The Roots of English

One of the best things for any writer to do is expand his or her vocabulary. Writing that relies upon a limited set of words becomes tiresome for readers — unless the book is by Dr. Seuss.

The quickest way to add variety to the vocabulary of a work is to buy a thesaurus or use the one included with your computer's operating system or word processor. Readers learn new words through context, assuming a writer does not overuse this power. One tip: do not replace a word you know with a word you do not know.

Writers wanting to expand their vocabularies should consider the following:

  1. Read anything, especially articles on topics with which they lack familiarity;
  2. Work crossword puzzles, without using crossword dictionaries;
  3. Play games such as Scrabble® to exercise vocabulary and spelling; and
  4. Learn the origin of many English words, also known as “roots.”

Uncovering Roots

Words are composed of roots: prefixes, suffixes, and bases. The English language borrows roots from dozens of other languages. The most common roots come from the Latin and Greek languages.

Latin Prefixes

The word prefix means added before or affixed to the front. Most prefixes are one or two syllables. In the following chart, prefixes following a semicolon are uncommon.

Prefix Meaning Example Definition
a, ab from, not absent away from
ad; ac, ag, al, at to, toward adhere stick to
ante before antecedent one’s ancestry, past life
bi two, halves bisect to cut into two pieces
cent; centi hundred or hundredth centimeter one hundredth of a meter
circum around, round circumvent to surround or circle around
com; col, con, cor together, with combine
unite, join, mix together
to gather together in proper order
con opposite, away from contrary opposed, opposite in nature
contra, counter against, opposed to counterpart one’s opposite
de from, down descend to come down or go down
dis; di, dif apart, from, not disengage to release or loosen, not in gear
e, ex; ec, ef out, from expand to move outward
extra beyond, outside extraterrestrial from beyond the earth (terra = earth)
il, im, in, ir in, into, or not irreplaceable not replaceable
inter between interpersonal between two or more people
intra within intramural within the limits of a city or college
mill thousand millennium a thousand years
multi many multifaceted having many sides or faces
non not nonsense without logic
ob, op; oc, of in front of, against opposition either philosophically or physically aligned against another
omni all, every omniscient having complete or infintite knowladge
per through, by perennial lasting through a year
post after postpone to put off
pre before prehistoric before written records
pro in favor of, forward propel to move forward
re back, again revise to look at again
se apart seclude to keep apart
semi half semiannual every half year
sub; suc, suf, sug, sum under, before submarine beneath the ocean
super, sur above, over supervisor looking over or looking from above
trans across, beyond transport to move from a location
tri three triumvirate three men ruling one government
ultra beyond ultraviolet light waves beyond the visible spectrum
un, unus, una, unum, o one unanimous of one opinion or mind
vice in place of viceroy a governor or ruler acting in place of or on behalf of a monarch

Latin Verb Roots

Many English words are derived from Latin verb roots. Although their roots are verbs, these English words can be any part of speech.

Root Meaning Example Definition
ag, act, ig do, act, drive react to act or do again
au, aud hear, sound audible something loud enough to be heard
cap, capt, cept, cip take, seize, hold capture to take by force or surprise
ced, cess go, yield recession going back or receding
cide to kill, cut down, or murder homicide a killing of one human being by another
claus, clud, clus shut, close conclude to bring to a close or ending
cred believe, true credible believable, reliable
cur, curs run cursory hastily done
deus, dei God deity God or Goddess
dic, dict say, speak dictate to speak or read aloud
duc, duct lead, draw deduce to solve or trace the derivation or origin of
fac, fact, fy make, do manufacture the making of goods or articles by hand or by machine
fer bear, carry transfer to carry from one person or place to another
fract, frag, frang break fragment to break into pieces
grad, gress, gred go, walk, step ingress to step into, enter; the act of entering
jac, jact, ject throw, cast reject to discard or throw out
jug, junct join junction a joining or being joined
leg, lect read lecture to give a prepared informative talk to an audience
loqu, locut speak, talk elucidate to make clear, explain
mir to look at, to wonder at mirage anything that does no exist
mit, miss send, cast remit to send back, to include in a response back
pell, puls drive repulse to drive back, repel
pend, pems hang, weigh depend to rely on for support or aid
pon, pos, posit put, place position to put in a specific place
port, portat carry, bear transport to carry from one place to another
rupt break interrupt to break into or in upon
sci to know science knowladge based on observed facts
scrib, script write transcribe to write out or type out in full
sect cut dissect to cut in half
sequ, secut follow, behind sequence to arrange in a specific order based on a logical succession
spec, spic, spect see, look at inspect to look at carefully, especially in order to detect flaws
sta, sist, stat stand resist to stand firm against, fend off
tang, tact touch contact to get in touch with
tend, tens, tent stretch, strain extend to stretch out, enlarge
tort, tor, torqu twist, turn torture to twist or distort a meaning; to cause pain
trah, tract draw retract to draw back or in, to withdraw
ven, vent come, arrive invent to devise or create for the first time
vert, vers turn revert to go back in action, thought, speech, or condition
vid, vis see, look at visualize to form a mental image of
viv, vic, vict live revive to come or bring back to life
voc call, speak vocalize to express with the voice
volv, volut turn around, roll revolve to rotate or spin

