While trying to think of a brief list of English prefixes that mean "not" or "opposite to" in some way, I was wondering why so many exist. As English has roots in so many languages, I was hoping somebody could help me understand maybe how some prefixes hail from different languages, and why we have kept all of them. Perhaps there are micro-differences in meaning, and I'd love any insight on that. Examples of different prefixes all meaning the same thing, and examples, are below:

  • a- atypical
  • an- anaerobic
  • anti- anticlimactic, anti-clockwise (for Britons)
  • counter- counter-intuitive, counterclockwise
  • dis- disengage, disconnect
  • il- illegitimate
  • im- immeasurable
  • in- indestructible
  • ir- irresponsible
  • mis- misunderstand
  • non- nontraditional
  • un- unhappy

I know it's an antitypical question, but it's disunderstood in my head and seems misresponsible to have counterunderstood meanings to ameasurable words, making it unpossible for people to learn all these incommon prefixes.

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    Welcome to the site! Take a look at these related questions: Origins of negative prefixes like in-, un-, il-, ir-, dis-, a-, Are there any patterns to observe in choosing the correct negative prefix to use? I don't think your question is exactly the same as either of these, but maybe edit your question to make it more specific because another similar question has been marked as a "duplicate": I was wondering why there are multiple prefixes for the same meaning – herisson Aug 31 '17 at 23:48
  • Well, many of them come from Latin. With a- vs. an- I'm pretty sure the rule there is simply to prepend the former to words commencing with a consonant, and catenate the latter to the sinister side of words commencing with a vowel. – Parthian Shot Aug 31 '17 at 23:49
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    I tried to burn this question, but it turns out that it’s non-inflammable.   :-)   ⁠ – Scott Sep 1 '17 at 0:15
  • Thanks for the thoughts! Scott, thanks for bulleting the list. I realized it looked funny and was thinking about how best to reformat. Looks great. I'll try refining the question so it doesn't end up as a duplicate. Thanks. – C.Yi Sep 1 '17 at 1:42
  • You could question further. Why inability but unable ... – GEdgar Dec 26 '19 at 20:37

Here's what might be a piece of the puzzle. In the case of "i", it seems that words are modified to preserve pronounciation. This happens in Portuguese; for instance, "legítimo / ilegítimo", "responsável / irresponsável" -> we get a double R because otherwise the result would sound weird.

This might be the case with the negation of 'responsible' and 'aerobic'.

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