Negative Prefixes

A prefix is a group of short inconspicuous words /units / letters added to the beginning of a word (root) or base. Prefixes create words that carry a negative or opposite meaning. Most prefixes come from Greek or Latin.


Etymology / Origin Meaning Frequency / Productivity
un- Germanic not,  opposite of high
anti- Greek not + against high
non-/non Latin not high
in- (il-, im-, ir-) Latin /French not,  opposite of medium
a- (an-) Greek not, without medium
dis- (de-, dys-) Latin /French not, without, absence of low
mis not, an error low
en- (em-)  [in-] Latin bring into a certain condition or state or to invest with a certain quality low

 Productive (most used) Prefixes

Un- is the most productive for new words and has been the default negative prefix for a long time.  (formerly –in).  It’s a native English prefix and is often attached to adjectives of native Germanic origin or sometimes Latinate adjectives.  Participial adjectives which end in the native suffixes –ed and –ing most always take un-: unjustified,

Un is used with verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and sometimes abstract nouns. It can indicate negation or the opposite quality (unable, unacademic, unbelievable, uncompleted, unconditional,  unconscious, uncooperative, undiscriminating ,unending, unequal, unfair, unfeeling, unfortunate,  unfriendly, ungrateful,  unhealthy, unheard of, unhelpful, unhappy, unjustified, unkind, unknown, unlawful, unlikeable, unreliable, unromantic, unsafe, unsuitable, untidy, untrue (false or romantically dishonest ) or reversal of a process  See De-  (undress, undo, unconscious, uncover, unlock, unpack,  unpatriotic, unprecedented, unreasonable, unscrew, unsympathetic, untie, unveil, unwind).

Exceptions / Irregularities: unexpected (surprising), unmoral (unconcerned with morality), unwise (foolish), unstable or instable,

Some speakers mistakenly use  un- for common words: unthaw / unfreeze for thaw, untighten /unloosen for the opposite of tighten (loosen).

Anti- is very productive and particularly with adjectives that describe ideologies and attitudes. Anti- means “not” and “against”: anticapitalist, anticommunist, antiFacebook, antigovernment, antiracist, anti-American, antisexist, antitrust,

Non- /non expresses simple negation.  Most non- words are hyphenated in BE and are one word in AE.  If something is nonreligious, has nothing to do with religion but it is not necessarily antireligious or irreligious.  Non- is commonly associated with Latinate/French words such as nonacademic, non-negotiable, non-judgmental and non-specific, it has become more productive than the other Latinate prefixes.

Non- can form negative adjectives with many present participles and past participles regardless of the origin of the stem word: non-returnable, non-smoking, non-aligned, non-caffeinated, and non-profit making, non-man made.  Non- can often form negative adjectives by joining verbs, to express the meaning that what is described does not perform the action described by the verb. Examples include non-stop, non-shrink, non-slip.

Dis-, In-, Un are similar in meaning and often denote a state on the opposite end of the scale.

Medium Productive Prefixes

A- Greek prefix for adjectives describe the properties of certain nouns or a sense of ‘without’ or ‘lacking in or lack of’.  Apart from formal or technical terms, new words are seldom coined from Greek.

An- used when the following adjective begins with a vowel or an h.

aerobic (with air), chromatic (color), moral,  morphous (shape), symmetric (symmetry), typical (impression), hydrous (water), oxic (oxygen)  → anerobic (without air), achromatic , amoral (lacking in morals), amorphous (lacking in shape or form), asymmetric, atypical, anhydrous, anoxic

[a- and an-, and il-, im-, in- and ir have the same meaning but are superficially different because the initial sounds in the stem words are different. They are phonologically conditioned]

In- is virtually a dead prefix generally attached to adjectives derived from Latin. In-  is not used to form new words:  inability, inaccessible, inaccurate, inarticulate, incredible, ineffective, inelegant, inequality, inequitable, inexact, incompetent, incomplete, incorrect, independent, indiscriminate, infamous, injustice, insignificant, insincere, instability, instable, interminable, intolerable, intransitive, involuntary.

Assimilation of in- →  im- → il- → ir-

N (alveolar consonant) is pronounced with the tongue is against the area just above the upper teeth. This is a central area so the in- prefix matches / can manage many sounds. However, when

in- is attached to an adjective beginning with b, p, m (bilabial consonants) there is assimilation to im-.  In- changes to il- before l and to ir- before r

About englishniche

This is a site for discussion of grammar and pronunciation, with an emphasis on U.S. and Canadian English. Anyone who loves either is welcome here. The views on this blog are my own. The author is a native of Canada and studied in France and the United States before coming to Germany to teach military dependents for the Canadian Department of National Defense (DND). He is still there. The author has taught extensively in elementary and senior high schools, as well as in college and university. He works freelance as a lecturer, proofreader, copy editor, rewriter in General American English for various international companies and academics in France, Germany, and Switzerland, and is an occasional translator from German or French to English. The author is a member of Greenpeace, Amnesty International, and a committed amateur environmentalist, ecologist, alternative nutritionist, and kriyaban
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