Although we’ve got nothing on German, the English language sometimes involves putting different “parts” of words or even whole words together to make a new term. And prefixes are a big part of this. But what exactly are prefixes? And how do you use them in your writing?
What Are Prefixes?
A “prefix” is a group of letters placed at the start of a word to change its meaning. We can even see how this works using the word “prefix” itself, which is a combination of “pre-” and “fix”:
“Pre-” is a prefix meaning “before” or “in front of.”
“Fix” is a verb meaning “attach.”
Combined, then, the word “prefix” indicates something we “attach” to the start of a word. There are many different prefixes in English. Some common examples include:
Against or opposed to
Related to the self or spontaneous
Reverse or reduce
Reverse or negate
Cause to be or put into
Out of or former
Il-, Im-, In- or Ir-
Not or negate
Illegal, immobile, insufficient, irresponsible
After, later or behind
Before or in front of
Favoring or promoting
Repeat or restore
Below or less than
Across or beyond
Reverse or negate
When to Hyphenate
In the table above, you may notice that we hyphenate the words “ex-girlfriend” and “pro-democracy.” This is because you should use a prefix with a hyphen in certain cases, including:
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In most cases after “ex-” and “self-” (e.g., self-assessment)
When combined with a proper noun (e.g., anti-Nazi)
To prevent using the same vowel twice in a row (e.g., anti-inflammatory)
To clarify meaning (e.g., to “recover” is to return to strength or regain something, but if we said we had “re-covered” something we would mean we have covered it again)
There are exceptions to these rules (e.g., “cooperate” is usually spelled without a hyphen despite the double “o”). But they are useful guidelines when you’re not sure whether to use a hyphen.
For example, the “in-” in “inaccurate” is a negation, so it is the opposite of “accurate.” However, the word “inflammable” means the same as “flammable,” not the opposite! This is because the “in-” from “inflammable” is from the same root as “en-” in words like “enrich” or “entrust.” It therefore means “cause to be,” which is very different from negating something.
As such, be careful when using prefixes, as they may not mean what they seem! And if you’d like help checking your prefix use, just let us know.