Affixes: Prefixes and Suffixes

Affixes in English
Kristin Denham and Anne Lobeck, Linguistics for Everyone (Wadsworth, 2010). (Getty Images)

In English grammar and morphology, an affix is a word element that can be attached to a base or root to form a new word or a new form of the word, usually occurring in the form of either a prefix or a suffix.

As their names would entail, prefixes like pre-, re-, and trans- are attached to the beginnings of words such as predict, reactivate, and transaction and suffixes like -ism, -ate, and -ish are attached to the ends of words such as socialism, eradicate, and childish.

In rare cases, an affix may be added to the middle of a word and is therefore called an infix, which occurs in such words as cupsful and passersby wherein the additional "-s-" affix pluralizes the words cupful and passerby, thus changing their form.

Difference Between Affixes and Compound Words

Affixes are bound morphemes, which means that they can't stand alone, and generally speaking if a group of letters is an affix, it can't also be a word. However, Michael Quinion's 2002 book "Ologies and Isms: Word beginnings and Endings" illustrates the importance of these affixes to the English language and its ever-evolving usage.

Although quite similar to compounds — which combine two words with separate meanings together to form a new word with a new meaning — affixes must be attached to other words in order to have meaning in and of themselves.

Still, affixes can often be stacked together in clusters to create complex words much more easily than compounds can, as David Crystal explains in his 2006 book "How Language Works" using the example "nation, national, nationalize, nationalization, denationalization, antidenationalization."

The Importance of Affixes in Modern English

Crystal continues elsewhere in "How Language Works" about how important affixes are to grasping the core concepts of the English vernacular. He writes, "Over half the words in English are there because of processes of this kind" — referring to the above example — "And this is one reason why children's vocabulary grows so quickly once they learn some prefixes and suffixes." 

As a result, the English language evolves rapidly with the use of affixes, allowing for near-infinite expansion of commonly understood vocabulary with simple additions of prefixes, suffixes, and infixes. However, these changes do not typically alter the word class of the base word when utilizing prefixes, leaving nouns that are modified as new nouns with a slightly different meaning, such is the case with words like visit and revisit both being verbs. On the other hand, suffixes typically do alter the word class, as is the case with works like dark (an adjective) and darkness (a noun). 

Affixes typically fall into one of three categories, due largely to other languages' influence on the English vernacular, which include Germanic, Latinate — including Latin and its descendants like French — and Greek. Oddly enough, despite English being a Germanic language, Latinate and Greek affixes are more often utilized to alter the language.