Prefixes and suffixes change the meaning of roots, therefore to properly analyze a word it is often helpful to know what is the prefix and what is the root. Prefixes are a syllable or syllables in front of a word, but is there a definitive rule/ method to determine where one syllable (the syllable last of the prefix) starts and ends.

example: a- is a prefix meaning to, towards, or in the process of, as in aglow and aside. Apple also starts with a-, but does not have an a- prefix and the double consonant distinguishes the syllables. Another word: abyss would be harder to distinguish in this way: a-byss or ab-yss. Another example: alula: a-lu-la or al-u-la

Is there a rule (or set of rules) to generalize the distinguishing of prefixes from roots: it could contain the double consonant rule, but needs more to work most of the time except with irregulars/ exceptions. If able, the rules should account for multiple syllable prefixes like contra-. If needed, the rules can rely on a set of known prefixes.

  • 1
    It will depend on lot on the source language of the word. Germanic prefixes, Latin prefixes and Greek prefixes all are different, and work differently. Just to clarify, you want a way to separate prefixes from roots based on the spelling of a word?
    – herisson
    Commented Jul 9, 2015 at 17:34
  • @sumelic yes, I want a way to separate prefixes from roots just by the word's spelling
    – user128531
    Commented Jul 9, 2015 at 17:35
  • 5
    No, there isn't a universal rule.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Jul 9, 2015 at 17:37
  • No, there isn't. You need to just learn the most common prefixes. Then you can easily deconstruct a word like "antepenultimate". Keep in mind not every polysyllabic word has a prefix. "Antenna", for example, is a single word. I am still learning the occasional prefix (I'm native AmE.) Commented Jul 9, 2015 at 18:29
  • @medica you also have to be able to recognize roots, to see whether the bit you're left over with after removing the suspected prefix makes any sense.
    – phoog
    Commented Jul 9, 2015 at 19:22

1 Answer 1


This is no matter of rules, prefixes are either Latin prefixes such as con, dis, ex, re or Greek ones or French ones. Someone who knows these languages knows the prefixes of those languages. But you can find lists on the Internet of Latin, Greek or French prefixes.

  • 2
    Knowing the roots does not mean you will recognize them in the right places, however. There's no anti- in antimony but there is in antinomy; there's no meaning of contra- in contraption contra contraction.
    – choster
    Commented Jul 9, 2015 at 18:21
  • Etymonline is the best online resource to get information about word formation.
    – rogermue
    Commented Jul 9, 2015 at 18:24
  • @choster, good examples! That's really what I am getting at: how to distinguish something that looks like one prefix when it is really coincidence that the letters look like that prefix, and no prefix is truly there.
    – user128531
    Commented Jul 9, 2015 at 18:39
  • @user128531 or perhaps a different prefix is there (con, not contra, in "contraction" and arguably in "contraption").
    – phoog
    Commented Jul 9, 2015 at 19:25
  • @choster contraction is con + traction, not contra + ction or contra + action.
    – phoog
    Commented Jul 9, 2015 at 19:26

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