• 4-minute read
  • 18th June 2019

Prefixes and How to Use Them

Although we’ve got nothing on German, the English language sometimes involves putting different ‘parts’ of words or even whole words together to make a new term. And prefixes are a big part of this. But what exactly are prefixes? And how do you use them in your writing?

What Are Prefixes?

A prefix is a group of letters placed at the start of a word to change its meaning. We can even see how this works using the word ‘prefix’ itself, which is a combination of ‘pre-’ and ‘fix’:

  • ‘Pre-’ is a prefix meaning ‘before’ or ‘in front of’.
  • ‘Fix’ is a verb meaning ‘attach’.

As a result, a ‘prefix’ is something we ‘attach’ to the ‘front of’ another word.

Example Prefixes

There are many different prefixes in English, so we won’t try to provide a definitive list. However, some common examples include:





Against or opposed to

Antisocial, antiviral


Related to the self or spontaneous

Automatic, autobiography


Reverse or reduce

Devalue, decode


Reverse or negate

Disobey, disappear


Cause to be or put into

Enact, encase


Out of or former

Extract, ex-girlfriend

Il-, Im-, In- or Ir-

Not or negate

Illegal, immobile, insufficient, irresponsible



Misbehave, misspell


After, later or behind

Postseason, postscript


Before or in front of

Prefix, prefrontal


Favouring or promoting

Proclaim, pro-democracy


Repeat or restore

Refresh, rewrite


Below or less than

Submarine, substandard


Across or beyond

Transatlantic, transgender


Reverse or negate

Unzip, undo

You’ll notice that there are some overlaps above (e.g. Dis-, Il-, Im-, In- and Ir- all being used to indicate a negation in some cases). This is because different words come from different root languages, so the prefix we use in each case may depend on the etymology of the rest of the word.

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However, as long as you know what the most common prefixes mean, you should be able to use these terms correctly. And you can check a dictionary if you’re not sure whether a prefix is correct. To help you avoid errors, though, we’ll now look at some common prefix problems.

When to Hyphenate

In the table above, we have hyphenated the words ‘ex-girlfriend’ and ‘pro-democracy’, whereas others are unhyphenated. This is because, generally, we only follow a prefix with a hyphen in certain cases, including:

  • In most cases after ex- and self- (e.g. ex-boyfriend, self-assessment)
  • When combined with a proper noun (e.g. anti-Nazi)
  • To prevent using the same vowel twice in a row (e.g. anti-inflammatory)
  • To clarify meaning (e.g. to ‘recover’ is to return to strength or regain something; but if we said we had ‘re-covered’ something, we would mean we have covered it again)

There are exceptions to these rules. Most people spell ‘cooperate’, for example, without a hyphen. Nevertheless, the guidelines above can be helpful when you’re not sure whether to use a hyphen after a prefix.

Tricky Prefixes

Finally, a quick warning. The English language has borrowed lots of words from lots of places, so some similar-looking words have different meanings. And the same applies to prefixes. For example, the in- from ‘inaccurate’ is a negation, making it the opposite of ‘accurate’. However, the word ‘inflammable’ means the same as ‘flammable’, not the opposite!

This is because the in- from ‘inflammable’ comes from the same root as en- in words like ‘enrich’ or ‘entrust’. It therefore means ‘cause to be’, which is very different from negating something. You must, therefore, be careful when using prefixes, as they may not mean what they seem! And if you’d like more help checking your prefix use, just let us know.

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