Un, In, Im, Il, Dis, Mis and All That


The Business of English
by Guy Perring

SUFFIXES and prefixes are used in English for word formation. Suffixes go after a root word and prefixes go before. Let’s first take a look at prefixes. For example, take the root word invest. By adding the prefix dis, you create a new word disinvest which means taking money away. Prefixes cannot exist by themselves, but rather change the meaning of the root word. Many prefixes such as un, in, im, ir and il essentially mean not and create a negative.

Take a look at the words below and see if you can provide the correct prefix to make the meaning the opposite:

  1. ___legal
  2. ___possible
  3. ___clear
  4. ___formal
  5. ___regular


  1. illegal
  2. impossible
  3. unclear
  4. informal
  5. irregular

There are no real rules here and it is best to learn and absorb the meanings and sounds. The prefix sub refers to something that is under, so sub + marine (referring to the sea) is a vessel that can travel underwater, submarine.

The prefix pre means before, e.g. Paul McCartney’s failure to sign a pre-nuptial agreement has led to a potentially expensive divorce settlement.

Here, nuptial is a formal word referring to a marriage and a pre-nuptial agreement is a financial agreement which decides on the split of wealth if a separation between the husband and the wife occurs. Note that “pre-nuptial” is hyphenated which is often the case with relatively newly formed words. The prefix mis means wrong or badly:

The board was misinformed about the extent of losses of its American subsidiary.

In the example above, incorrect information was given to the board. Note here that as well as misinformation, you can also have disinformation which is designed to mislead. “Information” is a word which can therefore have more than one prefix. Spelling usually stays the same, although the prefix all- drops the second ‘l’. So we have the words altogether and always. Look at the list below of some of the more common prefixes and try and guess the root word from the definition in brackets afterwards.

  1. Anti_____________ (hates the company of other people)
  2. Trans____________ (extending across both North and South Poles)
  3. Under_____________ (less than normal)
  4. Super_______________ (part of the building above the foundation)
  5. Over________________ (too heavy)
  6. Re___________________ (to commit money again into shares rather than spending the profits)
  7. Inter_________________ (in the middle position)
  8. Post___________________ (a review of a finished event)
  9. Ante___________________ (a large entrance or reception area)

  1. antisocial
  2. transpolar
  3. undersized
  4. superstructure
  5. overweight
  6. reinvest
  7. intermediate
  8. postmortem
  9. anteroom
I hope you can see that knowledge of the more common prefixes and their meanings automatically widens your vocabulary considerably. And because they are easy to break down into their original parts, they are relatively easy to remember. In the next column we will take a look at suffixes.

Guy Perring is Director, Professional Development Unit (PDU), at the British Council Malaysia. The PDU offers a wide range of learning opportunities from management and communication skills training to developing English skills. Visit us at www.britishcouncil. org.my or e-mail guy.perring@british council. org.my.

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Comment by Zaw Win on June 13, 2012 at 16:19

I appreciate your post.

Comment by ali arda akdeniz on October 31, 2010 at 16:46
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