Negative Prefixes: What They Are and How to Use Them

By Carly Forsaith, updated on April 4, 2023

If you’ve ever heard of prefixes and wondered what they are, then you’ve come to the right place. In this article, you’ll learn all about negative prefixes and how to use them.

In short:

  • Negative prefixes allow you to change the meaning of a particular word so that it now means the opposite thing.

What Are Negative Prefixes?

So, first of all, what is a prefix? Well, it’s quite simple, really:

  • It’s a letter or group of letters that, once added to the front of a word, will affect its meaning.

There aren’t just negative prefixes in the English language; prefixes can express all kinds of things, including time, place, and manner.

For example:

  • You could use the prefix ‘pre’ with the word ‘war’ (‘pre-war’) to talk about something that happened before the war.

But for the purposes of this article, we’re going to be looking specifically at negative prefixes. You add them to the front of a noun, adjective, or verb in order to negate the word so that it means the opposite of what it originally meant.

Look at the following examples of words and their corresponding prefixed word.

  • Perfect → imperfect
  • Agree → disagree
  • Legal → illegal

Here’s the thing:

  • You can’t just pick and choose which prefixes you want to use with which words.

They’ve already been allocated and categorized. So let’s dive in.

Prefix with Consonant Words

If you need a refresher, vowels are:

  • A, E, I, O, and U

Consonants are:

  • All the other letters of the alphabet.

There is one prefix that is only ever paired up with words that begin with a consonant letter, and that is a-.

  • Atypical
  • Asymmetrical
  • Apolitical

Here’s an example sentence containing an a- word:

Jonny’s behavior is atypical for his age.

This sentence means that Jonny’s behavior is not typical for a boy his age.

Prefixes with Specific Letters

Some prefixes are only ever paired with words that begin with specific letters:

Words that use the il- prefix always begin with the letter 'l.'

Words that use the im- prefix always begin with an 'b,' 'm,' or 'p.'

Words that use the ir- prefix always begin with the letter 'r.'

Here are some words that begin with those prefixes:

  • Illegal
  • Imperfect
  • Irregular

And here’s an example sentence for each one:

Crossing the border without a passport is illegal.

He is imperfect, but he is my Mr. Right.

Irregular verbs are the bane of my existence.

Prefixes with Vowel or Consonant Words

And finally, some prefixes are completely random:

  • They don’t seem to follow any particular pattern of which kinds of words they can be paired with.

Those are:

Dis-, in-, non-, un-

Here’s a list of words that begin with these prefixes:

  • Disagree
  • Inaccurate
  • Nonsense
  • Unemployment

'Non-' words are sometimes hyphenated, like ‘non-fiction.’

Let’s have a look at some example sentences for each one:

Some people do disagree with me sometimes, but they’re just wrong.

The information presented in the summary is inaccurate.

They said we can’t do overtime, which is nonsense.

The rates of unemployment have been steadily rising.

Final Thoughts on Negative Prefixes

Well, that concludes this article on negative prefixes. I hope you’ve found it useful and informative.

Here’s a summary of what we’ve learned:

  • Prefixes go at the beginning of a word to add meaning
  • Prefixes can be used with adjectives, nouns, and verbs
  • Negative prefixes make the word meaning the opposite of what it meant before.

If you found this article interesting, you should check out our Grammar Rules blog; there are lots more articles like this one there, so I’m sure you’ll love it!

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Written By:
Carly Forsaith
Carly Forsaith is one of the lead freelance writers for Carly is a copywriter who has been writing about the English language for over 3 years. Before that, she was a teacher in Thailand, helping people learn English as a second language. She is a total grammar nerd and spends her time spotting language errors on signs and on the internet.

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