Grammarbites part 8 – Building words, prefixes and suffixes

Part 1 – introduction

Part 8 – Building words, prefixes and suffixes

Part 6 – sentence types

Part 5 – nouns

Part 2 – auxiliary and modal verbs

Part 3 – regular and irregular main verbs

Part 7 – pronunciation – the basic sounds of English

Part 4 – pronunciation – consonant clusters

This batch took me forever! Prefixes and suffixes are a major and sometimes overlooked aspect of English. The websites and books I consulted either had too little information with a random selection of prefixes and suffixes, or too much information (Wikitionary has 1,443 prefixes and 703 suffixes). Among other things, the same letter or group of letters can function in different ways: sometimes as a prefix or suffix with one meaning (or one of a small group of different meanings), sometimes as an integral part of a word which had that meaning originally, but which now doesn’t, and sometimes as a completely unrelated word. I had to find the right number of best examples
1.7 – Building words with grammar and meaning

In English, a lot of information about grammar and meaning is given by a letter or letters added to the end of a word. Most nouns have singular and plural (-s) forms, most verbs have V, Vs, Ving and V-ps and/or V-pp forms, and some adjectives have comparative (-er) and superlative (-est) forms. These are all inflectional suffixes, which give information about grammar and do not change a word from one word class to another.

There are also derivational suffixes, which change a word from one word class to another, or change the meaning of a word within a word class:











er and –ment, –ial and –able, and –ly are common suffixes for nouns, adjectives and adverbs. In this case, the basic form of all the words is the verb. In other cases, the noun or adjective is the basic form. A common verb suffix is –ise (organise).

Like most verbs, manage has the inflectional forms manages, managing and managed. Like most countable nouns, manager has the plural form managers, while management is uncountable. 

Other information about meaning can be given by a letter or letters added to the beginning of a word. Two common prefixes are un– (unmanageable and unmanageably) and mis– (mismanage and mismanagement). Prefixes do not usually change the word class of a word. It is common to add two or three suffixes and sometimes possible to add more. It is possible but less common to add more than one prefix.

1.8 – Inflectional suffixes

Inflectional suffixes (and adverbial –ly) also occur in others ways in different word classes.

s: most plural countable nouns (times, years, ways, days, things) and all verbs (except modal verbs) (says, gets, makes, goes, sees)

some singular countable and uncountable nouns (news, basis, series, analysis, species)

some adverbs and prepositions (sometimes, upstairs/downstairs, beside(s), upward(s)/downward(s)/toward(s)/forward(s)/backward(s), overseas)

most possessive pronouns (its; yours, hers, ours, theirs)

ing: all verbs (except modal verbs) (being, having, doing, saying, getting)

many nouns (building, morning, meeting, training, evening)

some adjectives (following, interesting, existing, leading, working)

some prepositions (during, including)

ed: all regular verbs havea V-ps/V-pp form ending with –ed (looked, used, wanted, worked, needed), most of which can be used as adjectives, but some have become adjectives in their own right (concerned, involved, interested, united, limited).

er: regular comparative adjectives (newer, older, greater, higher, smaller)

many nouns (teacher, manager, worker, officer, computer; number, power, water, mother, minister)

some basic adjectives (other, proper, upper, inner, clever (>cleverer))

some adverbs or prepositions (ever/never/however, over/under, earlier/later, together, either/neither, after)

est: regular superlative adjectives (newest, oldest, greatest, highest, smallest)

some nouns (interest, forest)

some verbs (suggest, arrest)

some basic adjectives (honest, modest).

ly: many adverbs (only, really, probably, actually, particularly)

some nouns (family, assembly, ally, monopoly, rally)

some verbs (apply, supply, reply, imply, rely)

some adjectives (early, only, likely, lovely, friendly). An adjective ending in –ly cannot be made into an adverb ending with –ly: She was friendly > (x) She behaved friendlily.

1.9 – Derivational suffixes

Some common word endings are:


s plurals and news, basis etc
ace/-ice surface, service
age language, village
al material, animal
ant/-ance/-ent/-ence restaurant, performance, patient, experience
dom freedom, kingdom
er/-eer/-or/-ee number, volunteer, director, committee
ess process, princess
hood childhood, neighbourhood
ian/-an/-n politician, historian, American
ic music, public
ing building, morning
ion information, completion, competition, promotion, institution, discussion
ism/-ist criticism, scientist
ive executive, objective
logy/-logist/-nomy/-nomist technology, psychologist, economy, economist
ment government, development
ness business, illness
ry secretary, gallery, history, century, entry
ship relationship, membership
th health, growth
ure figure, nature
y/-cy/-ty company, policy, authority


s, –ing, –ed (regular), –en/-n (irregular and happen, open etc)
age manage, encourage
ate/-iate create, associate
ect expect, affect
ent represent, present
er/-or offer, monitor
ify identify, justify
ise/-ize reali(s/z)e, recogni(s/z)e)
ish establish, publish
ist exist, insist
ion mention, question
ure ensure, measure


er/-or comparatives and other, major etc
est superlatives and honest, modest
able/-ible available, possible
al local, social
ant/-ent important, different
ary/-ory necessary, statutory
ate private, appropriate
ed concerned, involved
ese Japanese, Chinese
etic/-ic/-ical/-etical genetic, public, political, theoretical
ful successful, useful
ian/-n Christian, Australian
ing following, interesting
ish English, foolish
ist communist, socialist
ive effective, positive
less endless, useless
ly early, only
ous various, famous
y easy, happy


ly only, really etc
ward(s) forward(s), afterward(s)
wise (otherwise, likewise)

Even in each word class, the same ending can function in different ways.

