Would like to know what is the reasoning behind the use of some prefixes for example if one were to use "un-"able as opposed to "dis-"able the situational context is understood yet the same does not apply for agile.

In software development the Agile methodology is a cultural mindset adopted by organizations to respond to change in a responsive manner. In the 90s to the early 00s there was a great amount of frustrations experienced in the software industry. Software and products were frequently delivery over budget, late and of poor quality. Traditional project management is defined in the control of cost, scope and schedule which is the opposite of dealing with high rates of change or chaos that is typically found in software development. Agile practices were created to mitigate these risks and develop ways to empower software developers to deliver high quality products at cost on time.

My question is why do we describe "ability" in different ways than "agility". For someone to say that a project has low agility or low ability isn't as effective as completely negating it. When describing a state of something wouldn't it be more effective to just negate the word entirely like "inability" yet the same negation doesn't seem appropriate with "inagility"?

Edit: I'm not trying to invent new words but I would like to be able to say that the "agility" is lacking. Someone pointed out that typically verbs are negated by "un-". I'm wondering how do they negate states in the medical field. Any suggestions?

Edit 2: I found a great paper on the agility of organizations. http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/30029/1/Collective_agility_(LSERO).pdf

  • The reason is someone hates the English language. What awful words. Commented Jan 10, 2016 at 18:23
  • @Rathony I can provide context. Computer programming projects have "agility" as a measure of their ability to manage unexpected change. Thus "clumsy" is not really appropriate. I would use "Failed to maintain agility" rather than try to conjugate jargon into a new buzz word. But then I'm not trying to sell a book. Commented Jan 10, 2016 at 18:34
  • 1
    Or just switch the polarity... "low agility"? Commented Jan 10, 2016 at 18:43
  • @CandiedOrange Thanks. I just wanted to point out that the question title and body don't match and some context could be helpful if it is provided by the OP.
    – user140086
    Commented Jan 10, 2016 at 18:55
  • @Rathony go ahead and edit the question title. OP can undo it if they want. Commented Jan 10, 2016 at 19:00

3 Answers 3


The OED sets out several operational senses of dis-:

  1. Undoing (disown)
  2. Depriving (disarm)
  3. Reversing (dishonest)
  4. Imputing a negative feeling (disapprove)

The prefix un- (from Old English) almost always signifies a simple negation and often distinguishes itself from its Latin cousins in-, im-. So to be unmoral (i.e, to be amoral) is have no ethical guidelines, while to be immoral is be actively evil.

Likewise, there are differences in meaning from the prefix dis-. If you're unarmed, then you have no weapons, but if you've been disarmed, you once had them and someone has taken them away. (See 2 above.) The appropriations committee may unapprove a project, removing its funds and undoing a previous action for fiscal reasons, but if the members disapprove of the project, they actively dislike it. (See 4 above.)

Unfortunately, if the words are in use, there are no rules that will tell you the connotations. For instance, disapprove once had the additional meaning of disprove, but that meaning is obsolete, superseded by the sense of frowning upon.

Both prefixes are freely used to coin new words, and in that case, you're on your own. Unagile is not quick and not graceful, but what is disagile? Unagile or downright clumsy?

  • Great response. Thank you. In medicine typically you see negation as a way to describe states so why in business isn't it the same.?
    – nbo
    Commented Jan 11, 2016 at 0:23
  • @nbo I think almost by definition negation describes states. I see no reason why business states shouldn't be described by negation. The question is which form of negation prefix to use -- a- from Greek, in-,im- from Latin, non- from Latin, un- from Old English, dis- from French, etc.
    – deadrat
    Commented Jan 11, 2016 at 0:39
  • Great response and I concur but I don't know which one sounds most appropriate. Obviously dis-agile and unagile work but sound awkward. How about anti-agile or non-agile?
    – nbo
    Commented Jan 11, 2016 at 13:06

I'd definitely re-cast the sentence and use a current English word instead of inventing one. Sluggishness?

But to address the question, the Anglo-Saxon "un" would originally have applied to actions (verbs, mostly) like "undress" or "undo." The French "dis" would be for separation, splitting -- "disjoint," say. However, over the centuries these distinctions blur and combine.

  • Sluggish seems a little stiff as describing a businesses ability to respond to change but I see your point.
    – nbo
    Commented Jan 11, 2016 at 0:24

Ability and Agility are different kinds of concepts. Ability is strictly a binary (yes/no) thing. You are able to do it, or you are unable to do it. You have the ability, or inability to do something. You should not, in good English, have a "low ability" to do something.

Agility is different. You can have it to a greater or lesser degree. Thus you can have a low level of agility, or a high level.

  • Thank you for responding. Ontologically speaking to say something is a state means that it will exhibit qualities, shouldn't degrees be considered sub-qualities? What is the best practice of negating states or concepts? What are your thoughts on non-agility vs anti-agility? Which of these two sounds more appropriate when describing the state of something? I see non-agility as a state where there is no ability to change or respond. Can anti-agility, which is the opposite of agility, describe the patterns or practices which lead to states on non-agility?
    – nbo
    Commented Jan 11, 2016 at 15:08

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