Negative Prefix List: the Top 6

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

Picture of a flat earth, & a message that negative prefixes all reverse a root's meaning, but they don't all have the same meaning. Examples: an uninformed vs a misinformed person, & disinformation.

I have added the parts of speech (verb, adjective, noun) to the examples because some people have been looking for negative adjectives or negative verbs.

Go straight to the examples:

  • in- (or il-, im-, or ir-)

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.' 

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.


 1. De-

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

The list above is all verbs. Any of them could be made into adjectives by adding -ed (or -d if the verb ends in 'e' already: decoded, deflated, etc.) Several could also be made into nouns: deactivation, decomposition, decontamination, deflation, etc. Decrease can be used as a noun as it is.

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 (verb/ adjective/ noun or vb/ adj when all or both are common): disaffected (adj.), disable/ disabled/ disability, disagree/ disagreeable/ disagreement, disbelief (noun), disfigure/ disfigured, dishonor/ dishonored/ dishonorable, disinfect/ disinfected, disinfection, disinherit/ disinherited, disintegrate/ disintegrated/ disintegration, disloyal (adj.) and disloyalty (noun), displease/ displeased or displeasing/ displeasure, disproportionate (adj.), distasteful (adj.) and distaste (noun), distrust (verb or noun)/ distrustful (adj.).

(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.

Adjective Examples: illegal, illegible, illiterate, illogical, immature, impatient, imperfect, impossible, imprecise, inaccessible, inaccurate, inadequate, inappropriate, incapable, incoherent, incompatible, incomplete, inconceivable, inconsistent, incredible, indefinite, indiscreet, inevitable, infinite, inflexible, insecure, insignificant, insubordinate, insufficient, invalid, invariable, invisible, involuntary, irrational, irregular, irrelevant, irreparable, irresistible, irresponsible, irreversible, etc.

A few noun examples using the same roots: illegibility, illiteracy, immaturity, impatience, imperfection, impossibility, imprecision, inaccessibility, inaccuracy, inadequacy, inappropriateness, incapability, incoherence, incompatibility, incompleteness, inconsistency, indiscretion, inevitability, infinity, inflexibility, insecurity, insignificance, insubordination, insufficiency, invalidity,  invariability, invisibility, irrationality, irregularity, irrelevance, irresponsibility.  

Most of these do not have verb forms.    

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 (noun), misdemeanor(noun), misdiagnose (to diagnose wrongly)/ misdiagnosed/ misdiagnosis, misinform/ misinformed/ misinformation, misinterpret/ misinterpreted/ misinterpretation, mislead/ misled or misleading, misplace/ misplaced, misspell/ misspelled/ misspelling, mistake/ mistaken/ mistake, mistrust (both a noun and a verb, but weaker than distrust), misunderstand/ misunderstood/ misunderstanding..

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-- nouns: nonconformist or nonconformity, nonentity, nonexistence, nonintervention, nonsense, etc.

Adjectives: nonconforming, nonexistent, nonmetallic, nonpartisan, nonresident, nonrestrictive (but unrestricted), nonsensical, nonstop.

I can't think of any verbs that begin with non-.

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-

(Adjective) Examples: unable, unacknowledged, unaffected (not affected at all; disaffected means affected badly), unafraid, unaided, unaltered or unalterable, unambiguous, unanticipated, unapproachable, unassigned, unattainable, unavailable, unaware, unceasing, uncertain, unclear, unconventional, uncooperative, uncoordinated, unenforced, unexposed, unfocused, unfriendly*, unhelpful, uninformed, unknown, unmodified, unnatural, unpleasant, unpredictable, unprofessional, unrealistic, unrefined, unresolved, unrestricted, unscheduled,  unstable, untouched, unwilling, unwise, etc.

*(in this case -ly isn’t for an adverb. Both friendly & unfriendly are adjectives)

A few of these have related nouns including unavailability, unawareness, uncertainty, unenforceability, unpleasantness, unpredictability, unreality, and untouchability, as well as inability, instability, and irresolution. 

Very few are verbs: undo and (only informally, on Facebook) unfriend.

There are many more examples of negative prefixes on 50 Word Roots, though not nearly all the possible forms. (You can make almost any adjective negative with ‘un-’ except the negatives that we carried over from Latin with ‘in-‘ (or ‘il-‘, ‘im-‘ or ’ir-‘. Remember that these 'in-' prefixes can also mean ‘in’ or ‘into.’) 

You can find the negatives on that page both in the main list and sometimes pointed out, especially when different forms of a word take different negative prefixes. I counted the different negative prefix uses—all useful words that I have read and might use. None of these Latin roots took the prefix ‘mis-.‘ Four (nouns and adjectives) took ‘non-,‘ 13 took ‘de-‘; 9 ‘dis-‘ 22 ‘in-‘’im-‘, etc., and well over 30 (not all written down) took ‘un-.’

Other prefixes, besides the 6 on this negative prefix list, can sometimes give a negative connotation to words. (Note 'sub-' above.) Contra- counter-, and ob- also often negate the meaning of a oot. 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 Formation Examples & Exercises.

Understanding suffix use in English can give a big boost to your vocabulary too. See Suffix List or List of Suffixes.

If you teach English, br sure to check out Root, Prefix, and Suffix Worksheets. The Common Prefix packet contains printable pdf lessons with all the information from this page, the List of Prefixes, and a great deal of practice (with negative prefixes as well as all the most common prefixes) for just $3. There are also root, suffix, and combination packets. 

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