In ESL, Learn English, Vocabulary

Using Greek & Latin Prefixes to Understand English Words

In many ways, the English language could be considered a puzzle, and not just because it’s decidedly puzzling! Students learning English as a second language can certainly testify to challenges they face with the unexpected grammar rules and wonky pronunciations, but today we’re going back to the basics – English vocabulary words.

Many English words are traceable back to Latin and Greek origins and are like a puzzle as they are made up of elements that can be fitted together in different ways. Word roots are the core part of a word that determine the main meaning, but they are unable to stand alone.

Prefixes and suffixes are also parts of words that cannot stand alone, but they are used at the beginning (prefix) and ending (suffix) of words to change its meaning. Learning these Latin and Greek building blocks can help you guess the meaning of unfamiliar English words.

Pre Itself is a Latin Prefix

Today let’s take a look at prefixes in the English language with Latin and Greek origins in order to have a set of clues to use to figure out new vocabulary. Prefixes are usually prepositions or adverbs that appear at the start of a word and can’t be used alone. As it so happens, the word “prefix” itself contains a prefix – “pre.”

Pre– is a prefix which can mean before, prior to, early, or in front of. It comes from the Latin prae, meaning in front of or before. Whenever we place it at the beginning of a word, it alters the meaning accordingly. For instance, if we add it to the word “pay” to form “prepay”, it changes the meaning to pay ahead of time. If we add it to “school” to form “preschool”, it now means early schooling or school that happens before/prior to a standard school.

It’s All Greek to Me!

If you’ve ever heard the English idiom “It’s all Greek to me”, you’ll appreciate the irony here. People use this to indicate they don’t understand something at all. However, we use many prefixes and suffixes from the Greek language to form words in English.

For example, we use “anti-” or its variant “ant-” to indicate being against (or opposite of) something. Anti– derives from the ancient Greek word “ἀντι-” which meant “against”. (Of note, anti– should not be confused with the prefix ante– of Latin origin, meaning “before”.)

If we add it to the beginning of some common words, you can see how it changes the definition:

  • Antisocial – contrary to the laws and customs of society
  • Anti-inflammatory – an agent that works against inflammation
  • Antonym – a word that is opposite in meaning to another word

Learning the common prefixes used in English that derive from Greek can help you figure out new words so you don’t have to feel like it’s all Greek to you!

Common Prefixes in English & Their Greek and Latin Roots

Prefix Meaning Origin English Examples
a-, an- not, without, (having) no GREEK anemia, atheist, atypical
ab-, a-, abs- away from LATIN abnormal, absent, abstain, aversion
aer- air, atmosphere GREEK aeronautics, aerosol
ambi- both, on both sides of LATIN ambivalent, ambidextrous
ant-, anti- against, opposed to, preventive GREEK antagonist, antibiotic, antonym
audi- hearing, listening, sound LATIN audible, auditorium, auditory
ben- good, well LATIN benefit, benevolent
bio- life GREEK biography, biology, biologist
cent- hundred LATIN cent, centennial, centurion
cine- motion GREEK cinema
circum- around LATIN circumference, circumnavigate
contra- against LATIN contradiction, contrast
de- from, away from, removing, down LATIN deletion, dementia, descend
deca-, dec-, deka-, dekten- ten GREEK decagram, decahedron
di- two GREEK diode, dipole, diameter
du- two LATIN dual
ep-, epi- upon GREEK epicenter, epitaph
equ- even, level LATIN equal, equality, equate
geo- earth GREEK geography, geology, geometry
hemi- half GREEK hemisphere
hyp- under GREEK hypothermia
hyper- above, over GREEK hyperactive, hyperbole
in- (1), im- in, on LATIN import, incur, intend, invite
in- (2), il-, im-, ir- not, un- (negation) LATIN illicit, impossible, inimical, irrational
inter- among, between LATIN intermission, intersection
kil(o)- thousand GREEK kilobyte, kilogram, kilometer
loc- place LATIN local, location
lun- moon LATIN lunar, lunatic
magn- great, large LATIN magnificent, magnitude
mal- bad LATIN malfeasance, malicious, malignancy
medi- middle LATIN median
meg- great, large GREEK megaphone
micr- small GREEK microscope
mill- thousand LATIN millennium
mim- repeat GREEK mimic, mime
min- less, smaller LATIN minority, miniscule
mis- hate GREEK misandry, misogyny
mon- one GREEK monotone, monolith
mort- death LATIN mortality, mortuary
mult- many, much LATIN multiple, multitude
neg- say no LATIN negate, negative
neur- nerve GREEK neurology
noct- night LATIN nocturnal
non- not LATIN nonverbal
ob-, o-, oc-, of-, og-, op-, os- against LATIN obstinate, obstreperous, occur, offend, omit, oppose, ostentatious
oct- eight LATIN/GREEK octagon, octahedron, octode
omni- all LATIN omnivore, omnipotence
pan- all GREEK pandemic
par(a)- beside, near GREEK parameter
pen- almost LATIN peninsula, penumbra
pent- five GREEK pentagon
per- thoroughly, through LATIN perfection, permeate, persistence
peri- around GREEK perimeter, peripheral
post- after, behind LATIN posterior, postscript
pre- before LATIN prefix, preschool
quart- fourth LATIN quarter
re-, red- again, back LATIN recede, redact, retract
sec-, sect-, seg- cut LATIN secede, section, segment
sub-, su-, suf-, sug-, sus- below LATIN submerge, suffix, suggest
syn- together GREEK synchronize, synonym
tri- three LATIN/GREEK triad, triangle, tripod
ultra- beyond LATIN ultrasonic

Excel English Institute is Ready to Help You Learn English

Keep an eye out for a follow-up blog discussing suffixes and root words with a Latin or Greek origin to help build your knowledge of English words. With such a challenging language as English, any and all clues can help!

Are you ready to learn more strategies to help you increase your fluency in English? Excel English Institute is here to help! Give us a call today to learn more about how we can help you achieve your English language goals.

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