Negative Prefixes

American English has so many prefixes that mean “not” or “no” – it sure would be nice if we only had one, but then, that would be too simple, wouldn’t it? We have (in no particular order): un, in, im, il, mis, dis, and de. We probably have more. 

One problem with teaching prefixes is that the same letters at the beginning of a word are not always a prefix! For example, “disgust” is a word where the letters, “dis,” are not a prefix – because “gust” is not a word? No, gust is, indeed, as word. But it’s not a “word” in this scenario. (Gust meaning a strong but short burst of wind; disgust meaning a strong aversion to something or someone). I constantly apologize to my ALL students that American English is so hard to figure out 😕.

What about “un”? If you recognize the letters that follow “un” as a word, then the addition of “un” tells us that the meaning of the base word now has the opposite meaning, like unusual or unfiltered. “In” as a prefix also (often but not always) indicates the negative of the base word, like insecure, incomplete, or insignificant. But what about “include”? “Clude” is not a word, by itself, so maybe we need to go to the definition of the whole word, instead. To include something or someone is to make it, he, or she a part of a group. Now, consider “exclude.” “Ex” is another negative prefix! HAH – as I am writing this post, I am coming up with more examples! But now I see that “in” IS, essentially, a prefix that changes the (entire) word to mean “within.” Because “ex” means to “keep out.” Inclusive v. exclusive. Of course, keeping with our theme of American-English-is-hard-to-figure-out, “ex” in the front of words does not always indicate a prefix – example, for example 🙄.

“Im” is in the same category – sometimes it is a prefix that means “no” or “not;” sometimes it is just part of a word: impossible and imperfect versus impute and immune.

Keep going with “il”: illegal versus illustrate. “Mis”: misplace versus missile.

And now I return to “dis.” Disinterested versus dissuade. Here’s something I read that you might find interesting: Did you know that disinterested implies someone who is free from bias or self-interest, but uninterested means not interested or apathetic? I read this distinction somewhere which started me thinking. And you know what that means – another blog post for! 🤣

I think my favorite confusing negative prefix is “de.” Sometimes it is a prefix (defraud); sometimes it’s just part of a word (debit). Deliver is a great example. I supposed deliver could be used to indicate removing something’s or someone’s liver? Instead, the common use is to describe bringing something or someone from one place to another (to deliver the mail or deliver a baby).

And sometimes, “de” is just a trouble-maker. If we see a package of chicken, for example, that says it’s “boned,” it generally means that the bones have been removed. So, what about deboned? Does that mean the opposite of boned so that there ARE bones?

Sigh  . . 

Comment with more fun negative prefixes examples!

4 thoughts on “Negative Prefixes”

  1. My head hurts from all your examples and the confusion now residing in my brain! Going to water aerobics to drive out the demons and debunk my circuitous thoughts.

    • I see what you did there – used “de” for demons and debunk! Nice!
      Water aerobics solves a lot of ‘circuitous thoughts’ 🤣😵

    • Scary, eh? I thought of another negative prefix this morning – “ab,” as in abnormal (or Abbie Normal, if you are a “Young Frankenstein” fan 😉).
      As with my Homonym chart, I’m afraid I’ll keep thinking of these things until my head explodes . . .😮


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