One way to better understand the meaning behind words is to look at the different parts of each word and understand each part’s meaning separately, like squares in a patchwork quilt. Many English words are made by taking basic words and adding combinations to the beginning or end of the word to change the meaning. The basic word is called the root word, and the added portion is called the affix. There are three main affixes we use: prefixes, suffixes, and infixes.
An affix added to the front of a word is known as a prefix. One added to the back of a word is the suffix. Guess where an infix appears? That’s right, the middle of the word.
Let’s start by talking about prefixes.
The four most common prefixes are dis-, in-, re-, and un-. Let me show you what I mean.
The word form can mean to create something. If you add the prefix re- to the beginning of the word, we get the word reform, which means to form over again. In fact, re- is connected to an original Latin word that means “again.” If you add it to say or do you get the same effect—resay means to say something over again, and redo means to do something over again.
Can you spot the prefix in the word disclaim? Dis- is a Latin prefix that functions like a negative. Often, if you see dis-, you can put not in its place. Discontent means “not content.” Disability means “lacking ability.” Disbelief means not believing. Disclaim means to “not claim”—to deny or refuse to acknowledge.
Now that you have a good idea of what a prefix is, let’s talk about suffixes.
Like I mentioned before, an affix at the back of a word is a suffix. The four most common suffixes are -ed, -ing, -ly, and -es.
Let’s look at each of these suffixes attached to the root word love for illustration. If you add the first, you get the word loved, a past tense verb of the root word. The second suffix gives us loving, the third lovely, and the fourth loves. Each suffix changes the meaning of the word slightly, while maintaining the root meaning of the word love.
Now let’s talk about the third kind of affix.
Infixes go inside the word. There are actually very few infixes in the English language. but you will see them with certain plural words. Let’s look at the word cupful and the word passerby as examples. How would you make these two words plural? Contrary to what you may be used to saying, it’s incorrect to say “cupfuls” and “passerbies”—the correct English plural for these words is cupsful and passersby respectively. The infix s appears in the middle of both words.
Before we leave our topic of affixes, let’s talk about one area of grammar that often gets lumped into the affix category: combining forms.
A combining form is a form of a word that only appears as a part of another word. Think of the word clockwise. The suffix -wise is an adverb combining form that helps tells us the direction of the action. In the word photograph, -graph is actually a noun combining form that tacks onto the word photo to make a new word. These aren’t affixes, exactly. They have more substance.
Unlike affixes, combining forms can actually connect with an affix to form a real word. While you can’t put dis- and re- together to make a word, you can put wise and -ly together and you’ll get the word wisely.
In summation, prefixes, suffixes, and infixes are small add-ons to root words. Combining forms are slightly larger add-ons that often have some stand-alone quality. Understanding the various parts of words like this helps us understand the overall meaning of the word.