An affix is added to the root of a word to change its meaning.

An affix added to the front of a word is known as a prefix. One added to the back is known as a suffix. Sometimes, prefixes are hyphenated.

Easy Examples of Affixes

  • enclose
  • ex-President
  • laughing
  • infinity

Real-Life Examples of Affixes

The four most common prefixes are dis-, in-, re- and un-. (These account for over 95% of prefixed words.) Here they are in some short quotations.
  • He has all of the virtues I dislike and none of the vices I admire. (Prime Minister Winston Churchill)
  • I inspire myself. (American actor Tommy Wiseau)
  • May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears. (South African President Nelson Mandela)
  • What consumes your mind controls your life. (Unknown philosopher)
The four most common suffixes are -ed, -ing, -ly and -es. (These account for over 95% of suffixed words.) Here they are in some short quotations.
  • Normality is a paved road: itís comfortable to walk but no flowers grow. (Artist Vincent van Gogh)
  • Wanting to be someone else is a waste of who you are. (Singer Kurt Cobain)
  • To live will be an awfully big adventure. (Peter Pan)
  • Many foxes grow gray but few grow good. ("The First American" Benjamin Franklin)
Here is a list of common prefixes:
a-, an-withoutamoral, atypical
ante-beforeantecedent, antenatal
co-withco-conspirator, co-pilot
com-, con-withcompanion, contact
de-offdelist, devalue
en-put intoenclose, envelop
ex-out of, formerextract, ex-governor
extra-beyond, more thanextracurricular
homo-samehomonym, homophone
hyper-over, morehyperactive
il-, im-, in-, ir-not, withoutillegal, impractical, inconsiderate, irresponsible
inter-betweeninternet, intersection,
intra-betweenintranet, intravenous
non-not, withoutnonentity, nonstarter,
omni-all, everyomnipresent, omniscient
pre-, pro-before, forwardprecede, project
sub-undersubmarine, substandard
syn-same timesynchronize
super-abovesupervisor, superhuman
tri-threetripod, triceratops
un-notundone, unfinished,
uni-oneunicorn, unilaterally
Here is a list of common suffixes:
-able, -iblecan be done comfortable, passable
-al, -ialhaving the characteristics ofpersonal
-arianworker or of supporter oflibrarian, vegetarian
-edpast-tense verbs (weak verbs)danced, jumped
-enmade ofgolden, wooden
-ercomparativetidier, nicer
-er, -or one who actor, narrator, worker
-estsuperlativenicest, greatest
-fulfull or full ofcupful, careful
-ichaving characteristics of linguistic, sarcastic
-ingverb form (present participle and gerund) dancing, singing
-ion, -tion, -ation, itionact or processattraction, attrition
-ity, -tystate ofhumility, infinity
-ive, -ative, itiveadjective form of a nounexpensive, plaintive
-lesswithout topless, fearless
-lyadverb ending nicely, quickly
-mentaction or process enjoyment, entrenchment
-nessstate of, condition of eagerness, kindness
-ous, -eous, -ious possessing the qualities oferroneous, joyous
-s, -espluraltables, foxes
-ycharacterized by fatty, happy, jumpy

Why Should I Care about Affixes?

There are four good reasons to know about affixes.

(Reason 1) Using an affix to reduce the word count in your sentence

A word's meaning is changed when an affix is added. Sometimes, you can exploit this to reduce your word count by one or two words and to create a more flowing text.
  • Not aware > unaware
  • Not sure > unsure
  • Check again > recheck
  • (Incidentally, be careful with the word recheck. It means to perform a second check. All too often, it is mistakenly used for a first check.)
  • to bake cakes > baking cakes
  • a comparison of the data shows > comparing the data shows
In the two examples above, the suffix -ing has been used to create a gerund (a type of noun that can take an object). Using gerunds is a great way of creating more succinct, natural-sounding sentences.

(Reason 2) Breaking down long words to help with spelling

The word antidisestablishmentarianism (a 19th-century political position that sought the removal of the Anglican Church's status as the state church of England, Ireland and Wales) is best known not for what it represents but for its length (28 letters and 12 syllables). It was not uncommon for school children in the 80s to ask each other to spell antidisestablishmentarianism, due to its use in the comedy series "The Young Ones". This was an impossible task, surely? Well, no. If you break it down into affixes, it's pretty simple.
  • Anti-dis-establ-ish-ment-arian-ism
This is well-used technique to help with spelling.

(Reason 3) Breaking down long words to help with decoding their meaning

Studying affixes in a word (especially if you know its root) can help with understanding its meaning.
  • disrespectfully breaks down to dis-respect-ful-ly
  • (Dissecting disrespectfully gets you to something like "not-respect-full of-adverb", which would lead to something like "done in a manner that is full of no respect". That's a pretty good clue as its meaning.)
Not useful? Well, try understanding these without dissecting them:
  • lonelinesslessness
  • (With three suffixes, this is the concept of no loneliness.)
  • semihemidemisemiquaver
  • (With four prefixes, this a hundred twenty-eighth note.)
Looking at affixes to ascertain a word's meaning is particularly useful for non-native speakers. In truth, native speakers do it too, but we do it so quickly, we often don't realise we're doing it.

(Reason 4) Knowing whether to use a hyphen with a prefix

The guidance governing whether to use a hyphen with a prefix is quite complicated, but, luckily, this is one of those times when you're safe to fly by the seat of your pants. This is a good rule of thumb: Don't use a hyphen after prefix, but if it looks too unwieldly, use one. (There's more definitive guidance on using hyphens with prefixes in the section about prefixes.)

Key Points

  • Use an affix to create a new word that allows you to reduce your word count and smooth the flow of your sentence.
  • Identify the affixes in a word to help with spelling it and decoding its meaning.
  • Don't use a hyphen with a prefix, but if you can't bear how it looks, use one.
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