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English Spelling Rules

Lesson 8: Common English Prefixes

In this series of lessons, you will learn useful spelling rules in English.

This lesson talks about some common English prefixes. We will see what they mean, how they are spelled, and common words that contain them.

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A prefix is a series of letters that comes at the beginning of a word and has a specific meaning. There are many prefixes in English, but in this lesson we will focus on six of the most common.

When you see these prefixes, you will be able to understand the meaning of the word more easily.

1. Anti-

a woman taking pills

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Josephine does not like to take pills, but she was very sick. The doctor told her to take some antibiotics.

An antibiotic is a medicine that fights bacteria. The prefix anti- means "against."

Here are some more common words with this prefix:

climax         anticlimax
war antiwar
virus antivirus
corruption       anticorruption

Again, you will not always find an exact opposite for words that begin with anti-, but knowing this prefix will help you understand the meaning of the word.

2. Auto-

a woman typing on a computer

Madeleine is writing her autobiography. She has had a very interesting life!

An autobiography is a book someone writes about their own life. The prefix auto- means "self."

Here are some more common words that begin with auto-:
  • automobile
  • autopilot
  • autograph
  • autonomous
  • automatic
  • autoimmune

When you see a word that begins with auto-, you can guess that it means something about "self." Be sure to use a good dictionary to check the meaning of the word. Do not guess!

3. Dis-

two people having an argument

For example, when two people share the same opinion, we say that they agree. They have an agreement.

But, when the opposite is true, we say that they disagree. They have a disagreement.

The prefix dis- changes the meaning of the word. Dis- means "reverse" or "remove."

Here are some more examples:

advantage      disadvantage
appear disappear
ability disability
approve disapprove
comfort discomfort
like dislike
respect disrespect

There are many words in English that begin with this prefix. Although not all of them have a direct opposite, like the words in the table, dis- very often makes an opposite word.

4. Inter-

a world map

Agreements between different nations are called international agreements.

The prefix inter- means "between" or "among."

Here are some more common words that begin with inter-:
  • interact
  • intersect
  • interchange
  • interdependent
  • interface
  • interrelated

5. Sub-

the Indian subcontinent

India is a very large country. It is not a continent, but it is a subcontinent.

Sub- means "under," "below," or "less."

Here are some more common words that begin with sub-:
  • subconscious
  • subsoil
  • subterranean
  • submarine
  • subcategory
  • submissive
  • subordinate

6. Un-

a sad woman

Roberta is unhappy today.

The prefix un- usually means "not." This is a very common English prefix, and you will see it very often.

Here are some more common words that begin with un-:
  • unnecessary
  • unequal
  • untie
  • undesirable
  • unexpected
  • unacceptable
  • unreal
  • unwanted
  • unplug
  • unpack
  • undo
  • unfinished


So, let's review what we have learned about common English prefixes:

Prefix Meaning Example
Anti- against antiwar
Auto-               self                    autobiography
Dis- reverse, remove disrespect
Inter- between, among interactive
Sub- under, less subconscious
Un- not unexpected

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