How Roots, Prefixes, and Suffixes Build Words

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).

Looking at Word Parts to Learn New Words

clipart of a flowering tree with roots exposed

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.

Roots

To study roots, see:

  • Greek & Latin Root Words Table, a list or index of all the roots covered on these pages, with their meanings, examples, and the pages each is practiced on. 

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.

tree with roots and example of a root word with prefixes and suffixes.
tree with roots and example of a root word with prefixes and suffixes.

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.)

Here's another example of how prefixes and suffixes can change the meaning and use of a root, this time with 'form'

conformity, formal, formality, format, formation, formula, formulate, inform, informallyinformative, misinform, nonconformistreformer, transformable, transformation, uninformed

Prefixes and Suffixes

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.

  • The List of Suffixes gives an alphabetical listing of the most common word endings.
  • Suffix List Arranged by Use gives the same suffixes grouped by their purpose (to form nouns, verbs, adjectives or adverbs, plurals, different verb tenses, or comparatives.) It has more examples and explains how to use the suffixes for the different parts of speech and their other uses.
  • Practice Suffixes gives the meanings of some common word family members (agree, agreeable, agreement; maximum, maximal, maximize and similar forms of minimum, reproduce and reproduction, just, justify, justification, etc., compose and composition, integrate and disintegration). Then it asks multiple-choice questions about which form would be best to use in different sentences or situations.

There’s more information in Word Families, and practice, especially with suffixes, on Word Family Practice and Word Formation Examples and Exercises.

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!

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