Negative Prefix List: the Top 6

What's the difference between dis- and mis-, un- and non-? This negative prefix list can help you understand the important prefixes at the beginnings of words that can change a word's meaning into its opposite.

Negative Prefix List: Uses

  • De- is almost always used before a verb, or a word formed from that verb, and means to reverse the verb’s action, as in dehydrate, deregulate, or detoxify. (It has other meanings in addition to making a verb negative. For example, it means 'down' in decline, decrease, and depression.)
  • Dis- can be used with verbs, nouns, adjectives or adverbs. It also has other meanings besides making words negative.
  • In-, non-, and un- are usually used for nouns, adjectives, or the adverbs formed from them (though un- is also used for verbs.) They all mean not _____. (In- is the negative prefix in Latin. non- means 'not' in Latin, and many words using it as a prefix came into English via French.  Un- comes from Old English.)
  • Mis- (often from Old English, or in some words from French) is used with verbs (and adjectives and adverbs made from them), as well as nouns. It means bad, wrong, or wrongly.
  • Non-  usually means not, but also may mean lack of something. 
  • Un- is the most common negative prefix in English. If in doubt, it's the best one to try. Even many words originally from Latin roots are negated in English with 'un.' 
red circle with slash meaning 'no.'
red circle with slash meaning 'no.'

Note that sometimes one prefix is used for an adjective, and different ones are used for related nouns or verbs.

For example:

  • unable, inability, (to) disable;
  • unbalanced, imbalance, (to) unbalance;
  • unstable, instability, (to) destabilize.
  • To deactivate is to make something inactive.

Usually, however, the same prefix serves both adjective and noun: uncertain, uncertainty; unwilling, unwillingness; unfriendly, unfriendliness, inadequate, inadequacy, disloyal, disloyalty, etc.

Examples: 

 1. De-

Examples: deactivate, decode, decommission, decompose, deconstruct, decontaminate, decrease, deflate, deform, demythologize, derail.

Note that the prefix de- in Latin (and in words that originate in Latin) has other, contrary meanings as well as sometimes making words negative. (See List of Prefixes.) It is often used as an intensifier, meaning completely (as in demand), as well as meaning from, down, or away. When used with an English verb to make a new word, it works as a negative. (Debug, defrost, devalue.)

2. Dis-

Examples: disaffected, disability, disagree, disagreement, disagreeable, disbelief, disfigure, dishonorable, disinfect, disinherit, disintegrate, disloyal, displeased, disproportionate, distasteful, distrust.

(Tasteful refers to something that shows good taste or judgment. Things which are pleasant to the taste buds are ‘tasty.’ Distasteful refers to tasks that are unpleasant. Foods that lack flavor are tasteless. A lack of good taste in aesthetics can also be called tasteless.)

3. In- (or il-, im-, or ir-)

In- often changes to  'il-' before l; 'im-' before b, m, or p; and 'ir-' before r. These changes make it easier to pronounce.

Examples: illegal, illegible, illiterate, illogical, imbalance, immature, immaturity, impatient, imperfect, impossible, imprecise, inability, inaccessible, inaccurate, inadequate, inappropriate, incapable, incoherent, incompatible, incomplete, inconceivable, inconsistent, incredible, indefinite, indiscretion, inevitable, infinite, inflexible, insecure, insignificant, instability, insubordination, insufficient, invalid, invariably, invisible, involuntary, irrational, irregular, irrelevant, irreparable, irresistible, irresponsible, irreversible, etc.

Exceptions in which ‘in-‘ does not negate, but intensifies: Inflammable has the same meaning as flammable-- something that burns easily. Their opposite is nonflammable. The same is true for habitable and inhabitable (the negative is uninhabitable). Valuable and invaluable also are synonyms— except that invaluable is even stronger. It means something is priceless: so valuable that a person would not want to give it up for any amount of money.

4. Mis-

Examples: misconduct, misdemeanor, misdiagnose (to diagnose wrongly,, misinform, misinterpret, mislead, misleading, misplace, misspell, mistake, mistaken, mistrust, misunderstand.

Note that a misdiagnosed disease is diagnosed incorrectly, as compared to an undiagnosed disease, which has not been diagnosed at all. Similarly, a misinformed person has been given wrong information, while an uninformed person simply does not know much about a subject.

5. Non-

Examples: nonconformist, nonentity, nonexistent, nonintervention, nonmetallic, nonpartisan, nonresident, nonrestrictive, nonsense, nonstop, etc.

Some words can be negated either with non- or with another negative. In those cases non- has a more neutral connotation. For example, nonstandard means not according to the usual standard, but substandard is below the standard: not good. Nonreligious means not religious, but irreligious means more actively opposed to religion.

6. Un-

Examples: unable, unacknowledged, unaffected (not affected at all; disaffected means affected badly), unafraid, unaided, unaltered, unambiguous, unanticipated, unapproachable, unassigned, unattainable, unavailable, unaware, unceasing, uncertain, unclear, unconventional, uncooperative, uncoordinated, unenforced, unexposed, unfocused, unfriendly (in this case -ly isn’t for an adverb; friendly & unfriendly are adjectives), unhelpful, uninformed, unknown, unmodified, unnatural, unpleasant, unpredictable, unprofessional, unrealistic, unrefined, unresolved, unrestricted, unscheduled,  unstable, untouched, unwilling, unwise, etc.


There are other prefixes, besides the 6 on this negative prefix list, that can sometimes give a negative connotation to words. (Note 'sub-' above.) These 6 are the most common, however. They are worth knowing!

The best way to learn the different negative prefixes is to work (or play) with them. You can do both on Practice Negative Prefixes. It emphasizes academic vocabulary, so is also a good way to review about 60 common words on the Academic Word List.

You can also see how some of these negative prefixes (de-, in-, and un- ) are used in Word Families, Word Family Practice, and Word Builder

Return from Negative Prefix List to Roots, Prefixes and Suffixes.

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