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

Now for some suffixes. As we've seen with -s and -ed, suffixes can change the plurality or tense of a base word. Other suffixes change the part of speech, as in -ity, which creates abstract nouns that express state or condition. (7) You can therefore change the adjective civil to the noun civility by adding this suffix. Another useful suffix is -able, which turns verbs into adjectives, as in teachable. Interestingly, this suffix is itself formed from a base word and another suffix (8): It is a combination of the Latin verb hab, which means “to have,” and the suffix -ile, which is added to words to express capability, susceptibility, and aptitude. (9)

Some Spelling and Punctuation Rules

When it comes to prefixes and suffixes, we need to keep some spelling and punctuation rules in mind. With most prefixes, there are no changes in the spelling when you add them to the beginning of words. One exception is with the prefix in-. The spelling changes to il-, im-, and ir- when certain letters follow this prefix. The words illogical, impossible, and irregular are created this way. (10)

Other spelling rules concern suffixes. (11) In general, when you add a suffix to a one-syllable word, you double the final consonant, and so bag  plus the suffix -age yields baggage and run plus the suffix -ing yields running. When it comes to the one-syllable words bus and gas, however, both single letters and double letters are acceptable. The plural of bus, for instance, can be buses, with one S in the middle, or busses, with two.

Here are a few other rules. Let's say you're adding a suffix to a word ending in the letter E. If that E is silent, you should drop the E before a suffix beginning with a vowel, as in force and forcible, but there are many exceptions. Sometimes there are even two allowable spellings, as in bluish and blueish. As usual, check a reliable dictionary. Now, if the E at the end of the word is silent and you're adding a suffix starting with a consonant rather than a vowel, you generally keep the E, as in white and whiteness. Of course, there are exceptions, as in wise and wisdom. One more spelling rule to keep in mind relates to words ending in the letter C when you add a suffix beginning with E, I, or Y. To avoid pronouncing the C like an S, you always add a K after the C, for example in the way panic becomes panicky.

Hyphens with Prefixes

Don't panic, though; we aren't going to make you learn any more spelling rules. We will, however, briefly discuss hyphens. Hyphens often make text more readable, and sometimes with prefixes and suffixes, we need to add a hyphen to avoid confusion. As you could have probably predicted, different affixes have different hyphenation rules. Most prefixed or suffixed words never need a hyphen, (12) but some always need a hyphen, and some can be hyphenated or not. Non-, for example, does not generally take a hyphen unless you are attaching it to a proper noun, (13) as in non-Newtonian fluid. For the most part, it's safe not to hyphenate with your prefixes and suffixes, but you should always follow the style guidelines you're meant to follow, and, of course, you can rely on your dictionary or style guide if you're unsure.


About the Author

Bonnie Mills, Writing for Grammar Girl

Bonnie Mills has been a copyeditor since 1996.