The Parts of a Word

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A reader asks about the terms prefix, root, and suffix, and wonders how to distinguish them in a word.

At the most basic level, words are made up of units of meaning called morphemes. A morpheme may be a recognizable word like tree, run, or button that cannot be broken down into smaller meaningful parts.

A morpheme can represent meaning without being a word. For example, the prefix un- expresses the idea of negation. The suffix -ness, used to turn adjectives into abstract nouns, is a morpheme. The root struct, seen in structure and construct, is a morpheme that embodies the meaning of “to build,” but it cannot stand alone as an English word.

A root is a word’s basic part and carries its fundamental meaning. In the word sadness, for example, the root is sad. Sometimes two roots combine to make one word, as in telephone, a combination of the morpheme tele, which relates to distance, and the morpheme phone, which relates to sound.

Prefixes and suffixes belong to a set of morphemes called affixes. An affix is an element added to the base form or stem of a word to modify its meaning.

Standard English makes use of two types of affix: prefixes and suffixes. A prefix is added at the beginning of a word. For example, the prefix re- is added to a root or a word to denote the idea of doing it again: return, renew, reconstruct.

A suffix is added at the end of a word.

Suffixes are of two kinds, derivational and inflectional. A derivational suffix changes the underlying meaning of the word; an inflectional suffix changes the tense of a verb or the number of a noun, or performs some other grammatical purpose.

Some common derivational suffixes are, -er, -al, -ful, and -ize. The suffix -er added to a verb creates a person or object that performs the action of the verb: teach/teacher, walk/walker, kill/killer, compute/computer; -al and -ful change nouns into adjectives: accident/accidental, forget/forgetful; -ize changes a noun into a verb: terror/terrorize.

Common inflectional suffixes are endings such as, –ed, -ly, -‘s, -s, -er, -ed, -es, -est, and -ing.

Derivational endings are added to a root. For example, the word reconstruction is made up of the root struct, two prefixes, re- and con-, and a suffix, tion. (Because struct ends in t and tion begins with t, one of the ts had to go.)

Inflectional endings are added to a stem, which is the entire word that the ending is being added to. In the words reconstructed and reconstructing, for example, the stem is reconstruct-.

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2 thoughts on “The Parts of a Word”

  1. “The root ‘struct’, seen in structure and construct…”

    autodestruct, destruct, destruction, instruct, instruction, instructor, obstruct, obstruction, reconstruct, substructure, superstructure.
    There are several good examples of prefixes and suffixes in this list.

    SHIP’S COMPUTER: Awaiting the final order for self-destruction, Captain Kirk.
    Capt. Kirk: Zero – Zero – Zero – Destruct – Zero.
    COMPUTER: 60 second countdown to autodestruct sequence….

  2. I was looking for more; consonant / syllable / vowel / letter / etc., all the parts of a word.

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