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What is an Affix?

An affix is a grammatical element that is added to the beginning or end of a word to change its inflection or meaning. Affix is a general term for prefixes and suffixes. Adding an affix to a root word or phrase changes its meaning by creating a derived or inflected form. Affixes can be thought of as bits of words that can be attached to other words to create new meanings or change a word’s part of speech.

Types of Affixes

There are two different types of affixes in English, the prefix and the suffix.


Prefixes appear at the beginning of a root word. Prefixes are word bits that signify partial meaning on their own and can give readers a clue about what the word means. For example, the prefix un- means no or not, so with the word ungrateful, one can understand the word to mean not grateful. Prefixes are an easy way to communicate the idea of a phrase. To express the quality of not being grateful, one can simply say ungrateful. Using a prefix in this context makes the language more succinct.

Prefixes signal to readers how to interpret a base word. For example, in the word unhappy, the prefix un-, which means not, informs the reader that the root adjective should be interpreted in the negative.


Suffixes appear at the end of root words. Suffixes have more uses than prefixes in English. Suffixes can provide information about a word, change a word’s grammatical function, or create new words with new parts of speech.

There are two types of suffixes: inflectional and derivational.

Inflectional Suffixes

Inflectional suffixes, such as -s, -ed, or -er, modify the information of a word or phrase.

The suffix -s modifies singular nouns and makes them plural. For example, the noun dog is singular, whereas the noun dogs is plural because of the addition of the -s suffix. In this way, the suffix -s can change the number of things.

The suffix -ed modifies verbs and gives us information about when an action occurred. For example, in the sentence, “Bob walked to the store,” the suffix -ed attached to the verb walk lets the reader know that Bob’s action took place in the past.

The suffix -er modifies adjectives and provides comparative information. For example, take the sentence “Mary’s dog is bigger than her cat.” Here, the suffix -er is attached to the adjective big, letting the reader know that the size of Mary’s dog is greater than that of her cat.

There are eight inflectional suffixes in English:

  • -s (noun, plural)
  • -s (noun, possessive)
  • -s (verb, present tense)
  • -ed (verb, past tense)
  • -en (verb, past participle)
  • -ing (verb, present participle)
  • -er (adjective, comparative)
  • -est (adjective, superlative)

Derivational Suffixes

Derivational suffixes, such as -ly or -ful, create new words from a base word. Derivational suffixes generally change the part of speech of a word.

The suffix -ly changes an adjective, a word that describes a noun, into an adverb, a word that describes an action. For example, in the sentence “That dog is bad,” the reader understands that the noun, the dog, has some unagreeable personality traits. If we add the suffix -ly to the adjective bad, it becomes the word badly, which describes how an action (or verb) is performed. For example, in the sentence “That dog behaves badly,” the word badly gives us information about how the dog behaves.

Similarly, the suffix -ful changes the meaning and part of speech of a word. For example, in the sentence “This painting is full of color,” the reader understands that there is a lot of color in the painting. However, taking the noun color and adding the suffix -ful creates the adjective colorful, recasting the sentence like this, “the painting is colorful.”

There are 70 derivational suffixes, but only about 15 of these are common. Some familiar derivational suffixes are -tion as in transition, -acy as in privacy, -ist as in narcissist, and -ment as in disappointment.

Use of Multiple Affixes

Affixes can be used in conjunction with each other to communicate complex information in a single word. Words that have multiple affixes are called compound words.

A word can have more than one prefix. For example, the word insubordination (defined as the defiance of authority) has the prefix in-, meaning not, and sub-, meaning under. Together these prefixes communicate a state of not being under authority.

A word can also have more than one suffix. For example, the word beautifully (a word that describes a pleasant way of doing something) has the suffix -ful, meaning full of, and -ly, a derivational suffix that changes beautifully from an adjective to an adverb.

A word can also have a prefix and a suffix. For example, the word disproportionately (a word that describes a lopsided comparison) has the prefix dis-, meaning not, and the suffix -ly, a derivational suffix that changes the word disproportionate from an adjective to an adverb.

Affixes List

There are numerous affixes, but some are more useful than others. These short affix lists demonstrate some of the more common grammatical elements in the English language.

Here are some common prefixes in English:

  • un-, which means no or not, as in unhappy
  • re-, which means again, as in reinterpret
  • dis-, which means opposite or not, as in disengage
  • mis-, which means wrong, as in mistake
  • pre-, which means before, as in prefix

Here are some common suffixes in English:

  • -ful, which means full of, as in meaningful
  • -ly, which means a way to do something, as in slowly
  • -less, which means without, as in hopeless
  • -ness, which communicates a state of being, as in happiness
  • -ic, which means pertaining to, as in characteristic

Affixes Examples

Below are two affix examples:

  • Consider the sentence, “The movie had a climactic ending.” In this sentence, the reader understands that the movie had an exciting ending. Adding the prefix anti- to the adjective climactic can greatly alter the meaning of the sentence. For example, “The movie had an anticlimactic ending.” All of a sudden, the movie is no longer exciting.
  • Also, consider the sentence, “My doctor told me to eat a diet high in nutrients.” This sentence can more quickly communicate the provided information by adding the adjective suffix -ious, which means characterized by. The sentence becomes “My doctor told me to eat a nutritious diet.” The suffix -ious help the sentence better communicate what type of diet the doctor wants the person to eat.

These are just two examples of how to use affixes to improve communication.

Lesson Summary

Affixes are grammatical elements that change the meaning of a root word, either by altering the information included in a word, changing the grammatical function of a word, or creating a new word with a new part of speech. The English language only uses prefixes and suffixes. Prefixes come at the beginning of a root word and give readers information about how to interpret compound words. Suffixes come at the end of root words and come in two varieties: inflectional and derivational. Inflectional suffixes change the grammatical function of a word. Derivational suffixes change the meaning and part of speech of a base word. Multiple affixes can be used together to create new words or communicate complex information in a single word. Some common affixes are un-, re-, dis, -ly, -ness, and -ic.

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