Prefixes and Suffixes: What Are Prefixes and Suffixes? Definition and Examples

By Carly Forsaith, updated on June 8, 2023

Are you wondering what prefixes and suffixes are? Would you like to understand better how to use them? You've come to the right place, then. In this article, you'll learn everything you need to know.

In short:

  • Prefixes are added to the beginning of words to change their meaning; suffixes are added to the end of words to change their form. 

This guide is part of our free online Grammar Book.

What Are Prefixes and Suffixes?

Prefixes and suffixes are groups of letters that you add to the beginning and end of a word, respectively. Adding a prefix to a word changes its meaning, while adding a suffix changes it from one part of speech to another.

I like to think of prefixes and suffixes as a secret code. Once you understand what they mean and how they work, not only will this help you spell words correctly, but you can also decode words you've never even heard of by deconstructing their parts.

Take the word 'detoxify,' for example. Let's imagine you've never heard this word before, but you know the prefix 'de' means something is removed or reduced, and the suffix 'ify' means 'to become.' The base word that remains is 'tox,' which comes from the noun 'toxin.' You can deduct that the word 'detoxify' means to remove toxins so that something becomes toxin-free.

de - tox - ify

Some words get prefixes added to them, and some get suffixes, while others have both, like the word 'detoxify' we just learned.

What Are Prefixes?

Prefixes are a group of letters added to the beginning of a word to change its meaning. Words containing a prefix are made up of the prefix + base word.

  • When adding prefixes to words, you don't need to add or remove any letters from the base word, unlike suffixes, which we'll find out later.

There are many different types of prefixes, but the most common type is the one that changes an adjective to an adjective with an opposite meaning. These are known as negative prefixes.

Here are some examples of prefixes that do that:

  • in-
    expensive → inexpensive
  • counter-
    productive → counterproductive
  • il-
    logical → illogical
  • im-
    mature → immature
  • in-
    expensive → inexpensive

The following prefixes do the same thing but with verbs:

  • de-
    value → de-value
  • mis-
    place → misplace
  • dis-
    agreeable → disagreeable
  • un-
    bend → unbend

And these perform the same role as nouns:

  • dis-
    advantage → disadvantage
  • anti-
    body → antibody
  • non-
    sense → nonsense

But not all prefixes give the word its opposite meaning.

Here are some prefixes that change the word's meaning in other ways:

  • extra-
    ordinary → extraordinary
  • ex-
    president → ex-president
  • hyper-
    market → hypermarket
  • pre-
    pay → pre-pay
  • re-
    do it again
    organize → re-organize

There are even prefixes made specifically for units of measurement:

  • kilo-
    meter → kilometer
  • centi-
    liter → centiliter
  • milli-
    liter → milliliter
  • giga-
    byte → gigabyte
  • mega-
    byte → megabyte

More Examples of Prefixes

There are so many prefixes in the English language; it would be difficult to cover them all here today. But what I will do is show you examples of more prefixes used in complete sentences, so you can see what they look like in the wild.

I love chatting to my co-workers in the office.

They've commisioned a special submarine to spy on the neighboring countries.

He recently released his autobiography.

Sounds like she's launching into one of her monologues again!

I'm learning to cultivate more self-love

When to Hyphenate Prefixes

You might have noticed in the examples we've looked at so far that some prefixes are connected to the base word with a hyphen while others aren't. So what's gives? How do you know whether or not you should use one in your writing?

  • You might not be surprised to hear that opinions on this differ, and there aren't any hard-and-fast rules since it mostly depends on the style guide you follow—if you follow one.

If you don't follow a style guide, here are a few guidelines to help you know when to hyphenate.

With Proper Nouns

Using a hyphen is usually recommended if your base word is a proper noun when adding a prefix.

For example:

This all happened pre-First-World-War.

He was pretty adamant that he was anti-Brexit.

We're going on a vacation on a trans-Pacific cruise ship.

To Avoid Vowel Repetition

You'll usually use a hyphen if your prefix ends with the same vowel as the base word's first letter. As a reminder, our vowels are 'a,' 'e,' 'i,' 'o,' 'u,' and sometimes 'y.'

For example:

I feel completely re-energized after that delicious meal.

You should try an anti-inflammatory diet.

It's a self-fuliflling prophecy.

The exception to this is when the vowel is 'o.' Often (but not always), you don't need to use a hyphen between a prefix ending in 'o' and the base word beginning with 'o.' One example of this is 'cooperate.' An example that shows this isn't always true is 'co-owner.'

To Avoid Ambiguity

Sometimes using a hyphen can help avoid ambiguity. For example, without the hyphen, the two 'o's in 'coowner' could be read with the /uː/ sound to make the word /ku:nər/, which isn't a real word. That's why we use a hyphen to show the word should be read 'co-owner.'

In other words, it can help you not confuse one word for another. For example, if you wanted to add the prefix 're' to the verb 'cover,' you would want to use a hyphen to make the word 're-cover' so as not to form the word 'recover,' which has a different meaning entirely.

With the Prefixes 'All-,' 'Ex-' and 'Self-'

These three prefixes are usually followed by a hyphen.

Case in point:

  • all-consuming
  • all-inclusive
  • all-rounder
  • ex-partner
  • ex-convict
  • ex-serviceman
  • self-regulate
  • self-aware
  • self-efficacy

Note that the prefix 'ex' has two meanings: 'previous,' like in the word 'ex-husband,' and 'out from,' like in the word 'extract.' You should only use a hyphen when employing the word in its former meaning—that of 'previous.' It's not needed for the other meaning.

