GrammarPhile Blog

Suffixes and Prefixes: The Basics

Posted by Kelly Creighton   Nov 15, 2018 7:30:00 AM

Suffix? Prefix? Affix?

As you may already know, a prefix is that string of coherent letters that we add (or “affix”) to the beginning of a word, and suffixes are letters that we add to the end of a word. However, they have a lot of usage rules and grammatical quirks to master. And although they’re small, they yield a lot of grammatical power, as they can significantly alter the entire meaning of a word or sentence (which is in fact their sole purpose most of the time). Spelling them can be challenging sometimes, too.

So where do you begin when considering suffixes and prefixes? Here are the basics, as you consider when and how to use and spell them.

Common Suffixes

According to Scholastic, the most common suffixes used include:

  • -able, -ible
  • -al, -ial
  • -ed
  • -en
  • -er
  • -er
  • -est
  • -ful
  • -ic
  • -ing
  • -ion, -tion
  • -ation, -ition
  • -ity, -ty
  • -ive, -ative, -itive
  • -less
  • -ly
  • -ment
  • -ness
  • -ous, -eous, -ious
  • -s, -es
  • -y

Common Prefixes

According to Scholastic, the most common prefixes used include:

  • anti-
  • de-
  • dis-
  • en-, em-
  • fore-
  • in-, im-
  • in-, im-, il-, ir-
  • inter-
  • mid-
  • mis-
  • non-
  • over-
  • pre-
  • re-
  • semi-
  • sub-
  • super-
  • trans-
  • un-
  • under-

Tips to Keep in Mind

Affixes Can Be Complete Words, Although It’s Not Common

If you review the list above, it’s easy to see that some affixes can also serve as complete words on their own; for example, “super,” “under,” and “able.” However, most affixes will need to be connected to another word to give it meaning.

Yet, in speech, we use affixes alone all the time without even realizing it. Consider the following:

  • “What ism do you believe in?”
  • “Did you see that semi speeding down the highway?”
  • “Are you anti doing that?”

Affixes Are Most Often Used for Negation or Superlatives

If you look at the lists of affixes above, you’ll notice that many of the prefixes negate the word that follows it; for example: “non,” “dis,” etc. Or they indicate when or where. Consider the following sentences:

  • She was very uninformed about what to do on her first day at work.
  • That countertop looked very unclean after they prepared spaghetti.
  • Can you transpose your signature onto that sheet with carbon paper?
  • The cliff provided a view that overlooked the entire city.

In addition, affixes (especially suffixes) are commonly used to create superlatives, adjectives and adverbs. Consider the following examples:

  • He was the happiest doctor I ever met.
  • That tree was the tallest in the forest.
  • Her calligraphy was so lovely.
  • The knight went gently into the night.

Hyphens Are Used to Make Words with Affixes Easier to Read

Sometimes writers or editors will add hyphens to affixes, even when they’re not needed. For example, the prefix “non” hardly ever needs a hyphen unless it’s attached to a proper noun, yet somehow a lot of writers still want to attach it to various words all the time that don’t require it, such as “non-technical,” “non-partisan,” and so on.

When adding a hyphen after or before an affix, simply ask yourself if it is making the word you’re adding it to easier or harder to read. Typically, hyphens are used to make text easier to read and are inserted to alleviate confusion for readers. But whenever in doubt, always refer to the style guide you’re supposed to be following, as each style guide is particular about what words with prefixes or suffixes are to be hyphenated. And the rules about this across style guides vary greatly.

The Etymology of Most Common Affixes Is Found with Their Latin or Greek Origins

Have you ever used an affix and wondered where it received its meaning from in the first place, and why it can be used to alter one word and not another? Or how it can alter a word’s meaning? Well, most affixes are derived from or related to the Latin or Greek origins of the words to which they’re linked. For example, the prefixes “in-,” “un-,” “non-,” and “anti-” generally pair with certain Latin derivatives to create words such as “inaccessible” and “unexhausted.” And the prefix “a-,” which means “without,” appears mostly with Greek derivatives, such as “asymmetrical.”


Do you have another tip to add regarding affixes, or a question about affixes you’d like the community to answer? Please share with us in the comments below.



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Topics: prefixes, suffixes, affixes

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