Words and Reason: In a Fix with Affixes

by Cynthia Clampitt

Cynthia Clampitt
Cynthia Clampitt

Continuing our focus on writing language-acquisition lessons for educational publishers, I’d like to talk about affixes. Affixes are things that get stuck on words to change their meanings or their parts of speech. The two primary types of affixes—the only ones you’ll be asked to teach in textbooks—are suffixes and prefixes, stuck on (or fixed) after or before the words to be changed.

Most people think they know about suffixes and prefixes, but it’s surprising how often they are misled by words that look like they might be affixes but are, in reality, word parts. A word is only an affix if you can take it away and still have a word (or close to a word, as minor changes do occur occasionally).

Part of the reason this gets tricky is there are a few roots that appear as both word parts and affixes. These word parts that double as affixes are known as combining forms. For example, uni-, which means “one” or “having only one,” can be a prefix, as in unicycle or unicellular. But it can also be a word part, as in unify. Unify means to make one, so it still has the same meaning from the same root, but it’s clearly not a prefix. If you take it away, you’re left with -fy, which is not a word.

Another example is trans a word that is very useful to teach. However, if you teach it as a prefix, use examples such as transatlantic or transcontinental. If you use transfer, we’re again talking word part, not prefix.

When explaining these two affixes, point out to students that prefixes change meaning and suffixes change part of speech. For example, unhappy is the opposite of happy. Meaning changed. Happy is a noun; happily is an adverb. Part of speech changed.

It’s also important to keep in mind that some affixes have more than one meaning, and more than one root. For example, the prefix “ex-“ can be the Greek “out of” or the Latin “former.” Make sure you know which one you’re teaching in a lesson, and make sure the examples you give all match the definition you’re using. (Only in rare cases will you have enough space to compare both meanings, so remember to say, when defining, “One meaning of ex- is…,” so students know there are other possibilities.)

When teaching about prefixes and suffixes, pick ones that give kids the most bang for their buck, as far as figuring out the meanings of words. At lower grade levels, prefixes such as un-, non-, mis-, and re- are good options. As grades get higher, introductions can include dis-, ex-, pre-, sub-, anti-, micro-, ab-, ad-, ante-, post-, and so on. There are two keys here: one is using a prefix that will be understandable; the other is using the prefix on a word that is age-appropriate, or even slightly below grade level.

Suffixes are less often confused with word parts, so are often easier to distinguish, both for students and those writing exercises—though there are exceptions. A few common ones that are useful to teach include -ly, -able/-ible, -ism, -ity, -tion,  -ition/-ion, /-sion, -ness, -ful, -y, -less, -fy, and -ment. Remember that a suffix is something that, like the prefix, can be removed and still leave a word, so even though -ology and -cracy, for example, are common word endings, they are not suffixes. Take them off theology or democracy, and you’re not left with a word—at least not an English word.

Be aware that verb endings are not suffixes, so don’t ever include -ing or -ed in a lesson on suffixes. Also, the -s or -es that make nouns plural are not suffixes. One important clue is that neither of these changes that part of speech of the words to which they are added.

The lists above are far from exhaustive. Generally, you will be limited to words in a vocabulary list or that appear in the text. But these may help you recognize likely candidates when you’re searching.

Write exercises that define the affix and then demonstrate how it changes the word to which it has been attached. Finally, give one or two examples that use the affix attached to simple vocabulary words and ask students what, given what they have learned about the affix, the new word means.

In cases where the base word changes when an affix is added, it is a good idea to point it out, at least at first occurrence. The most common changes are y turning to i when a suffix is added to a word that ends in y (beauty/beautiful) and a final consonant doubling when a suffix is added (rebel/rebellion).

For slightly older students, you can even show how multiple affixes can be added to a single word. Or, more correctly (since the point is to teach students how to figure things out in English), demonstrate how they can break down something that looks like a long, unfamiliar word. Tell students to notice if there are familiar affixes or a familiar core word, then have them strip those away and figure out meaning based on the core word and the meaning of the various affixes. Even that word many of us tried to memorize in grade school to impress people—antidisestablishmentarianism—can be broken down this way. (Hard to believe that is just the word “establish” with a ton of affixes, isn’t it?) This is an extreme example, but you get the idea.

Affixes can be a very real key to opening up language for kids. Knowing how to write about them can be a key to having publishers rely on you for language-acquisition lessons.

BIO: Contributor Cynthia Clampitt is a freelance writer, food historian, and traveler. She loves history, geography, culture, literature, and language—and the place where all of these intersect. She is the author of the award-winning travel narrative, Waltzing Australia, and keeps two blogs, http://www.theworldsfare.org and http://www.waltzingaustralia.com.