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Getting Smarter through Language

Intermediate Reading Course. Section 1: The Basics

Using Word Roots and Affixes as Context Clues

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What Are Word Roots and Affixes?

Many words in English are formed by adding prefixes and suffixes to a word root. For example, the word “unbelievable” is formed from the word root “believe.” The prefix “un-” makes the word negative or the opposite. The suffix “-able” at the end gives it the sense of something that can be done and makes it an adjective.


A few common Germanic, Latin, and Greek word roots

Germanic Root Words

Latin Root Words

ambi, meaning “both, on all sides” (e.g., ambidextrous, ambiguous, ambivalent, ambient).

aqua, meaning “water” (e.g., aquaculture, aquarium, aquatic, aqueduct).

dict, meaning “say” (e.g., contradict, dictate, predict).

duc(t), meaning “lead” (e.g., aqueduct, conduct, educate, introduce).

inter, meaning “between, among” (e.g., international, interjection, interact, interface).

ject, meaning “throw” (e.g., eject, project, inject).

rupt, meaning “break” (e.g., corrupt, disrupt, bankrupt, rupture, abrupt).

sent, meaning “feel, think” (e.g., assent, resent, sense, consent, sensitive).

viv, vit, meaning “life, live” (e.g., vital, vitamin, revival, survive).

Greek Root Words

bio, meaning “life" (e.g., biology, biography, biodiversity).

ethno, meaning “race, people” (e.g., ethnographic, ethnic, ethnocentric).

graph, meaning “writing” (e.g., biography, photography.

logos, logy, meaning “study of” (e.g., biology, psychology, pharmacology).

micro, meaning “small” (e.g., microbe, microscope).

mono, meaning “one” (e.g., monotonous, monochromatic, monologue).

photo, meaning “light” (e.g., photography, photon, photosynthesis).

techno, meaning “science, art, skill” (e.g., technique, technology).

The Complicated History of English

English belongs to the Germanic language family along with languages such as German, Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian, and so on. Over the centuries, the language borrowed words from many languages, particularly from Latin (directly or via Old French) and Greek. That is why you often find words with similar meanings using different roots.


For example, the words “hue” and “color” have very similar meanings, both related to color. “Hue” is the Germanic word whereas “color” comes from Latin “colore” via Old French “color” or “coulour.” You can add the Germanic suffix -ful (something having the characteristic of the root word) to the Latin root “color” and get “colorful.” However, you can add it to “hue,” but the word “hueful” is extremely uncommon.

To describe something that has no color, you can use the Germanic suffix -less to get “colorless.” You can also add the Greek prefix a- (meaning “not”) to the Greek root word “chroma” (meaning “color”) and get “achromatic.” This word is a scientific term meaning “colorless.”

This is how English ended up with words that have slightly different meanings such as “colorless” and “achromatic” though they are used in different contexts or fields.

Table 1 has a short list of words with similar meaning that derived from Germanic, Latin, and Greek word roots.

Table 1. Words with similar meaning derived from Germanic, Latin, and Greek roots.
Germanic Root Latin Root Greek Root
brotherly fraternal Philadelphia
ache, sore painful, dolorous cephalalgia (headache)
head capital, chapter cephalalgia
hue color monochromatic
love, loving amorous philanthropist
mother, motherly maternal metropolis
smell odor aroma
sun sol, solar heliosphere

For example, “smell,” “odor,” and “aroma” are synonymous. They are often used in certain contexts only; for example, an aroma evokes the idea of smells from spices or cooking and is generally associated with an agreeable smell or fragrance; odor can be used as a neutral word though it is often associated with disagreeable smells. You say “body odor,” but “body aroma” sounds very strange. You would say a chemical has an odor and wine has an aroma.

”Amorous” is synonymous with “loving,” but it can also evoke a sense of “passionate love.” Philadelphia is known as the city of brotherly love; the “philo-” root refers to love whereas “adelphos” refers to “bother.” In turn, “fraternal” comes from the Latin root “frater,” meaning “brother.”

Word Formation and Reading

Does this mean you need to learn Latin and Greek to understand English? And what does this have to do with reading?

You do not need to learn Latin and Greek to understand English; however, it is a good idea to understand how words are formed. When you run into a word you do not know, you may be able figure out its meaning if you recognize its word roots.

For example, if you see a word ending in -logy, (e.g., hematology) you at least know it has to do with the study of something because you recognize the Greek root word -logy in it. (Hematology is the branch of medicine that deals with the study of blood and blood-related illnesses.)

Likewise, if you run into a word such as “neuralgia” in a medical text, you may recall the Greek root “algia” from “cephalalgia” in Table 1. It has to do with pain. (Neuralgia refers to a type of nerve pain.)

Up Next: Anatomy of a Paragraph—How Paragraphs are Written

Go to the next portion of the course to learn about main ideas and supporting details.

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