Prefixes in the English Language

There are a number of prefixes in the English language. Prefixes are a group of letters which are placed at the beginning of a word, also known as a root word.  When a prefix is added to the root word, the meaning of the original word changes. Phew! That can be a bit difficult to follow. This article will help you by looking at a number of prefixes that have the same function. 

PREFIXES IN THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE

THE IM PREFIX

Example 1

  • ‘The tall man is very polite.’
Prefixes in the English Language - Simply Better English
Prefixes in the English Language – Simply Better English

The sentence above tells us that the man has manners. However, if we place the letters ‘im’ in front of the word ‘polite‘, the meaning changes:

  • ‘The tall man is very impolite.’

The sentence now tells us that the man is not polite and therefore has no manners.

Example 2

  • ‘It would be possible to climb the mountain.’

This sentence tells us that the mountain can be climbed. However, if we place the ‘im’ prefix in front of the word ‘possible‘, the sentence takes the opposite meaning.

  • ‘It would be impossible to climb the mountain.’

This sentence now means it is not possible to the climb the mountain.

Here are some more words with the ‘im’ prefix.

Original Word
Prefix
New Word
New Meaning
balance im imbalance not balanced
mature im immature not mature
measurable im immeasurable cannot be measured
moveable im immovable cannot be moved
patient im impatient not patient
practical im impractical not practical
proper im improper not proper
pure im impure not pure

 

Tip: every word that begins with the letters ‘im’ is not necessarily a word with a prefix attached to it. For example, the words ‘image‘ and ‘imitation‘ do not contain prefixes; they are words in their own right.

THE IN AND UN PREFIX

The ‘in’ and ‘un’ prefixes are similar to the ‘im’ prefix. There inclusion in the equivalent of adding the word ‘not‘ to a sentence.

Example 3

  • ‘Judy’s drawing is complete.’
Prefixes in the English Language - Simply Better English
Prefixes in the English Language – Simply Better English

The sentence above means Judy has finished her drawing. If we add the ‘in’ prefix to the sentence, before the word ‘complete‘, it takes the opposite meaning.

  • ‘Judy’s drawing is incomplete.’

This sentence now means that Judy has not finished her drawing.

Example 4

  • ‘Mark’s history book is accurate.’

This sentence shows that the facts in the book are correct. By adding the ‘in’ prefix before the word ‘accurate‘, the sentence shows that the facts in the history book are not correct.

  • ‘Mark’s history book is inaccurate.’

Here is another table of prefixes. This table shows examples of how to use the ‘in’ and ‘un’ prefixes.

Original Word
Prefix
New Word
New Meaning
ability in inability not able
capable in incapable not capable
correct in incorrect not correct
frequent in infrequent not frequent
valid in invalid not valid
common un uncommon not common
fair un unfair not fair
healthy un unhealthy not healthy
helpful un unhelpful not helpful
real un unreal not real

 

Quiz Sign - Simply Better English
Quiz Sign – Simply Better English
Activity 1

Edit the following sentences to include either the ‘im’, ‘un’ or ‘in’ prefix. Use the tables already provided to help you.

  • He is a capable pupil.
  • Barry is such a patient person.
  • My little sister is very mature.
  • I like to eat chocolate because it is healthy.
  • The buses are so frequent.

EXCEPTIONS

There are always exceptions to the rules in English. If we look at the word ‘unpack’ it does not mean to not pack a suitcase. However, like the words we have already looked at, it does have the opposite meaning to the word pack.

  • ‘I have packed my suitcase.’
Prefixes in the English Language - Simply Better English
Prefixes in the English Language – Simply Better English

The above sentence means: I have put items in my suitcase.

  • ‘I have unpacked my suitcase.’

By adding ‘un‘ in front of the word ‘packed‘, the sentence now means: I have taken the items out of my suitcase.

THE DIS PREFIX

The following table provides examples of how to use the ‘dis’ prefix.

Original Word
Prefix
New Word
New Meaning
agree dis disagree not agree
appear dis disappear not visible
believe dis disbelieve not believe
honest dis dishonest not honest
like dis dislike not like
loyal dis disloyal not loyal
obey dis disobey not obey
unite dis disunite not united

 

Quiz Sign - Simply Better English
Quiz Sign – Simply Better English
Activity 2

The sentences below have a word missing. Look at the table above and use the words in the ‘New Word’ column to fill in the gaps.

  • Jan was … to his team.
  • The criminal was ….
  • The magician could ….
  • I always … with Anna.

THE MIS PREFIX

This prefix also changes the meaning of the word and often gives the word a negative meaning.

Example 5

  • ‘The shopkeeper heard the customer.’

This is a positive sentence. When the ‘mis’ prefix is included in front of the word ‘heard‘, the sentence is no longer positive.

‘The shopkeeper misheard the customer.’

Now it means that the shopkeeper did not hear the customer properly.

This next table shows examples of how to use the ‘mis’ prefix.

Original Word
Prefix
New Word
New Meaning
behave mis misbehave did not behave
dial mis misdial did not dial correctly
judge mis misjudge did not judge correctly
spell mis misspell did not spell correctly
treat mis mistreat did not treat nicely
understand mis misunderstand did not understand

Similar to when using the ‘im‘ prefix, every word that begins with the letters ‘mis’ (and the letter combinations looked at in this article) are not necessarily prefixes. We need to remember, the root word is a word in its own right.

As an example, look at the sentence below:

  • ‘There was a misprint in the newspaper.’

Tip: The word ‘print’ is a root word and so, in this case, the word ‘misprint’ contains a prefix. It is helpful to use this tip to help you discover whether a word contains a prefix or not.

Quiz Sign - Simply Better English
Quiz Sign – Simply Better English
Activity 3

Read the sentences below. Each sentence has a prefix, however, some of the root words have an incorrect prefix attached to them. Write down whether each sentence is correct or incorrect. Try to find the correct prefixes for the mistakes too.

  • I always misdial my mum’s number.
  • The clown was dishonest.
  • My carpark ticket was unvalid.
  • I am so inpatient.
  • The referee is unfair.

RECAP

This article has looked at a number of prefixes in the English language. When looking at prefixes, always keep in mind that a prefix changes the meaning of the original word and can often, but not always, takes on the opposite meaning.

Hopefully, this article was able to help you to get your head around prefixes. However, this article explores just some prefixes used in the English language – there are much more to discover. To get some further information, why not take an online English class?

ANSWERS

Here are the answers to the activities in the article.  Feel free to write your results in the comments section.

Activity 1
  • He is an incapable pupil.
  • Barry is such an impatient person.
  • My little sister is very immature.
  • I like to eat chocolate because it is unhealthy.
  • The buses are so infrequent.
Activity 2
  • Jan was disloyal to his team.
  • The criminal was dishonest.
  • The magician could disappear.
  • I always disagree with Anna.
Activity 3
  • I always misdial my mum’s number. (This is correct.)
  • The clown was dishonest. (This is correct.)
  • My carpark ticket was unvalid. (This is incorrect. The sentence should be: My carpark ticket was invalid.)
  • I am so inpatient. (This is incorrect. The sentence should be: I am so impatient.)
  • The referee is unfair. (This is correct.)

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