Prefixes and Suffixes

Today's topic is prefixes and suffixes, those little things you add to the front or back of words. 

Bonnie Mills, Writing for
6-minute read
Episode #476


Today's topic is prefixes and suffixes, those little things you add to the front or back of words. They're like little word-creation factories that let you change the meaning of stem words. You can, for example, go from happy to unhappy by adding the prefix un- to happy. You might do this when you add the suffix -ectomy to the word spleen to get splenectomy. Ooh, that sounds painful, a word you create by adding the suffix -ful to pain. On the other hand, we hope that our discussion of spelling and punctuation when it comes to prefixes and suffixes will be pain-free.

What Are Affixes?

Prefixes and suffixes are two examples of affixes, grammatical elements that are “added to a base or stem to form a fresh stem or a word.” (1) It might seem to make more sense for them to be called prefixes and postfixes, since pre- means “before” and post- means “after,” but it turns out that the suf part of “suffix” comes from the past participle of a Latin word that means “to attach on top of.” (2)

You use prefixes and suffixes a lot more than you might realize. You add negative prefixes to adjectives and nouns all the time, for example, and you use superlative suffixes like -est daily. Negative prefixes you're bound to use include un-, anti-, a-, and non-, and they give us words like unflattering, anti-war, amoral, and non-dairy. Well-used suffixes include the -s in plural nouns; the -ed that makes verbs past tense; and end-of-word additions such as -ness, -like, and -hood to make words such as happiness, childlike, and parenthood. In fact, it might be downright impossible to write a sentence longer than a few words without using a prefix or suffix—or both in one word, as in unhappiness.

Let's look a little more closely at some common prefixes and suffixes. The prefixes in-, un-, non-, and anti- generally pair up with certain Latin derivatives, (3) creating words such as inaccessible and unexhausted. On the other hand, a-, which means “without,” appears mostly with Greek derivatives, as in asymmetrical. (4) Non- is the broadest negative prefix and “may precede virtually any word.” (5) You might be curious about the meaning of some other prefixes you use all the time. If so, you've come to the right place. De- and dis-, as in dehumanize  and disrespectful, mean “reverse of,” whereas mal- and mis-, as in malformed and misfortune, mean “bad” or “wrong.” (6) You'll also run into more self-explanatory prefixes such as counter- and self-, which give us words such as counterintuitive and self-driving.


About the Author

Bonnie Mills, Writing for Grammar Girl

Bonnie Mills has been a copyeditor since 1996.