What Is a Word Root? (with Examples)

by Craig Shrives

Word Root

A word root is the base part of a word (i.e., less any prefixes and suffixes).

To change the meaning of a word, a prefix can be added to the front of the word root, or a suffix can be added to the back. Quite often, a prefix and a suffix are added to a word root to change the meaning. (Prefixes and suffixes are known as affixes.)

word root

Example of Word Roots with Prefixes and Suffixes

In these examples, the word roots are in bold, and the prefixes and suffixes aren't.
  • Word root: friend
    • friends, friendly, unfriendly, friendship
  • Word root: normal
    • abnormal, normality, normalize, abnormality
  • Word root: mature
    • immature, maturity
    • (Notice how the "e" is dropped off the root word for "maturity." Often, there are spelling rules to consider.)

"Word Root" or "Base Word"?

Be aware that there are two different terminologies for dissecting words:
Some (like us) use these terms:

Example: unfriendly
  • "un" is a prefix.
  • "friend" is the word root.
  • "ly" is a suffix
Some use these terms:

Example: unfriendly
  • "un" is prefix. (A prefix is a type of root word.)
  • "friend" is the base word. (A base word is a type of root word.)
  • "ly" is a suffix. (A suffix is a type of root word.)
Here at Grammar Monster, we use the version on the left (i.e. "word root"), but be aware that you might encounter the version on the right (i.e., "base word" and "root words" to mean the base word and the affixes).

A List of Common Prefixes

Here is a list of common prefixes with some examples:
a-, an-withoutamoral, atypical
ante-beforeantecedent, antenatal
co-withco-conspirator, co-pilot
com-, con-withcompanion, contact
de-offdelist, devalue
en-put intoenclose, envelop
ex-out of, formerextract, ex-governor
extra-beyond, more thanextracurricular
il-, im-, in-, ir-not, withoutillegal, impractical, inconsiderate, irresponsible
inter-betweeninternet, intersection,
intra-betweenintranet, intravenous
non-not, withoutnonentity, nonstarter,
pre-, pro-before, forwardprecede, project
sub-undersubmarine, substandard
super-abovesupervisor, superhuman
un-notundone, unfinished,
uni-oneunicorn, unilaterally
Read more about prefixes.

A List of Common Suffixes

Here is a list of common suffixes with some examples:
-able, -iblecan be done comfortable, passable
-al, -ialhaving the characteristics ofpersonal
-edpast-tense verbs (weak verbs)danced, jumped
-enmade ofgolden, wooden
-ercomparativetidier, nicer
-er, -or one who actor, narrator, worker
-estsuperlativenicest, greatest
-fulfull or full ofcupful, careful
-ichaving characteristics of linguistic, sarcastic
-ingverb form (present participle and gerund) dancing, singing
-ion, -tion, -ation, itionact or processattraction, attrition
-ity, -tystate ofhumility, infinity
-ive, -ative, itiveadjective form of a nounexpensive, plaintive
-lesswithout topless, fearless
-lyadverb ending nicely, quickly
-mentaction or process enjoyment, entrenchment
-nessstate of, condition of eagerness, kindness
-ous, -eous, -ious possessing the qualities oferroneous, joyous
-s, -espluraltables, foxes
-ycharacterized by fatty, happy, jumpy
Read more about suffixes.

The term "word root" does not just apply to nouns and creating new nouns (e.g., forming "player" from "play"). Word roots also apply to verbs, adverbs, and adjectives. For example:
  • Word root: play
    • He plays football.
    • (Here, the suffix "s" is added to the word root to ensure the verb fits grammatically.)
    • He played tennis.
    • (The suffix "ed" forms the past tense.)
    • He had played badly.
    • (The suffix "ed" forms a past participle.)
    • He skipped playfully.
    • (The suffix "fully" forms an adverb.)
    • This game is not playable.
    • (The suffix "able" forms an adjective.)

Why Should I Care about Word Roots?

Here are four good reasons to care about word roots.

(Reason 1) Use root words to increase your vocabulary.

If you're learning English, you can quickly increase your vocabulary by learning some common word roots and the most common prefixes and suffixes.

(Reason 2) Use your understanding of word roots and affixes to decode the meanings of long words.

Often, you can decode the meaning of a word by identifying the word root and applying your understanding of any affixes. Here's an easy example with the word "disrespectfully":
  • Disrespectfully" breaks down to dis-respect-ful-ly. This gets you to something like "not-respect-full of-adverb," which would lead to something like "done in a manner that is full of no respect." And, that's a great starting point for decoding its meaning.)
Here are some harder examples:
  • lonelinesslessness
  • (With three suffixes, this is the concept of no loneliness.)
  • semihemidemisemiquaver
  • (With four prefixes, this a hundred twenty-eighth note.)

(Reason 3) Use an affix to reduce your word count.

A word's meaning is changed when an affix is added. Sometimes, you can exploit this to reduce your word count and to create a more flowing text.
  • Not aware > unaware
  • Not sure > unsure
  • to bake cakes > baking cakes
  • a comparison of the data shows > comparing the data shows

(Reason 4) Break down long words to help with spelling

The word "antidisestablishmentarianism" (a 19th-century political position that sought the removal of the Anglican Church's status as the state church of England, Ireland and Wales) is best known not for what it represents but for its length (28 letters and 12 syllables). Can you spell it? No? I bet you can. If you break it down into its word root and affixes, it's pretty simple.
  • Anti-dis-establ-ish-ment-arian-ism
This is well-used technique to help with spelling.
Interactive Exercise
Here are three randomly selected questions from a larger exercise, which can be edited, printed to create an exercise worksheet, or sent via email to friends or students.

See Also

What are prefixes? What are sufixes? What are affixes? Using hyphens with prefixes What are syllables? Glossary of grammatical terms