The Function of the Prefix

A prefix is a letter or a group of letters attached to the beginning of a word (or word root) that partly indicates its meaning. For example, the word prefix itself begins with the prefix pre-, which generally means “before” or “in front of.” (By contrast, a letter or group of letters attaching to the end of a word is called a suffix.)

Many of today’s English words contain prefixes from Greek or Latin. Understanding the meanings of the most common prefixes can help us deduce the definition of new words that we run across in our reading, especially knowing that they can make a word mean its opposite, such as the difference between possible and impossible.

Still, we do need to be careful: the same prefix may be ​spelled in more than one way (pre- and pro-, for instance), and some prefixes (such as in-) have more than one meaning (in this case, “not” or “without” versus “in” or “into”). Even so, being able to recognize prefixes can help us build our vocabularies.

To Hyphenate or Not?

Rules vary as to when a word should have a hyphen separating it from its prefix. Go by the dictionary if you are unsure. If you are writing a paper for a class and a particular style guide is used, such as MLA, the Chicago Manual of Style, or APA, the stylebook may have a hyphenation guide or a preferred dictionary to follow for which words to hyphenate and which to close up.

If a prefix is attached to a proper noun, you generally hyphenate, such as pre-World War II or anti-American.

The following table defines and illustrates 35 common prefixes.

Common Prefixes

Prefix Meaning Examples
a-, an- without, lack of, not amoral, acellular, abyss, achromatic, anhydrous
ante- before, earlier, in front of antecedent, antedate, antemeridian, anterior
anti- against, opposite of anticlimax. antiaircraft, antiseptic, antibody
auto- self, same autopilot, autobiography, automobile, autofocus
circum- around, about circumvent, circumnavigate, circumscribe
co- with, together co-pilot, co-worker, co-exist, co-author
com-, con- together, with companion, commingle, contact, concentrate
contra-, contro- against, opposite contradict, contrast, contrary, controversy
de- down, off, away from devalue, deactivate, debug, degrade, deduce
dis- not, apart, away disappear, disagreeable, disbar, dissect
en- put into, cover with enclose, entangle, enslave, encase
ex- out of, from, former extract, exhale, excavate, ex-president
extra- beyond, outside, more than extracurricular, extramarital, extravagant
hetero- different, other heterosexual, heterodox, heterogeneous
homo-, homeo- same, alike homonymhomophone, homeostasis, homosexual
hyper- over, more, beyond hyperactive, hypersensitive, hypercritical
il-, im-, in-, ir- not, without illegal, immoral, inconsiderate, irresponsible
in- in, into insert, inspection, infiltrate
inter- between, among intersect, interstellar, intervene, interpenetrate
intra-, intro- within, inside intravenous, intragalactic, introvert
macro- large, prominent macroeconomics, macrostructure, macrocosm
micro- very small microscope, microcosm, microbe
mono- one, single, alone monocle, monologue, monogamy, monotony
non- not, without nonentity, nonaggressive, nonessential, nonfiction
omni- all, every omniscient, omnivorous, omniscient, omnidirectional
post- after, behind postmortem, posterior, postscript, postoperative
pre-, pro- before, forward precede, predict, project, prologue
sub- under, lower submarine, subsidiary, substandard
sym-, syn- same time, together symmetry, symposium, synchronize, synapse
tele- from or over a distance telecommunications, telemedicine, television, telephone
trans- across, beyond, through transmit, transaction, translation, transfer
tri- three, every third tricycle, trimester, triangle, triathlon
un- not, lacking, opposite of unfinished, unskilled, ungraceful, unfriendly
uni- one, single unicorn, unicellular, unicycle, unilateral
up- to the top or north, higher/better upbeat, updo, upgrade, upload, uphill, upstage, upscale, up-tempo



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