it can indicate to the reader that the lengths are changing.
Affixes: A Review
Prefixes and suffixes are used to help fine-tune a word to match exact meanings, but they are very different from each other! For review, prefixes and suffixes fall under the same category called “affixes.”
An affix is a group of letters at the beginning or end of a word that is used to change the meaning or part of speech of a word. As we have covered in this guide, a prefix modifies the definition of a word by adding letters at the beginning.
A suffix changes the part of speech of a word by adding a group of letters to the end. Suffixes have various jobs that also include indicating a verb tense and modifying the meaning of a word. In short, when using prefixes and suffixes, you are using all of the tools you can to find the exact word you want.
The use of affixes in writing is a fantastic way to hyper-focus your text to help your readers understand.
Here is one final illustration to drive the point home: When you go to the eye doctor, you always get to that point of the exam where you get to answer, “a?” or “b?”. The optometrist continually adjusts the lenses following your answers, and when you are finished, you are left with a perfect vision lens.
Writing with prefixes has a similar effect on your reader. Often your writing is clear without the use of words with prefixes, but when you add more colorful and compelling prose, your reader can see your point more clearly.
Instead of writing, “he was no longer with his love,” you can write ex-girlfriend and illustrate the point more quickly and clearly.
Simple adjustments like this will help improve your writing drastically.
You can also apply your knowledge of prefixes (and all affixes for that matter) to tests. When you can define on the fly, you will be able to quickly react to questions about reading the text and defining words (or reading between the lines).
For these reasons, prefixes are a critical subject to understand and apply to your own life!