Common Greek Roots

Root Meaning Example Definition
a, an not anarchy without structure or form
anti against antithesis opposite in theory
archeos ancient, old, original archaeology scientific study of the people, customs, and life of ancient times
auto self autobiography telling the story of one’s life
biblio books, of books bibliography a list of books, artices, etc., about a particluar subject or person
bio life biology the science of life
caco bad, poor, evil cacophony succession of harsh, lashing sounds
chron time chronological in order of time
dec ten decimal based upon portions of ten or tenths
dem people demographics the representations of people through statistics
derm, derma skin hypodermic under the skin
eu well, good euphoric to have a good sensation or to be of good humor
exo outside, outer part exogamy custom of marrying only outside of one’s own tribe or group
(Exoskeleton was too easy!)
ge earth geography to mark or record land formations
gen race, kind genus any group of similar things
graph write, draw telegraph to draw remotely
hemo blood hemorrhage discharge of blood
hiero sacred, holy hieroglyphics picture, character or symbol standing for a word, idea or sound
hyper over, extremely hyperbole an exaggerated statemant used especially as a figure of speech for rhetorical effect
hypo under, in smaller measure hypocrisy pretending to be what one is not
ideo idea ideologue person occuied with ideas
log, logy speech, reason logical with sound reason, demonstrable
metr, meter measure metric any measurement system
micro small microscope a tool for viewing items too small to be seen with the naked eye
miso to hate misogyny hatred of women
necro physical death, corpse necropolis cemetary
olig few, scant, small oligarchy few people have the ruling power in a form of government
ology to discuss formally geology to study the origins of land and soil
pan all panorama a wide, unbroken view of a surrounding region
peri around perimeter the outer boundry of a surface or figure
phage eating, destroying phagocytosis process in which a cell surrounds and consumes another cell or solid matter
phil loving philanthropic charitable
phob fear, dread phobia a persistent, abnormal, or irrationa fear of a certain thing
phon sound phonetic of or having to do with speech sounds
polis city metropolis a large city
poly many polygon a multi-sided object or form
pseudo false, fake pseudonym a fictitious name used by by an author instead of his or her real name
pyr fire pyromaniac person who has an uncontrollable desire to set things on fire
tele distant, away telegram messege sent by telegraph

Common Suffixes

Like prefixes, suffixes are roots added to base words.

Suffix Meaning Example Definition
able, ible capable of terrible causing great fear
ance, ence act or state of pestilence infectious or contagious epidemic disease that spreads rapidly
ant, ent one who, pertaining to ambivalent acting in different ways
cer one who, pertaining to dancer one who dances
dom quality of, state of kingdom nation ruled by a king
ee one who is employee one who is employed
en to make fasten to fasten
ess female princess daughter of a king or queen
ful full of, characterized by hopeful optimistic
hood quality of, state of motherhood being a mother
ian one who, pertaining to martian a being from Mars
ion, tion action, state of, result of attention state of focus
ish like, similar to childish acting like a child
ity quality of, state of purity state of cleanliness
less without worthless having no value
ly in the manner of happily in a cheerful way
ment action, state of, result of containment trapped without escape
ness quality of, state of greatness being extraordinary
or one who, pertaining to vendor person who sells
ous, y full of, characterized by dangerous unsafe
ship skill, state, quality friendship state of trust
tude quality of, state of multitude large number of something


Latin English
Latin English
Latin Greek
1 one unus first primus singular, primary singuli monos, mono
2 two duo second secundus binary, secondary bini di
3 three tres third tertius tertiary terni  
4 four quattuor fourth quartus   quaterni  
5 five quinque fifth quintus   quini penta
6 six sex sixth sextus   seni hex
7 seven septem seventh septimus   septeni hepta
8 eight octo eighth octavus   octoni oct
9 nine novem nineth nonus   noveni non
10 ten decem tenth decimus   deni deca
20 twnety viginti twentieth vicesimus   viceni  
100 hundred centum hundredth centesimus   centeni cent
1,000 thousand mille thousandth millesimus   milia kilo
many           poly

The Body

body corpus
head caput
arm bracchium, armare
leg crus
foot ped
hand manus
eye oculus
mouth bucca
skin cutis, pellis
tooth dens
ear auricilla, auris, spicus
hair capillus, capillago
blood sanguis

Note: Additional research by A. Long and E. Coker (2003).


Christ, Henry I. Modern English in Action, Ten. Boston: D. C. Heath and Co, 1965.

Ellsworth, Blanche and John A. Higgens. English Simplified. 10th ed. New York: Pearson Education, 2004. (ISBN: 0321104293)

Mulvey, Dan. Grammar the Easy Way. Hauppauge, N.Y: Barron’s, 2002. (ISBN: 0764119893)

Ramage, John D., John C. Bean, and June Johnson. The Allyn & Bacon Guide to Writing. 4th ed., brief. New York: Pearson/Longman, 2006. (ISBN: 0321291514)

Rozakis, Laurie E. Grammar and Style. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to. New York: Simon & Schuster, Alpha Books, 1997. (ISBN: 0028619560)

Scholastic Writer’s Desk Reference. New York: Scholastic, 2000. (ISBN: 0439216508)

Shertzer, Margaret. The Elements of Grammar. New York: MacMillian Publishing, 1986. (ISBN: 0020154402)


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Writer: C. S. Wyatt
Updated: 08-Mar-2017
Editor: S. D. Schnelbach