Word Roots and Prefixes

Robert Harris
Version Date: December 27, 2013
Previous: February 25, 2012
Original: October 13, 1997

This list contains some of the common roots and prefixes that make up the building blocks of numerous English words. Following the table of general roots and prefixes is a table of number prefixes.

How Words Work

Even though the English language has more that a million words in it, many of those words are made up of a relatively small set of roots (or base words) and a prefix. Some words also have a suffix. For example, the root word port means to carry or to bear. Attach the prefix ex, meaning out or out of, and you have the word export, to carry out. Attach the prefix im, meaning in or into and you have import, to carry in. Attach the prefix trans, meaning across, and you have transport, meaning to carry across. Now let's attach the suffix able, meaning able to be, and you have importable, exportable, and transportable.

The very words prefix and suffix are good examples, too. Pre means before and fix means to fasten or attach, so quite literally, a prefix is something attached to the beginning of something else. Suf is a variant of sub, below or under, so a suffix is something fastened underneath something else (in this case, behind the root).

Ultimate VocabularyBy learning the common roots and prefixes (and a few suffixes) you will be able to discern the meaning of many new words almost immediately. (But do look them up for confirmation.) Take the word abject, for example. If you know that ab means away or down and ject means to throw, you can easily figure out that abject doesn't mean something happy. Rather abject's root meaning of thrown down is quite close to the dictionary defintion of cast down in spirit or sunk into depression.

Now that you have learned that ject means to throw, think how many words you can define almost immediately: reject, project, inject, subject, eject, and so on. Roots are a real key to understanding the meaning of new words you come across in your reading.

Note that some modern words are formed by using abbreviated forms of other words. Thus, we see the use of the letter i for Internet in iPhone, iPod, iPad, and iTunes, indicating that these items or services work with the Internet. Similarly, the use of e for electronic appears in words such as elearning (and various forms: eLearning, E-Learning, and so on), e-commerce, and e-business. The "e-terms" seem to have been coined before the "i-terms" became popular. And note that most of the "i-terms" are trademarks, while the others are general descriptors: "I'm going to download some iTunes from Apple's e-commerce site because I love e-music." At any rate, these abbreviated forms are not traditional prefixes, but because they are indeed attached to the front of what amounts to root words, they could be considered functional prefixes. 

Enjoy this list, together with the discovery of new words and the secret code behind much of the English language.

When you are ready, try the Word Roots Worksheet 1 to see how well you understand how roots and prefixes work.
Then try Word Roots Worksheet 2 for more fun.
And for a number challenge, try the Number Prefixes Worksheet. You'll love it.

Want to turn these roots into vocabulary learning?
Learn creatively! See Creative Ways to Learn Vocabulary Words. It's really fun. I'm not kidding.

General Roots and Prefixes

Root or Prefix Meaning Examples
a, an not, without atheist, anarchy, anonymous apathy, aphasia, anemia, atypical, anesthesia
ab away, down, from, off absent, abduction, aberrant, abstemious, abnormal, abstract, absorb
acro high, tip, top acrobat, acrophobia, acronym, acromegaly, acropolis
act do, move action, react, transaction, proactive, activity, activation, deactivate
ad to, toward admit, addition, advertisement, adherent, admonish, address, adhesive, adept, adjust
alt high altitude, altimeter, alto, contralto, altocumulus, exalt
ambul to walk ambulatory, amble, ambulance, somnambulist, perambulate, preamble
anima soul, life animation, inanimate, animal, anime, equanimity, animism, animus
ante before anteroom, antebellum, antedate antecedent, antediluvian
anti, ant against, opposite antisocial, antiseptic, antithesis, antibody, antichrist, antinomies, antifreeze, antipathy, antigen, antibiotic, antidote, antifungal, antidepressant
arm weapon army, armament, disarm, rearm, armistice, armor, armory, arms
audi to hear audience, auditory, audible, auditorium, audiovisual, audition, audiobook
auto self automobile, automatic, autograph, autonomous, autoimmune, autopilot, autobiography
be thoroughly bedecked, besmirch, besprinkled, begrudge, begrime, belie, bemoan
bell war belligerent, antebellum, bellicose, rebel
bene good, well benefactor, beneficial, benevolent, benediction, beneficiary, benefit
bi two bicycle, bifocals, biceps, billion, binary, bivalve, bimonthly, bigamy, bimetal, biathlete, bicarbonate
bio life, living biology, biography, biodiversity, bioavailability, bioflavonoid, biofuel, biohazard, biomass, biorhythm 
cede, ceed, cess to go, to yield succeed, proceed, precede, recede, secession, exceed, succession, excess 
chron time chronology, chronic, chronicle, chronometer, anachronism
cide, cis to kill, to cut fratricide, suicide, incision, excision, circumcision, precise, concise, precision, homicide, genocide, regicide
circum around circumnavigate, circumflex, circumstance, circumcision, circumference, circumorbital, circumlocution, circumvent, circumscribe, circulatory
clud, clus claus to close include, exclude, clause, claustrophobia, enclose, exclusive, reclusive, conclude, preclude
con, com with, together convene, compress, contemporary, converge, compact, confluence, concatenate, conjoin, combine, convert, compatible, consequence, contract
contra, counter against, opposite contradict, counteract, contravene, contrary, counterspy, contrapuntal, contraband, contraception, contrast, controversy, counterfeit, counterclaim, counterargument, counterclaim, counterpoint, counterrevolution
cred to believe credo, credible, credence, credit, credential, credulity, incredulous, creed, incredible
commun to share commune, community, communism, communicable, communication, commonality, incommunicado
cycl circle, wheel bicycle, cyclical, cycle, encliclical, motorcycle, tricycle, cyclone

Are you new to the English language? This is my recommended book from Amazon.com.

Want to build your vocabulary? Check out my list of 1062 really useful words. 

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End note: In my second year of Latin in high school, we were required to find twenty-five Latin word roots and for each root to find five English words containing the root. This exercise not only helped to increase my vocabulary, but it gave me a valuable insight into the way many English words are constructed. As technology advances, new words are coined to cover some new idea or thing, and often these words are created from existing roots. A little root knowledge here can therefore help us to begin to understand a new word even before we read about its meaning.

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About the author:
Robert Harris is a writer and educator with more than 25 years of teaching experience at the college and university level. RHarris at virtualsalt.com