A teacher, manager and worker are people who teach, manage and work (verbs), while an officer is a person related to an office (a noun), and a computer is a thing which can compute (a verb). A mother and minister are people who mother and minister, while people number things using numbers, power things using power and water things using water.

As well, most of these have an associated abstract noun meaning “the big idea of Ns and Ving”: teaching, management, work, computation, motherhood and ministry. This shows another way of changing word classes, called conversion, in which a word is simply used as another word class without changing its form: I work at my work. This happens most often between nouns and verbs, as with work, number, power, water, mother and minister.

The –er of teacher, manager, worker, officer and computer is a suffix; it changes a verb into a noun. The –er of number, power, water, mother and minister is a not a suffix but a full part of the word. We can change teacher, manager, worker, officer and computer back into teach, manage, work, office and computer, but we can’t change number, power, water, mother and minister into numb, pow, wat, moth, fath and minist. Numb, pow and moth are completely different words, and wat, fath and minist are not English words. Note that number (/nʌmə/) is also the comparative form of the adjective numb (nʌm).

4 – Derivational prefixes

Some common word beginnings are:

ab– absence abuse absorb abolish absolute abstract
ad-/a-/ac-/af-/ag-/al-/ap-/ar-/as-/at– advice account agreement ally appeal asset admit ascend accept allow announce appear arrest assault attend adequate accurate aggregate appropriate
afterafternoon afterward(s)
auto– autonomy automatic
back– background, backward(s)
be– behavio(u)r belief become begin before below between behind because
bi– billion bicycle
bio– biology biography
co-/col-/com-/con-/cor– co(-)operation college company condition correlation  coincide collect compare common constant correct
de– decision department describe determine dependent desperate
di– district dimension divide diminish direct distant
dis– discussion disease discover display distinct
en-/em– environment emphasis enjoy employ entire
ex-/e– experience, expect, educate, existing, evident
for– forget, forgive, forward, formal, forever
fore– forecast forehead
in-/il-/im-/ir– information illusion image include illustrate improve illegal important individual irrelevant indeed into
inter-/intro– interest interpret introduce international
out– output outcome outline outside outstanding
over– overcome overlook overall overseas overnight
para– paragraph, parameter
per– perspective perception perform persuade perfect permanent perhaps
pre–  president presence present (v) prepare present (adj, n) previous
pro– problem process provide produce professional proper
re– result report require remember recent responsible regardless
sub-/sup– subject support submit suppose substantial
super– supervision supermarket superb superior
sur– surface survey survive surround
syn-/sym– syndrome system syllable symptom sympathetic
tele– television, telephone
trans– transaction, transition, transfer, transport
un– unemployment uncertainty unable unlikely until unless
under– understand undertake underground underneath
uni– union university unite unique uniform
up– update upset upstairs upward(s) upon

Some prefixes have more than one meaning. a– by itself has six meanings, and some of those have sub-meanings. But a– can also be part of another prefix (ab-, ad-, after-, an-, auto- and many more) or a full part of the word.

Some prefixes have more than one form, and change to match the first letter in the main word or root; ad– changes to a-, ac-, af-, ag-, al-, an-, ap-, aras– and at-. But some of these can also be part of other prefixes, or a full part of the word.

Some prefixes always or usually join whole words, while others always or usually join a root which has a meaning but which is not a word by itself. Some easily join modern words, while others are restricted to words which already exist, and some of those join original English words and others join words taken from French, Latin or Greek. Some easily join nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs, while others are restricted to one word class. Sometimes, in very old words, the original meaning of the prefix or the main word or root has changed or been completely lost, and the new word has its own meaning.

Some of these issues can be seen in the words prefix and suffix. Prefix is clearly pre+fix or letters which are fixed before a word. Suffix is less clearly sub+fix with a change of form – letters which are fixed ‘under’ a word (some people use postfix instead). 

Pairs or groups of prefixes with opposite or similar meanings make it easy to build vocabulary. Many of these are related to the ideas of up/down, front/back, in/out, to/from, before/after and not.

up/down: a-/de-, hyper-/hypo-, over-/under-, super-/sur-/sub-/sup-, up-/down

front/back: fore-/after-/back

in/out: in-/im-/out-/ex

to/from: ad-/ab

before/after: fore-/after-, pre-/post-

not: an-, dis-, il-/in-/im-/ir-, non-, un

Some opposites can also be made with a suffix: limited > unlimited or limitless, and some words have an opposite word: happy > unhappy and sad (but we don’t say unsad).

Prefixes relating to numbers and measurement are common: semi-/hemi– (1/2), uni-/sim-/mono– (1), du-/bi-/di-/dis– (2), tri-/ter-/tris– (3), quad-/quater-/tetra– (4), quin-/penta– (5), sex-/hexa– (6), sept-/hepta– (7), octo– (8), novem– (9), dec (10), centi– (hundred), milli-/kilo– (thousand), micro-/mega– (million, small, big), nano-/giga– (trillion, very small, very big), multi-/poly– (many). There are many scientific and medical prefixes and suffixes: electro-/techno-/cyber-, physio-/psycho-, cranio-/cardio-/gastro-/neuro-.

Prefixes and suffixes join with the main word or root in different ways to produce different meanings. You can lock one door: it is lockable. You can’t lock another door: it is un+lockable. A third door is locked and you can unlock it: it is unlock+able. So unlockable can mean ‘not able to be locked’, or ‘able to be unlocked’.


One thought on “Grammarbites part 8 – Building words, prefixes and suffixes

  1. Pingback: Grammarbites part 11 – passive voice | Never Pure and Rarely Simple

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