prefix (grammar)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

prefixes in Seinfeld
"I don't trust the guy," said comedian Jerry Seinfeld in an episode of his sitcom Seinfeld (1995). "I think he regifted, then he degifted." Seinfeld used two common prefixes (re- and de-) to create two new words. (Columbia TriStar Television and Sony Pictures Television)

Definition

In English grammar and morphology, a prefix is a letter or group of letters attached to the beginning of a word that partly indicates its meaning. Examples of prefixes include anti- (against), co- (with), mis- (wrong, bad), and trans- (across).

The most common prefixes in English are those that express negation: a- (as in the word asexual), in- (incapable), non- (nonsense), un- (unhappy).

 

The word prefix contains the prefix pre- (which means "before") and the root word fix (which means "to fasten or place"). Thus the word prefix literally means "to place before."

Prefixes are bound morphemes, which means they can't stand alone. Generally, if a group of letters is a prefix, it can't also be a word. However, prefixation (the process of adding a prefix to a word) is a common way of forming new words in English.

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

Etymology
From the Latin, "to place or fasten in front"
 

Examples & Observations

  • Dr. Wick: Ambivalence suggests strong feelings in opposition. The prefix, as in ambidextrous, means "both." The rest of it, in Latin, means "vigor." The word suggests that you are torn between two opposing courses of action.

    Susanna: Will I stay or will I go?

    Dr. Wick: Am I sane or am I crazy?

    Susanna: Those aren't courses of action.

    Dr. Wick: They can be, dear—for some.

    Susanna: Well, then—it's the wrong word.

    Dr. Wick: No. I think it's perfect.
    (Vanessa Redgrave and Winona Ryder in the movie Girl, Interrupted, 1999)
     

  • circum = around
    "Some circumstantial evidence is very strong, as when you find a trout in the milk."
    (Henry David Thoreau)
     
  • dis = apart, away
    "Finance is the art of passing money from hand to hand until it finally disappears."
    (Robert W. Sarnoff)
     
  • "Prefixes are generally set solid with the rest of the word. Hyphens appear only when the word attached begins with (1) a capital letter, as with anti-Stalin, or (2) the same vowel as the prefix ends in, as with: anti-inflationary, de-escalate, micro-organism. Yet in well-established cases of this type, the hyphen becomes optional, as with cooperate."
    (Pam Peters, The Cambridge Guide to English Usage. Cambridge University Press, 2004)

     
  • Irregular Meanings of Prefixes
    "In English, the changes in meaning which are brought about by adding a prefix to a word are rather irregular and not exactly predictable. For instance, the prefix -sub has the different effects illustrated below:
    subway (= a way below something)
    subhuman (= something below the human level)
    We can't state a general rule that sub-X is a paraphrase of something below X (as in subhuman), or conversely of X below something (as in subway); sometimes sub-X means one, and sometimes the other.

    "There are many words in English which look as if they begin with a familiar prefix, but in which it is not clear what meaning to attach either to the prefix or to the remainder of the word, in order to arrive at the meaning of the whole word. For example, exercise apparently has the prefix ex-, but what does *-ercise mean? . . . Other words with such fossilized parts are prevail, promenade, subdue, conceal, expect and forfeit."
    (James J. Hurford, Grammar: A Student's Guide. Cambridge University Press, 1994) 
     
  • The Nano- Trend
    "Lately the prefix trend has been shrinking. During the 1980s, 'mini-' gave way to 'micro-,' which has yielded to 'nano-.' In the new millennium, companies such as Nanometrics, Nanogen and NanoPierce Technologies have all embraced the prefix, despite complaints their products were hardly nano-scale (a billionth of a meter or smaller). Even Eddie Bauer sells stain-resistant nano-pants. (They're available in 'extra-large' for the retailer's not-so-nano customers.)"
    (Alex Boese, "Electrocybertronics." Smithsonian, March 2008)
     
  • Dis- and Mis- Words
    "We're talking prefixes today. By my inaccurate and utterly unreliable count, contemporary lexicographers list 152 'dis' words and 161 'mis' words. The 'dis' list begins with the verb 'to dis' (or diss), meaning 'to treat with contempt or disrespect." It ends with 'disvalue,' i.e., to depreciate, consider of little value. The 'mis' list begins with 'misact,' which no one has ever seen in print or heard in speech. It runs on to 'misuse,' which happens to writers every day."
    (James Kilpatrick, "To 'dis,' or Not to 'dis,'" June 4, 2007)
     
  • The Lighter Side of Prefixes
    - pre = before
    "What does it mean to pre-board? Do you get on [a plane] before you get on?"
    (George Carlin)

    - "If lawyers are disbarred and clergymen defrocked, doesn't it follow that electricians can be delighted; musicians denoted; cowboys deranged; models deposed; tree surgeons debarked, and dry cleaners depressed?"
    (Virginia Ostman, quoted by Laurence J. Peter in Peter's Quotations: Ideas for Our Times. Quill, 1993)
     

    Pronunciation: PREE-fix