What are the different types of prefix in academic English?

This is the second of three lessons about Prefixes. To complete this course, read each lesson carefully and then unlock and complete our materials to check your understanding.   

– Introduce and describe the different types of prefix

– Discuss how prefixes may be used to change word meanings

– Outline the rules of hyphenation with prefixation

Lesson 2

After understanding the basics of affixation and prefixation, the next step is to be able to recognise the different types of prefix which are available to you in both speech and writing. If you’re able to understand the various meanings and applications of these prefixes, you’ll certainly be able to more accurately and efficiently expand your own vocabulary– as well as better equip yourself to deal with any unknown vocabulary you may encounter.

Broadly speaking, prefixes can affect a word in a number of fairly straightforward ways. Prefixes can, for example, make a word negative, show opposite meaning, express time or spatial relations, or even describe the manner of an event or action. The first two ways are demonstrated in the following table:

Prefixes 2.1 Negation and Opposition

Manner, space, and time relations are also exemplified below:

Prefixes 2.2 Manner, Space and Time Relations

As is clear from these examples, different prefixes may have roughly the same meaning, usually due to their etymological history (such as whether that prefix has entered the English language from Greek or Latin). However, it’s important to additionally highlight that there may also be prefixes with the same meaning but only slightly different spelling variations, as in the following words:

Prefixes 2.3 Prefixes with the Same Meaning

The meaning of all four of these prefixes is the same (‘negation’ or ‘not’), yet in the above examples we have four very similar spellings: ‘il-’, ‘im-’, ‘in-’ and ‘ir-’. The reason for this similarity is primarily due to the rules of pronunciation. If, for instance, this negation prefix precedes an ‘l’ sound it will be written as ‘il-’, and if it precedes an ‘m’ or ‘p’ sound, then it will instead be written as ‘im-’.

One final type of prefix to be conscious of is the type that requires a hyphen. Of course, whenever an unbound morpheme is written in isolation such as ‘ir-’, then such a hyphen will be used to show that that prefix is unconnected from its base word. In words such as ‘irreplaceable’ there is clearly no hyphen necessary, but this is not the case for all words such as in the following:

Prefixes 2.4 Prefixes with Hyphens

While there are no absolute rules for determining such variation, and the decision whether or not to use a hyphen can sometimes simply be due to the writer’s choice, the following guidance can help if you’re looking for some general advice:


1. Use a hyphen with ‘ex-’ and ‘self-’ (‘ex-communicated’; ‘self-absorbed’)

2. Use a hyphen instead of doubling vowels (‘re-enter’; ‘semi-implied’)

3. Use a hyphen with proper nouns (‘un-American’; ’pro-Trump’)

4. Use a hyphen to show different meanings (‘retreat’ vs. ‘re-treat’)


Now that you’re able to identify the different types of prefix, you’re probably ready to find out which prefixes are used most commonly in academic English.

2 of 3 Lessons Completed


Once you’ve completed all three lessons about prefixes, you might also wish to download our beginner, intermediate and advanced worksheets to test your progress or print for your students. These professional PDF worksheets can be easily accessed for only a few Academic Marks.

Our prefixes guidance sheet (including all four lessons about this topic) can be accessed here at the click of a button.

Gain unlimited access to our prefixes beginner worksheet, with activities and answer keys designed to check a basic understanding of this topic’s lessons.

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