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In a recent article, we wrote about suffixes and how a firm knowledge of these can help you to vastly expand your vocabulary by giving you insight into aword’s part of speech. This is very helpful to know, but it only gets you part of the way towards figuring out a word’s full meaning.

In addition to knowing about suffixes, you should also be aware of prefixes. You might be able to guess what that means. If a suffix is the end part of a word, then a prefix is the beginning part. It’s the series of letters that go at the beginning of certain words and impart a certain meaning.

Today, we are going to examine prefixes to figure out what they mean and how that can help us get better scores in the TOEFL exam.

What are Prefixes?

A prefix is a series of letters that can be added to the beginning of a word in order to create a new word. This new word will have a meaning derived from the original word, but altered by the prefix. For example, there are various prefixes that imply something is opposite, such as “im-”. When you see a word that begins with “im-” then you can guess that this has the opposite meaning of the word without that prefix. For example, there is the word “impossible.” This has the opposite meaning of “possible.” If you know what possible means, then it is easy to figure out what “impossible” means.

In addition, it is quite common for prefixes to make a word negative, such as the prefix “un-”. Let’s take the adjective, “eventful,” meaning that lots of things are happening. If we add “un-”, then we get the word “uneventful,” which means that nothing much is happening. We can see how this would function in the following sentence:

  • It was a pretty uneventful weekend as all my friends were out of town.

Was this an exciting weekend? No. Not much happened to the speaker, so he has used the word “uneventful” to describe it.

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Making Words with Prefixes

Sometimes it is easy to make a word with a prefix as you can just add the right prefix to the right word, such as the two previous examples: “impossible” and “uneventful.” However, you cannot just add any prefix to any word to make this happen, as you would often create a new word that is not quite correct.

Let’s take the word “help,” for one example. This is a verb but we do not have a prefix that can change it in its verb form. Instead, we can make “help” into an adjective by adding a suffix: “helpful.” Then we can add the prefix “un-” to make it negative: “unhelpful.” This describes a person who does not help or is not very good at helping.

It is not always easy to make a word using a prefix, as you can see. Rather, the benefit of knowing about prefixes lies in figuring out the meaning of words you encounter when practicing with English.

The Important of Prefixes for TOEFL

For this reason, it is quite important to be familiar with a range of prefixes before doing TOEFL. There are many common ones that appear often in the English language and knowing these can give you a good chance of figuring out the meaning of a word in the test. This is especially useful for reading and listening, but really it could help you in any part of the exam.

Take the prefix “multi-” as an example. Perhaps you have seen this prefix in other common words like “multiple” or “multicultural.” In the TOEFL exam, maybe you will come upon the following excerpt:

  • The results of a recent survey showed that multilingual children were more likely to adapt better to diverse learning environments. Further inquiry showed that this was not related to their ability to speak other languages, but rather to how they perceived people from other cultures.

You might initially look at the word “multilingual” and think, “I don’t know that.” Indeed, it is not a terribly common word and it does look a little difficult. However, if there were a question that required knowledge of this word, it would be worth attempting to deconstruct its meaning, and doing this would require a knowledge of its prefix.

We can see that it begins with “multi-” which means “many” or “several.” This gives us an advantage, but we still don’t know the meaning of the word “lingual.” However, this can be intuited from the next sentence. These children can clearly “speak other languages,” and this is indeed the meaning of “lingual.” Perhaps you can see that “ling” relates to “lang” or maybe you have heard other words like “bilingual,” that also include this root.

In any case, with an understanding of prefixes and the common sense to find meaning in nearby phrases, we can quickly figure out the meaning of multilingual: someone who can speak several languages.

How to Learn Prefixes

This skill can clearly help you for TOEFL as well as in everyday life. By studying various prefixes, you give yourself a good chance of at least partly understanding many words that may appear in your English exam.

There are different ways to achieve this. Perhaps the most realistic is the slow approach of simply learning words in context and then noting similarities in their beginnings. You might, for example, read three BBC news articles in the morning as reading practice and note that each of them contained a word featuring the prefix “over-”. You would see words like “overconfident,” “overindulged,” and “overloaded.” Clearly, these words are related but you read them in different news articles… When you search for these words in a dictionary, you will find the meaning and you should make a note of what they have in common. Each of those words means “too much” of something: too much confidence, too much indulgence, and too much weight loaded onto something. Then, when you are reading a recipe in the evening to further improve your reading skills, you might see a warning not to “overcook” the food… You should now be able to tell that it means “cook too much (or too long).”

Another way to learn prefixes is to do it methodically by memorizing the most common prefixes in the language. We can see several of them here in this chart:

Prefix Meaning Common words
Anti- Against Anti-malarial, anti-establishment
Auto- By itself Autobiography, automatically
De- To reverse De-clutter, de-escalate
Down- Lower Downgrade, downplay
Mis- Wrong or badly Misjudge, misunderstand
Post- After Post-war, postmortem
Re- Again Remind, remit, reengage

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Negative Prefixes

There are four different types of prefix that are commonly used to show the negative form of a word. These are:

  • il-
  • im-
  • in-
  • ir-

You are probably familiar with the word “illegal,” which most TOEFL students should know. It means “not legal,” but in English we seldom say “not legal” because the word “illegal” is more common. Here, the prefix “il-” is used to make “legal” negative. At the top of this article, I also showed you the common word “impossible,” which used “im-” to make “possible” negative… or even opposite, in fact. Examples of the other two prefixes include “inappropriate” and “irrespective.”

The important thing is that when you see a word beginning with those letters, you can start to question whether it is a negative form of another word. This can help you figure out the meaning of this new vocabulary. Just make sure that when you memorize these words, you don’t mix up the prefixes. Even though those all mean negative things, you cannot say “unpossible” or “unlegal.”

Hyphen or No Hyphen

One final point: You have probably noticed that in the above chart, there were some words that included hyphens, like “post-war” and “de-clutter,” whereas most of them did not include a hyphen. You might wonder if there is a rule about when to use a hyphen with a prefix and there is in fact no such rule. Unfortunately, like many other vocabulary issues in English, you simply need to remember these words. Sometimes it is even possible to write a word in two different ways: one with a hyphen and one without.

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