A few letters make all the difference: prefixes and suffixes

English is a funny language. You can take a simple word and add a few letters at the start or finish and completely change the meaning, or if you want, build an idea that defies dictionaries but not the mechanics of the language. No wonder readers get confused.

We use suffixes and prefixes every day rarely giving them a thought. Technically speaking the “s” added to a noun to make it plural or an -ing or -ed to change the tense are suffixes (known as inflectional suffixes I discovered when researching this post).

There are numerous lists online of common, and not so common, word beginnings and endings, including this one, so I won’t bore you with them here. But for the fun of it, pick a random word and see how far you can take it.

Here’s some inspiration using, well, random.

random – randomise – randomisation – derandomisation – derandomisationness – prederandomisationness

Taking a slightly different route

random – randomness – randomnicity – randomnicitation – misrandomicitation

Spell check (and real dictionaries) reject my lists after the third and second words respectively – but why? They make sense when you bother to decode them. Surely you can think of at least one occasion every day to trot out misrandomicitation.

Prefixes and suffixes help build words - and confusion

Prefixes and suffixes help build words – and confusion

I used to play this game during boring meetings – challenging myself to come up with the longest word possible from the next utterance from the boring speaker’s mouth. But suffixes and prefixes are not laughing matters. They are the cause of many miscommunications.

Take unlockable. It can mean capable of being unlocked but also impossible to lock. While priceless could be mistaken as a synonym for worthless rather than a description of value so great it can’t be calculated. How many ways can you interpret this? “The priceless ornament was thrown into the unlockable chest.”

Di- and bi- cause all kids of confusion when added to sect  – which in itself has nothing to do with sections. In fact bi is just so difficult it should be banned. I’m tired of having to double check with authors whether they really mean twice a week or fortnightly. Don’t get me started on -annual versus -ennial.

And then there is my favourite group of words: those that don’t make sense without their little friends. Another mental exercise – add a prefix to make sense of these naked roots.

Nomer, capitate, ept, peccable, gruntled.

Not to be confused with back formations, which really are words made from removing bits of longer words.

All this confusion without even venturing down the hyphenate or not-to-hyphenate road.

Clearly, these small collections of letters play a pretty important role in the way we communicate. As such they deserve a least a passing thought when put into use, if for no other reason than to avoid ambiguity and make it easier for the audience.

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