Moreover, the prefix 'ex' differs from the prefix 'extra,' which has an entirely different set of hyphenation conventions.

To Conclude

As I mentioned earlier, these are primarily guidelines, and as you can see, there are exceptions to most of them. Therefore I wouldn't stress about it too much. Just go with your intuition. Most of the time, hyphens aren't necessary, so you might want to think of them as tools for clarification. If the word's meaning is ambiguous without one, try adding one.

And to make extra sure, you can always use a spellchecker. After all, nowadays, most writing is done on word processors, not pieces of paper, so using a spellchecker doesn't cost you anything. It will highlight a misspelled word and help you catch those hyphenated words that shouldn't be, and vice-versa.

What Are Suffixes?

If prefixes are added to the beginning of a word, suffixes are added to the end. Words containing a suffix are also made of a base word + a suffix. Sometimes they also have a prefix, like the word 'impossibly,' made up of the prefix 'im,' the base word 'possible,' and the suffix 'ly.'

  • The rules for writing with suffixes are slightly different than prefixes, though. Firstly, you never use hyphens to connect a base word to its suffix.
  • Secondly, sometimes adding the suffix will affect the base word's spelling (more on that later).
  • And last but not least, adding a suffix changes a word from one part of speech to another.

Let's start there.

Take the root word 'nutrient,' for example. It can be modified to 'nutrition' (noun), 'nutritious' (adjective), and 'nutritiously' (adverb).

Here are some examples of common suffixes that change a word into a noun:

  • -acy
    private → privacy
  • -ism
    optimist → optimism
  • -ance
    maintain → maintenance
  • -er
    train → trainer

These suffixes change a word into an adjective:

  • -al
    region → regional
  • -esque
    picture → picturesque
  • -ious
    nutrient → nutritious
  • -ible
    eat → edible
  • -ive
    create → creative

The following suffixes change a word into verbs:

  • -en
    light → enlighten
  • -ize
    standard → standardize
  • -ate
    rule → regulate
  • -fy
    satisfaction → satisfy
  • -ed
    cancelation → canceled

As you might have noticed, sometimes suffixes completely change the spelling of the base word. Other times, there's only a slight difference—just a letter or two. So how do you know what to do with the word's spelling when you add a suffix? Let's find out what the general rules are.

-ness and -ly

Most of the time, the suffixes '-ness' and '-ly' don't affect the word's spelling. So you just take the base word and add the suffix. Case in point:

red → redness

mad → madness

girl → girly

The exception is if the word ends in the consonant 'y,' in which case you should change the 'y' to an 'i' first.

happy → happiness

heavy → heavily

tidy → tidiness

This exception doesn't apply if the 'y' is employed as a vowel, like in the word 'enjoy' ('enjoy' → 'enjoyable').

Silent 'e'

Drop the silent 'e' when the suffix begins with a vowel.

For example:

create → creative

cure → curate

vacate → vacation

There are exceptions to this rule though, like with the suffixes '-able' (notice → noticeable) and 'ous' (advantage → advantageous).

And if the base word ends in 'ee' or 'ye:'

agree → agreement

eye → eyeing

free → freedom

Another exception is if the suffix begins with a consonant, keep the silent 'e.'

bare → barely

care → careful

home → homeless

Yes, there are exceptions to this rule, too. Like when the suffix 'ly' comes after a word with a consonant and the letter 'l.' Then, you should remove the silent 'e.' The word 'bubble' is an example: bubble → 'bubbly.'

Other 'y' Rules

When the word ends in a consonant + 'y', change the 'y' to an 'i' before adding the suffix.

easy → easier

ugly → uglify

bury → burial

To Double or Not to Double?

Short words with just one syllable ending in a single consonant will often see said consonant doubled. Case in point:

big → bigger

fat → fatty

tan → tanning

When the suffix begins with a vowel, and the accent is on the last syllable, double the final consonant when adding the suffix.

For example:

forget → forgettable 

stop → stopper

refer → referral

The doubling rule doesn't apply to words that end in 'w,' 'x,' or 'y.'

In Conclusion

Unlike with prefixes, the rules for suffixes are fixed. There's a correct way to spell a word with a suffix and an incorrect way. With so many rules and so many exceptions, your best bet is just to give yourself the practice you need so that, over time, you'll simply remember the correct spelling.

Again, don't hesitate to get a good spellchecker, as this will always be handy.

Concluding Thoughts on Prefixes and Suffixes

That concludes this article on prefixes and suffixes. I hope you found it helpful.

Let's summarize what we've learned:

  • Prefixes are attached to the beginning of a word and change its meaning.
  • Suffixes go at the end of a word and change it from one part of speech to another.
  • The word's spelling is affected by suffixes but not by prefixes.
  • Words can have either a prefix or a suffix or a prefix and a suffix.

If you enjoyed this article, you might like our Grammar Book, a free online database full of articles that boil complex grammatical concepts down to simple terms, just like this one. Check it out!

We encourage you to share this article on Twitter and Facebook. Just click those two links - you'll see why.

It's important to share the news to spread the truth. Most people won't.

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.

Add new comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked * Newsletter
Receive information on
new articles posted, important topics, and tips.
Join Now
We won't send you spam. Unsubscribe at any time.