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Prefixes, Roots, and Suffixes: Unlock the Meaning of Difficult Vocabulary

written by: Heather Marie Kosur • edited by: Rebecca Scudder • updated: 3/2/2012

Students of the English language will frequently encounter unfamiliar words whose meanings seem difficult to discern. However, memorizing a few key prefixes, roots, and suffixes is the key to unlocking challenging vocabulary!

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    English Word Formation

    The vocabulary of the English language consists of a complex mix of Germanic and Romantic roots and affixes, which can make English an especially difficult language to master. When unfamiliar words get in the way of comprehension, the first inclination of many students is to reach for a dictionary. However, students can learn another strategy to help figure out the meanings of difficult and unfamiliar words without continually interrupting the flow of reading.

    The strategy is as simple as learning the meanings of the most common prefixes, roots, and suffixes in the English language. Here is the way in such a learning works:

    • Example #1: A student may not know the meaning of the word omnipotent, but knowing that the prefix omni means "all, everywhere" can allow the student to guess that omnipotent might mean "all powerful." What about omnipresent? Yes, "all present, present everywhere."

    • Example #2: The prefix un means "not," so words such as unhappy and unloved mean the opposite of happy and loved: "not happy" and "not loved."
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    English Prefixes

    Other very common prefixes that students of the English language might want to start learning include the following:

    • Prefix – Meaning – Example
    • bi, bis – two – bisect, bipolar
    • circum – around – circumspect
    • ex, e – from – exit, exhume
    • inter – between, among – interject
    • mal, male – bad, evil – malpractice
    • non – not – compliant
    • pro – forward – promote
    • sub – under – submarine
    • trans – across – transcend
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    English Root Words

    Learning common prefixes is only the beginning. By memorizing common root words and suffixes, English students will be armed with the tools needed to piece together an ever-expanding arsenal of words. Following are some examples of very common root words and suffixes:

    • Root – Meaning – Example
    • cred – believe – credible
    • duc, duct – lead – conduct
    • graph – write – autograph
    • mort – death – mortuary
    • scrib, script – write – subscription
    • therm – heat – thermostat
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    English Suffixes

    And, lastly, here are some common word suffixes to help figure out difficult words:

    • Suffix – Meaning – Example
    • able, ible – able to – salvageable
    • ism – the practice of – patriotism
    • ist – one who is occupied with – dentist
    • less – not having, lacking – hairless
    • ship – the art or skill of – friendship
    • tude – the state of – attitude
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    Figuring out the meanings of difficult words in the English language becomes a little easier with the knowledge of the most common prefixes, roots, and suffixes.

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    For more articles on affixes in English, please refer to:

    For a printable list of additional prefixes and suffixes in English, please download the supplemental English Affixes: Prefixes and Suffixes.