If I wanted a word that indicated the absence of a property, like how 'inorganic' means 'not containing carbon,' what prefix might I use to indicate that?

  • Mono- and poly- are Greek suffixes. The Greek suffix a- or an- (before vowel or h) means "not", and it can also indicate the absence of something. Cf. atypical "not being of a type", atopical "not at a specific place", amorphous "without form", anaemic ("lacking blood"). Commented Nov 3, 2017 at 0:32
  • @Cerberus - So the disease is properly called "nucleosismono-"??
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Nov 3, 2017 at 0:41
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    I am just wondering how the in- of inorganic apparently escaped notice as a possibility.
    – Hellion
    Commented Nov 3, 2017 at 1:26
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    @Hellion: Because it's Latin! It's etymologically cognate with Greek a(n)-, though. Commented Nov 3, 2017 at 12:14
  • @HotLicks: I'm not sure I understand. I don't know which word you are referring to. Commented Nov 3, 2017 at 12:22

4 Answers 4


Mono- "one" and poly- "many" are Greek prefixes. The Greek prefix a- (normal form) or an- (before vowel or h) means "not", and it can also indicate the absence of something. That is why it is often called the alpha privans, the "depriving a". Wikipaedia:

An alpha privative or, rarely,privative a (from Latin alpha prīvātīvum, from Ancient Greek α στερητικόν) is the prefix a- or an- (before vowels) that is used in Greek and in English words borrowed from Greek to express negation or absence, for example atypical, anesthetic, and analgesic.

Cf. atypical "not being of a type", atopical "not at a specific place", amorphous "without form", anaemic ("lacking [red] blood [cells]").

  • P.S. This was originally a comment, but I have expanded it and added a quotation. Commented Nov 3, 2017 at 12:27

Chemists use de or des.

Desoxymescalne, or deoxyuracil etc.

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    I would be careful with de- because it can also mean "down" or "away," as in depress, denote, decline, deport, etc. Commented Nov 3, 2017 at 1:20

If you are asking for a productive prefix that can be used in the same way "mono-" and "poly-" are, I do not think one exists. For example, there are such things as "monogamy" and "polygamy", but no prefix attachable to "-gamy" gives the meaning not marrying. Same thing with monoplane, polyunsaturated, monofocal, etc.

If you just mean a prefix that can be used to mean absence, then "a-", "an-", "de-", "in-", "non-", "un-" are all used in different cases. For example, ocean water devoid of oxygen due to eutrophication might be described as "anoxic", while the blood running through your veins back towards your heart might be described as "deoxygenated" or "unoxygenated". There doesn't seem to be any one term that can be used in every case.

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    What about agamy? It's the "Absence of marriage; the state or condition of being unmarried. " (OED).
    – Laurel
    Commented Nov 3, 2017 at 2:49
  • I had no idea there was such a word. Looks like I was mistaken. However, I think my point is still valid - you can't just add a set prefix , like "a-", to any root that takes "mono-" or "poly-" and assume that the result will be a valid and meaningful word. Though my example was proven incorrect.
    – sky
    Commented Nov 3, 2017 at 3:49
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    There's a difference between de- and un-, particularly with oxygenation. De- refers to a specific action resulting in absence (removal of oxygen, in your example); un- is simply a state, probably in preparation for another action (re-oxygenation, in your example).
    – Andrew Leach
    Commented Nov 3, 2017 at 9:28
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    @sky: a- doesn't need to work for every word that is prefixed by mono- and poly- for it to be valid. There are cases where one of the options simply doesn't make logical sense, but that does not preclude the grammatical validity of it. Similarly "the Earth is smaller than an orange" is logically incorrect, but grammatically correct. I'm struggling to find examples where a- would be unusable; but even if such examples exist, that does not inherently invalidate the usage of a-, since it is generally applicable (a/mono/polytheistic, a/mono/polygamous)
    – Flater
    Commented Nov 3, 2017 at 12:31
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    @sky: Found one example of a- not being applicable: mono/polysaccharide. However, this makes logical sense. These are names for chemical materials. The absence of material (asaccharide?) would logically not be named, as it would then be unmentioned. Materials are generally named for what they are, not for what they aren't.
    – Flater
    Commented Nov 3, 2017 at 12:36

Mono- and poly- are Greek prefixes.

A- an- and ag- are all negatives in Greek. But I don't think a negative is what is wanted (see comments).

I think we want to say 'without'. I don't think we want to say 'not'.

The Greek for 'not even one' is ουδεις, oudeis.

ουδεις Strong {3762} Thayer's Lexicon

But 'oido' is a more English pronunciation.

Therefore :-

  • polychromatic, a painting with a variety of colours
  • monochromatic, a painting with only one hue
  • oidochromatic, a painting without colour, that is, in greyscale.

[Black and white are not, technically, colours and should not be referred to as 'monochrome'.]

Then we drop the second 'o' and use 'oid -' as a prefix for vowels.

[Polygamy, monogamy and oidogamy would thus be the sequence referred to above.]

It's easy to remember because its first letter is reminiscent of a zero.

'In' seems to be a bit of a problem (see comments, again).

'Inflammable' means 'highly flammable'. It doesn't mean 'not flammable'. 'Inestimable' means 'beyond estimation'. It doesn't mean 'there is nothing there to be estimated'. 'Incalculable' means 'infinite'. It doesn't mean 'there is so little there that you cannot calculate it'.

'Inorganic' should mean 'it's so organic, you just wouldn't believe it.'

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    In photography, and I believe in painting as well, black, and by extension grey is considered to be a colour. "Black-and-white" (greyscale) photographs are referred to as monochrome not oidochrome
    – BoldBen
    Commented Nov 3, 2017 at 8:47
  • Can you explain where you got this oido- from? If it's supposed to come from Greek oudeis, then I'm afraid that is not correct. First, the root meaning "not", as used in oudeis, is just ou. Secondly, you would not translitterate ou as oi, but rather as u, just as outopia "non-place" is translitterated into Latin (and hence always English) as utopia. Thirdly, ou is not normally used as the negative/privative prefix in Greek; a(n)- is used instead, as in amorphous, anaemic. Commented Nov 3, 2017 at 12:19
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    @BoldBen: Achromatic works here too, from a general English perspective: possessing no hue, being or involving black, gray, or white. This also refutes Nigel's suggestion that a- is not correct, at least not for the example that is being used (and most other examples that I can think of, to be honest)
    – Flater
    Commented Nov 3, 2017 at 12:25

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