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A Little Etymology

Stems, Prefixes, and Affixes

If you recognize the parts, you'll understand the whole: learn the Greek and Latin roots, the prefixes and affixes.

"As someone trained in foreign languages and theoretical linguistics, I completely agree with the experts quoted in Why your kids should learn Latin. I would add that the study of Ancient Greek stems and affixes is equally valuable. As a follow-up to this article, I would suggest that you compile a short course on the meanings of Greek and Latin stems and affixes, focusing upon their value as reading aids in English and the Romance languages."
- Anonymous, from Users Feedback

This feature (from May 1998) is meant to be an introduction to Classical stems and affixes -- not an introduction to linguistics. Following the advice of the late William Harris, the major expert quoted in my feature named above, I found the small, but dense 1953 gem, Scientific Terminology, invaluable.

  • -Why Study Terminology ([http://www.naturalhealthschool.com/medical-etymology.html#why] - Accessed October 28, 2010). How knowing the etymology of rhinoceros will help you understand your doctor's diagnoses:

    "Sometime during the 14th century someone decided to give this mammal its present day name. The characteristic of the animal that struck them the most was the large horn that grew from its nose. The Greek word for nose is rhis, and the combining form (the form that is used when it is combined with other word elements) is rhin-. The Greek word for horn is keras. So this animal was named a "nose-horn animal" or a 'rhinoceros.'"


    "You take a peek in your file and discover that ... [the doctor] wrote 'acute rhinitis' as your diagnosis. Now having taken this course, you know that 'acute' just means sudden onset ... and you know that "-itis" simply means an inflammation."

  • Root + Suffix=Word

    The suffix on please is an e.

    Does that surprise you? It did me. But if you look at the word pleas-ure, it makes sense, since removing its suffix leaves the same root as in pleas-e. As John Hough, in Scientific Terminology, points out, roots rarely exist alone. They usually precede suffixes. The same is true of Greek and Latin, even if, when borrowing, we sometimes drop the suffix. Thus, the word cell in English is really the Latin cella, from which we've dropped the a suffix.

    Not only do almost all English words contain roots plus suffixes, but, according to Hough, suffixes can't stand alone. A suffix does not have meaning on its own, but needs to be connected to the root.

    Suffix - Definition:

    A suffix is an inseparable form that cannot be used alone but that carries an indication of quality, action, or relation. When added to a combining form, it makes a complete word and will determine whether the word is a noun, adjective, verb, or adverb....

    Compound Words

    A suffix combined with a root is different from a compound word which, in loose English usage, is usually thought of as just another case of root + suffix. Sometimes two Greek or Latin words are put together to form a compound word. Often we think of these words as suffixes when they aren't, technically, although they may be thought of as end forms.

    End Forms

    The following is a chart of some common Greek "end forms." An example is the word neurology (study of the nervous system) which comes from the Greek neuro- the combining form of the noun neuron (nerve) plus -logy, listed below. We think of these end forms as merely suffixes, but they are fully productive words.

    A quick example in English: Backpack and ratpack contain what looks like a suffix (pack), but, as we know, pack is a noun and verb on its own.

    Greek Word



    αλγος -algia -pain
    βιος -be life
    κηλη -cele tumor
    τομος -ectomy cut
    αιμα -(a)emia blood
    λογος -logy study
    ειδος -oid form
    πολεω -poesis make
    σκοπεω -scope see into
    στομα -stomy mouth
    (Note: breathing marks are missing. These forms and the other tables are excerpted from Hough's book but have been modified based on corrections submitted by readers.)

    And from the Latin, we have:

    Latin Word



    fugere -fuge flee

    Root + Suffix/Prefix=Word

    Prefixes are usually adverbs or prepositions derived from Greek or Latin that can't be used alone in English and appear at the beginnings of words. Suffixes, which appear at the ends of words, aren't usually adverbs or prepositions, but they can't be used alone in English, either. While suffixes are often joined to the the end of roots by separate connecting vowels, the transformation of these prepositional and adverbial prefixes is more direct, even though the final letter of the prefix may be changed or eliminated. In 2-letter prefixes, this can be confusing. Among other changes, n can become m or s and a final b or d may be changed to match the first letter of the root. Think of this confusion as designed to ease pronunciation.

    This list won't help you figure out antipasto, but it will prevent you from describing the antonym of precedent as antident or polydent.

    Note: Greek forms are capitalized, Latin in normal case.

