The root words in the examples below look fine even without a prefix:

un + bearable
ir + regular
dis + able
mis + fortune

... but not in these:

pro + gress
pro + mote

Possibly, I don't understand what a prefix really is. –pro in the above two examples may or may not be a prefix at all. But I would like to have these two points clarified.

1) Is it not always possible to separate a prefix from its root word because doing so will cause the root word lose all meaning?

2) Is it alright to look at –pro as a prefix in the above two cases because it's a prefix anyway and being detachable from its root word is not really a criteria for it to be a prefix?

Please discuss.

  • A root is a morpheme. There is no requirement for a root to exist in a language as a word on its own. Commented Aug 4, 2013 at 13:30
  • 1
    All of the prefixes you mention are Derivational; derivational affixes don't usually have well-defined meanings. Some do, but most don't. And many Englich derivational prefixes and roots were borrowed from Latin or French, after the prefixes had been added; and we often didn't borrow the root, only the prefixed words, like conceive, receive, deceive, perceive. Commented Aug 4, 2013 at 14:35

2 Answers 2


Prefixes are morphemes that are attached to root terms to create a new or more complex concept. However, the root term can have many variations, and a given word that contains a prefix may not make sense if the prefix is removed.

Your example of promote is one of these. The following is the explanation of the etymology of promote from the Compact OED

late Middle English: from Latin promot- 'moved forward', from the verb promovere, from pro- 'forward, onward' + movere 'to move'

Many prefixes were already attached in the language from which the word derived. This is an example. Movere (to move) is the root and pro- (forward) is the prefix. Promovere was an acceptable term in Latin before it migrated to Middle English and modern English.

Some of the derivative words in English can stand alone when the prefix is removed, such as promotion (pro + motion = forward + movement).

Even if the word was created in modern English by adding a prefix to a root, the variations on the word may not allow the root part to stand alone when the prefix is removed. For example, telephony is a term that was created in modern English. If the tele (distance) prefix is removed, the root part phony cannot stand alone. However in telephonic, when you remove the prefix, phonic can stand alone.

  • 1
    Interesting. So, how does one explain the case of 'promote'? Should we just say –pro is the prefix and 'mote' is the root word without any meaning of its own? In that case, the prefix seems to carry more meaning than the root term it is to supplement.
    – Elzee
    Commented Aug 4, 2013 at 16:45
  • Mote is a variant, just like motion of an underlying Latin root. Mote does not stand alone, but it still conveys the concept of move. The prefix does have meaning, but so does the root.
    – bib
    Commented Aug 4, 2013 at 19:20
  • 1
    Would it be completely wrong to say that –pro in words such as promote and progress is not really a prefix but instead an integral part of the word structure. There has to be a technical distinction between words like these where the root term cannot function on its own without the prefix and words where it can (ex: promotion, prolong etc.)
    – Elzee
    Commented Aug 5, 2013 at 11:36

Combinations of letters that precede other letters of a word but are integral to the word (i.e., if these first letters are omitted, the remaining letters are meaningless) are called combined forms. See http://www.myenglishteacher.eu/blog/prefixes-suffixes-list/

  • Really good and helpful information, but as it is not a direct answer to the question as asked, it should probably have been offered in a comment. But given you even offered a citation, and a little reflection on this post does answer the question, I'm also happy with it as it is.
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Jun 23, 2016 at 18:06

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