Prefixes and How to Use Them
  • 3-minute read
  • 14th November 2018

Prefixes and How to Use Them

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:

Prefix

Meaning

Example

Anti-

Against or opposed to

Antisocial, antiviral

Auto-

Related to the self or spontaneous

Automatic, autobiography

De-

Reverse or reduce

Devalue, decode

Dis-

Reverse or negate

Disobey, disappear

En-

Cause to be or put into

Enact, encase

Ex-

Out of or former

Extract, ex-girlfriend

Il-, Im-, In- or Ir-

Not or negate

Illegal, immobile, insufficient, irresponsible

Mis-

Incorrect

Misbehave, misspell

Post-

After, later or behind

Postseason, postscript

Pre-

Before or in front of

Prefix, prefrontal

Pro-

Favoring or promoting

Proclaim, pro-democracy

Re-

Repeat or restore

Refresh, rewrite

Sub-

Below or less than

Submarine, substandard

Trans-

Across or beyond

Transatlantic, transgender

Un-

Reverse or negate

Unzip, undo

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.

Tricky Prefixes

Finally, a quick warning. The English language has borrowed lots of words from lots of places, so it is common for similar words to have different meanings. And the same applies to prefixes.

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.

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