Most English words are made up of smaller elements: roots, prefixes and suffixes. When you know the common ones, and how to combine them, you can understand hundreds of different words.
The majority of academic vocabulary (and a lot of everyday English), uses Latin roots, prefixes and suffixes. They are especially useful if you want to study at a university in an English-speaking country or to work with English-speaking colleagues (fellow professionals or business associates).
If you already speak a Latin-based language like French, Spanish, Italian, or Portuguese, you have a huge advantage in reading academic English.
Studying the roots on the following pages can still help you see common patterns and recognize new words. It’s also easier to learn words in groups, so you can see the connections between them.
That's why there's so much information on the words made from each root, on word families and on derivations-- the ways English words can change form (and part of speech) for use in different places in a sentence.
The sections below on roots, prefixes and suffixes link to pages with more detail and practice.
To study roots, see:
If you want to practice words from a particular root, use the root words table above to find the page or pages with more information on it.
As you read new words, analyze them. Are parts familiar? Can you see a pattern? For example, if you read about a retractable blade, maybe you can make some good guesses about its meaning before you look it up (or instead of looking it up.) Don’t break your concentration unless it’s necessary to understand what you are reading.
If you know that the prefix ‘re’ means 'again', and ‘able’ means that something is possible, retractable probably refers to the possibility of ‘tracting’ something repeatedly. ‘Tract’ is also the base of ‘attract,’ ‘distract,’ and ‘traction,’ so it seems related to a pulling movement. (If you did look it up you would see that’s correct.)
Positive and Negative Prefixes
You can learn more prefixes like ‘re-‘ on the alphabetical List of Prefixes (with examples of each) and Common Greek and Latin Prefixes (a table of the same prefixes arranged by English meaning, so you can compare the Latin and Greek forms).
You can practice prefixes of location and relationship (anti-, com-, ex-, in-, sub-, sym-, and trans- plus) on 7+ Common Prefixes that Dominate Academic Vocabulary, or study and practice the Prefix 'Re-'.
There’s more information about the different ways to make words negative on the Negative Prefix List, which gives examples of each prefix and explains the differences in their meanings and use. Check your understanding on the Practice Negative Prefixes page.
Suffixes: the most Useful Word Endings
Suffixes not only can change the meanings of words, but they often change their positions in a sentence. It’s very helpful to know the different endings that belong to different parts of speech. Adding an ending can change one part of speech into another.
For example, adding ‘-ive’ to ‘act’ (a noun or verb) makes the adjective ‘active.’ If you add’ -ly’ to ‘active’ you get the adverb ‘actively.’ You could add ‘-ate’ instead to get the verb ‘activate.’ Each means something a little different and fills a different place in a sentence.
The more you recognize the different endings, the more easily you can understand what you read, or use the words correctly when you write.
It’s worth learning the various roots, prefixes and suffixes that are common in English. Knowing how they combine can help you recognize hundreds of new English words!