The Word Families of The English Language

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Let’s take the case of the form family, for example. It has the following relatives, most of which are familiar to you: inform, reform, conform, transform, information, reformation, conformity, transformer, transformation, perform

The cap or capt family, which carries the basic meaning “to take,” has a long list of related words: capture, captive, captor, captivity, captivate, captivation, caption,captious, capacity, incapacity, capacious, capable, incapable, capability

But, just as boys and girls belonging to the same family may have facial characteristics which mark them as members of the same family, they are still individuals; they have different personalities; they have different tastes; they talk differently, do different things. In other words, each member of the family is an individual in his own right. And so it is with words. While reform and conform belong to the same family, they mean different things. Each is an individual in its own right and has a different function to perform.

Making New Words

You will have noticed in the form family mentioned above that by adding a syllable before or after the basic word you can make a number of new words. This process is called word-building.

The basic part of a word is called the root. A syllable (or syllables) placed before the root to change its meaning is called a prefix. A syllable (or syllables) added after the root to change its meaning is called a suffix.

Note how the following roots are changed by the addition of prefixes and suffixes to form new words, with, of course, different meanings:

in -form-ation = information

trans -form-er = transformer

—cap-acity = capacity

in -cap-acity = incapacity

dis -appear— = disappear

un -settle— = unsettle

dis -band— = disband

mis -manage-ment = mismanagement


In order to help you understand how the meaning of a word is changed by the addition of a prefix, you should know the meaning of the more common prefixes. Study the list of prefixes below:

Prefix   Meaning        Example

a, ab     away from     abduct, abstain

ad         toward           adhere, adhesive

ante      before            anteroom, antedate

anti       against           antiaircraft, antiwar

bi          twice, two      biweekly, bimonthly

circum  around           circumference, circumscribe


con )

col )      with      )

cor )      together)        compose, conference

de, dis   away )

             down )

             apart  )           descend, dismount

e, ex      out, out of

              from             expel, excess

extra      beyond)

              outside)        extraordinary

in  )

il   )

im )

ir   )        not               inconstant, immature, illegible

in            in, into         include, inject

inter        among  )

               between)      interstate, intercede

post         after             postgraduate, postwar

pre          before           prepaid, prearranged

sub          down )

               under )         submarine, submerge

super       beyond  )     superhighway

                over      )     supernatural

                above   )

semi         half             semiannual, semiconscious

trans        across          transcontinental, transmit

tri            three            triangle, triple

un            not, or

                the reverse  unaccustomed, unlock

In connection with the matter of prefix meanings, a word of caution is in order. There are cases in which the ordinary meanings of the prefixes, as given above, do not apply. Take, for example, the word invaluable. In this case, the meaning of the prefix in is not negative as given above; that is, the word does not mean “without value” but rather “beyond price, precious beyond measure.” In the sentence “The picture borrowed from the Louvre for display in the Metropolitan Museum of Art is invaluable,” the word invaluable would hardly be defined as meaning “of no value.” A quick check with your dictionary will show you that the correct meaning is as set forth above: “precious beyond measure.” In cases like this, follow the general rule: When in doubt, consult the dictionary.


A suffix is one or more syllables added at the end of a word to change its meaning. Note the following:

allow-able = allowable

allow-ance = allowance

abject-ly = abjectly

formal-ly = formally

sad-ness = sadness

sense-less = senseless

Suffixes, like prefixes, also have meanings of their own. Below is a list of the more common suffixes and their meanings. Try to learn as many of these as you can, for they will come in handy in your efforts to increase your word power.

Suffix                Meaning                 Example

able, ible          able to be                readable, legible

an                     related to                American, Indian

ance, ence        quality, state of      continuance, intelligence

ancy, ency        fact of, act of         accountant, combatant

dom                  state of                   kingdom, wisdom

er, or, eer, ier   one who does         teacher, actor, auctioneer

ess                    female                    actress, patroness

ful                    full of                      faithful, trustful

hood                 condition of            statehood, boyhood

ion, sion, tion   act or result of        confusion, attention

ism                   act of, doctrine of   heroism, Americanism

ist                     one who does, or is  organist, scientist

itis                    inflammation          arthritis, tonsilitis

ity                     state, condition       activity, solemnity

let                     small in size           booklet, eyelet

ly                      like, in the

                           manner of             quickly, sadly

ness                  condition of            gladness, frankness

ous, ious           full of                     curious, religious

ship                   state of                   kingship, seamanship

tude                   state of                  solitude, gratitude


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