There’s no better way to learn negative prefixes than to practice choosing and using them. That is certainly the best way to discover the distinctions between some that seem similar.
The words used on this page are almost all from the Academic Word List (AWL)—very important for college or professional reading. I was impressed by how many words in the AWL can take a negative prefix.
We make most of the words (even many with Latin roots) negative by adding ‘un-,‘ but the Latin prefix ‘in’ (and its variations il-, im-, and ir-) is also common. The negative forms of a few words begin with ‘de,’ ‘dis,’ or ‘mis.’
Negative prefixes change the meaning of a word into its opposite, so it’s important to recognize them. This page should help. It’s also a good way to review almost 60 words from the AWL—and enjoy the process!
Most of the negative words on this page-- and all of the words on the quiz-- are adjectives. However, many are closely related to nouns and verbs. If you know the adjectives and understand how verbs can change to adjectives or nouns (and back), you should also recognize almost all of the nouns, verbs, and adverbs made from the same roots.
For example, person can deactivate (verb) a bomb. It will then be deactivated (the adjective.) The process is called 'deactivation' (a noun.) See Suffix List as well as Word Families for more explanation of the ways one part of speech can change into another like that,
Many of these words lend themselves to word play. Shakespeare was a master at that. The word play below is not brilliant like his, but it does point out some useful connections and differences. Have fun with it, and with the practice questions that follow!
A person can be irresolute (unsure) about what to do for an unresolved problem.
It’s irresponsible to leave an unresponsive (unconscious) person unattended.
Here’s a silly paragraph that demonstrates a lot of negative prefixes at once:
“The spy raced to decode the secret instructions for deactivating the bomb. He needed to disarm it before it exploded, disfiguring his face and disintegrating the fragile document he had been assigned to protect. He shivered involuntarily. He was well aware that if he failed to disassemble the bomb, the damage to his mission (and his face!) would be irreversible.”
Collocations are words that are frequently used together. Many combinations are so common that people expect to hear them together, so a different word would sound strange. Speaking is a little easier if you can recognize and use these phrases to express common ideas.
The first three sets of questions (12 total) involve collocations. Each of four questions has a noun that matches with one of four negative-prefix adjectives. Each adjective only fits well with one of the nouns. Choose the best fit.
Question 13 asks you to find the one word among many negative adjectives which can NOT be used to talk about behavior. Questions 14-24 ask you to choose the best explanation or meaning for a word.
How did you do? If these were hard for you, try some of the vocabulary demonstration pages in the Academic Vocabulary section of Learn English Vocabulary.
If you would like to know more about collocations, English Club has an excellent explanation of their importance and some pages of the most important ones to learn, as well as quizzes to check yourself. If you don’t already know them, be sure to learn the different collocations for ‘make’ and ‘do.’ English speakers do NOT use them interchangeably.
For example, we make appointments, phone calls, and mistakes. We also ‘make money’ (= earn money) and ‘make trouble’ (= cause problems). However, we do (never make) exercises, homework, or the dishes. There are many other useful examples on the English Club pages above.
There’s more about these prefixes and others at Negative Prefix List. You might also be interested in Adjective Matching Games (also using vocabulary from the Academic Word List) or other TOEFL & IELTS Vocabulary (below). Or try some other ESL quizzes or tests.