Making sense of Latin and Greek prefixes

2 min read

There are lots of English words that come from other languages, but Latin and Greek have a much stronger influence than you might realize. Many words you use every day have been touched by Greek or Latin. Even if a word doesn’t come directly from one of these ancient languages, a huge portion of our English vocabulary starts off with a Latin or Greek prefix. Allow us to show you.

What do they mean?

Each Greek or Latin prefix says something about the word they’re attached to. The good news is that if you can identify the Greek or Latin prefix, you’re well on your way to understanding the whole word, even if you’ve never seen it before.

Let’s look at some prefix examples. Seeing them in action might give you a better idea of what we mean. Look at these common prefixes paired with words that use them. Once you spot the prefix in the word, try to find the pattern.

  • a- / an- = not/without (asexual, anarchy, amoral)
  • ex- = out (extract, exterior, exoskeleton)
  • micro- = small (microscope, microcosm, microorganism)

See the trend? If you know what the prefix means, you have a clue about the rest of the word. If you see micro-, you know that object is small. When you learn how the prefixes work with roots and suffixes, the word comes together as a whole.

If you think about how a skeleton is a hard, bony structure that keeps your body from melting into jelly, an exoskeleton is just a skeleton on the outside of the body. The prefixes may not give you the literal definition, but you’ll be able to form an educated guess.

Common Greek and Latin prefixes

  • Ab- = apart
  • Ante- = before
  • Anti- = against
  • Auto- = self
  • Bi- = two
  • Bene- = good, favorable
  • Circum- = around
  • Di- = two, double
  • Dis- = not, apart
  • Geo- = earth
  • Hetero- = mixed
  • Homo- = same
  • In- = not
  • Inter- = between
  • Macro- = large
  • Mono- = one, single
  • Ped- = foot
  • Poly- = many
  • Post- after
  • Pre- = before
  • Tele- = distance
  • Trans- = across

Now that you know these prefixes, what words can you come up with?

The prefix makes the word

A Greek or Latin prefix can put a whole new spin on a word. It’s how we create some antonyms — for example, visible and invisible. The prefix in- means not, and when it attaches to the word visible, it changes the meaning. Something you can see becomes something you can’t.

Greek and Latin prefixes can help us decipher more difficult words, too. Think of all those medical terms that don’t make sense until you learn their origins. This is why it can be useful to know Greek and Latin suffixes and roots, too. Lots of times you’ll find these prefixes, roots, and suffixes all in one word.

Let’s go back to invisible for a minute and upgrade the word to invisibility. You’ve got visible as the root, and in- as the prefix. When you add the -ity suffix, you add another element. The -ity suffix means "a state of being," amending the meaning to “the state of being unable to be seen.”

You don’t need to be fluent in Greek or Latin to understand the prefixes. You probably already know most of them. It’s like a word mashup. If you put your mind to it, you’ll become a human dictionary in no time!

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