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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.) Continue reading Words and Reason: In a Fix with Affixes