    Latin Prefix/ GREEK PREFIX


    A-, AN- "alpha privative", a negative
    ab- away from
    ad- to, towards, near
    ambi- both
    ANA- up, back again, throughout, against
    ante- before, in front of
    ANTI- against
    APO- away from
    bi-/bis- twice, double
    CATA- down, across, under
    circum- around
    con- with
    contra- against
    de- down, from, away from
    DI- two, twice, double
    DIA- through
    dis- apart, removed
    DYS- hard, difficult, bad
    e-, ex- (Lat.)
    EC- EX- (GK.)
    out of
    ECTO- outside
    EXO- outside, outward
    EN- in
    endo- within
    epi- on, upon
    extra- outside, beyond, in addition to
    EU- well, good, easy
    HEMI- half
    HYPER- over, above,
    HYPO- below, under
    in- in, into, on
    You often see this prefix as im.
    Used with verbal roots.
    in- not; occasionally, beyond belief
    infra- below
    inter- between
    intro- within
    intus- within
    META- with, after, beyond
    non- not
    OPISTHO- behind
    PALIN- again
    PARA- along side of, beside
    per- through, thorough, complete
    PERI- around, near
    post- after, behind
    pre- in front of, before
    PRO- before, in front of
    PROSO- onwards, in front
    re- back, again
    retro- backward
    semi- half
    sub- under, below
    super-, supra- above, upper
    SYN- with
    trans- across
    ultra- beyond

    Adjective + Root + Suffix=Word

    The following tables contain Greek and Latin adjectives in the form used to combine with English words or with other Latin or Greek parts to make English words -- like megalomaniac or macroeconomics, to take examples from the top of the table.

    GREEK & Latin

    Meaning in English
    MEGA-, MEGALO-, MAKRO-; magni-, grandi- big
    MICRO-; parvi- little
    MACRO-, DOLICHO; longi- long
    BRACHY-; brevi- short
    EURY, PLATY-; lati- wide
    STENO-; angusti- narrow
    CYCLO-, GYRO; circuli- round
    quadrati- rectanguli- square
    PACHY-, PYCNO-, STEATO-; crassi- thick
    LEPTO-; tenui- thin
    BARY-; gravi- heavy
    SCLERO-, SCIRRHO-; duri- hard
    MALACO-; molli- soft
    HYGRO-, HYDRO-; humidi- wet
    XERO-; sicci- dry (Xerox®)
    OXY-; acri- sharp
    CRYO- PSYCHRO-; frigidi- cold
    THERMO-; calidi- hot
    DEXIO-; dextri- right
    SCAIO-; scaevo- levi, sinistri- left
    PROSO-, PROTO-; frontali- front
    MESO-; medio- middle
    POLY-; MULTI- many
    OLIGO-; pauci- few
    STHENO-; validi-, potenti- strong
    HYPO-; imi-, intimi- bottom
    PALEO-, ARCHEO-; veteri-, seni- old
    NEO-, CENO-; novi new
    CRYPTO-, CALYPTO-; operti- hidden
    TAUTO-; identi- same
    HOMO-, HOMEO-; simili- alike
    EU-, KALO-, KALLO-; boni- good
    DYS-, CACO-; mali- bad
    CENO-, COELO-; vacuo- empty
    HOLO-; toti- entirely
    IDIO-; proprio-, sui- one's own
    ALLO-; alieni- another's
    GLYCO-; dulci- sweet
    PICRO-; amari- bitter
    ISO-; equi- equal
    HETERO-, ALLO-; vario- different


    A medical example of a Greek-based color word is erythrokinetics (e·ryth·ro·ki·net·ics), which Your Dictionary Medical Definitions defines as "A study of the kinetics of red blood cells from their generation to destruction."

    GREEK & Latin

    Meaning in English
    COCCINO-, ERYTHTO-, RHODO-, EO-; purpureo-, rubri-, rufi-, rutuli-, rossi-, roseo-, flammeo- Reds of various shades
    CHRYSO-, CIRRHO-; aureo-, flavo-, fulvi- orange
    XANTHO-, OCHREO-; fusci-, luteo- yellow
    CHLORO-; prasini-, viridi- green
    CYANO-, IODO-; ceruleo-, violaceo- blue
    PORPHYRO-; puniceo-, purpureo- violet
    LEUKO-; albo-, argenti- white
    POLIO-, GLAUCO-, AMAURO-; cani-, cinereo-, atri- gray
    MELANO-; nigri- black


    Here are more combining forms that are important to know since they are numbers. If you've ever had trouble remembering whether millimeter or kilometer was closer to an inch, pay attention here. Note that the milli- is Latin and the kilo- is Greek; the Latin is the smaller unit, and the Greek the larger, so millimeter is a 1000th part of a meter (.0363 of an inch) and the kilometer is 1000 meters (39370 inches).

    Some of these numerals are derived from adverbs, most from adjectives.

    GREEK & Latin

    Meaning in English
    SEMI-; hemi- 1/2
    HEN- ; uni- 1
    sesqui- 1-1/2
    DYO (DI-, DIS-) ; duo- (bi-, bis-) 2
    TRI-; tri- 3
    TETRA-, TESSARO- ;quadri- 4
    PENTA-;quinque 5
    HEX, HEXA-;sex- 6
    HEPTA-;septem- 7
    OCTO-;octo- 8
    ENNEA-;novem- 9
    DECA-;decem- 10
    DODECA-; duodecim 12
    HECATONTA-;centi- 100
    CHILIO-;milli- 1000
    MYRI-, MYRIAD-; any large or countless number

    John Hough, Scientific Terminology; New York: Rhinehart & Company, Inc. 1953.

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