Language awareness: How to form negative words, from past to present (edited by teacher)


This post is aimed at expanding a bit what we discussed the other day about the origin of negative prefixes. / This post intends to clarify a bit what we were discussing the other day in class about… Well, let’s start by revising how we form (indirect question) words in English. The English language (and probably most languages in the world) has three main* ways of creating (coining is the technical term, really posh) new words:

  1. By adding an affix to a root or base, see:

e.g. unhappyly

The particle that goes before the base happy, is a prefix, and the one that goes after is a suffix. The former changes the meaning of the base (in this case the opposite meaning), the latter changes the category of the word, from an adjective to an adverb.

So far so good?

  1. By changing the word-class of the base, without modifying the word, see:

a happy person (adjective)        The happy is dancing (noun)

  1. By combining two bases, i.e. forming compound words:

the happy-hour

Now, we will focus on the first possibility, which is one of the commonest mechanisms to create new words, and particularly we will refer to the case of negative prefixes. To do this, I have necessarily to tell you something about the history of English. So, let’s travel back in time.

The English that we know and use today is like a salad with three main ingredients: An Anglo-Saxon syntactic core, plus the addition of few but very frequent Norse (Viking) words, all this dressed with an avalanche of Latin and French words introduced after the Norman conquest in 1066 (this is another story). So, if you think for a moment about ten or twenty English words, you will discover that many of them sound really familiar, really close to Spanish. Bingo, they come from Latin or French which are Romance languages too. So, those words (or part of words, like prefixes), coming from Anglo-Saxon and Norse, are considered native of English, while those coming from other languages, e.g. Latin, French, German, are considered non-natives of English. Going back to negative prefixes, there are five possibilities to “reverse”  the meaning of a particular word  in Present-day English:

a-, as in asymmetrical. It comes from Greek, used mostly in technical words.

dis-, as in dislike, it comes from French (also de-, as in debone)

in-, as in incompetent. It also comes from French (it also could appear as il-, ir-, im-, as in illiterate, irregular, impossible)

non-, as in non-sense, guess what? yes, you are right, French/Latin origin.

un-, as in uncountable, the only negative prefix authentically English.

Normally, but not always, the non-native prefixes, i.e. a-, dis-, in-, and non-, occur attached to non-native words (those that were “imported” from other languages). On the other hand, the native prefix un- can be combined with native and non-native bases. Why? Well, there is not a straightforward answer, but basically this is because non-native prefixes entered in English as part of foreign words, e.g. incomplete (from French incomplete), and therefore speakers generally associated that prefix to a non-native word. Once the word was made so common in English, speakers started to use the same prefix in combination with other bases, but normally from the same origin. On the contrary, the native prefix un- was always in the mind of English speakers, they knew its negative meaning, hence they used ­un- to form negative words or to express the opposite action of a verb (reversative meaning), i.e. do vs. undo. So, for native speakers this form was freely re-usable with native and non-native words.

The problem is that there is not a rule** to know whether a base combines with a native or a non-native prefix, just like what happened the other day with unpolite* and impolite. As I said before, generally non-native prefixes occur with non-native bases, but there are exceptions as in dislike, or distrust, among others. So, if the word sounds similar to Spanish you could guess that it can be combined with a non-native negative prefix, but this is not always true, because un- can be attached to non-native bases too. Then, we have no option but to look the word up in the dictionary. To make things worse, occasionally some bases combine with two different prefixes, e.g. undigested (adj.) and indigestion (noun). This occurs because at some point in the history of English the same base was used with both prefixes, they competed, and eventually both forms remained in the language though with different use and/or meaning.  Last but not least, it is necessary to bear in mind that some of these prefixes have other meanings too, for instance in- is also used with the sense of ‘in, within, internal’, as in inside; and dis- occurs with verbs “having already a sense of division” as in disjoint (information obtained from the Oxford English Dictionary online, OED,

The following table shows some of the most common words in news published online for each case (source: The NOW corpus (News on the Web) contains 3.3 billion words of data from web-based newspapers and magazines from 2010 to the present time,

I hope you enjoyed the post, and find it useful!♥

Un- Dis- in- Non a-
Unfortunately Discovered Inappropriate Non-profit Atypical
Unlike/ly Disclosure Inevitable/bly Non-governmental Apolitical
Unable Disorder inequality Non-existent Asymmetrical
Unusual Disable inadequate Non-stop Ahistorical
unknown Disagree independently Non-fiction Abiological
Unemployment Disappeared inaccuracy Non-exclusive
Unveiled Disability inconvenience Non-violent
Unprecedented Displaced Incorrect Non-compliance
Unfair Disadvantage inconsistent Non-resident
Unexpected disregard Indirectly Non-traditional
Unclear discharge Insane Non-commercial
Uncertainty Dissatisfied insufficient Non-native
Unnecessary Discomfort intolerance
Uncomfortable Disproportionate ineffective
Unhappy Disqualified
Unlimited Disconnect
Unaware Dislike
Uncovered Discontent
Unrest Dishonest
Unlawful Dismantle
Unbelievable disrespectful

* There are more ways to create words – see my workshop on Lexical Creativity)
** Well, many languages don’t have Royal Academies establishing rules, and this happens in English-speaking countries, and this is not a problem. Linguists (people who study the language scientifically) create dictionaries, and that is why English dictionaries are so good: they include the words people use, and the spellings that are being used, and the meanings that are being used, in contrast to what prescriptivists like those in Spanish-speaking Royal Academies do — an anachronism in the world of Modern Linguistics. The problem is not that there are no rules, the “problem” if we should call it so, is that human languages are a wonder of creativity, and that languages change all the times depending on use, not on rules. Life is full of “irregular” processes! Do you see what I mean? Let me know or post comments here, on this too, if you like! 🙂 So — the most truthful, accurate, useful approach in language learning is knowing there are tendencies and also lots of exceptions! 😀

Last, I deleted “the” in the title (from the past to the present) not because it’s wrong, it isn’t, but because it’s a post title and we tend to leave out “small words” to make that shorter.



  1. Dear Knitting Words,
    Congratulations for your outstanding contribution on word formation. Your English is amazing and I just found corrections to make at the beginning (included in purple and italics), where you probably improvised a presentation. I also included an alternative sentence in grey blue but just so everybody considers the verb “intend” which is also a good option for expressing the purpose of a text!
    The contents is very articulate and informed!
    And this topic allows us to consider a workshop I have for you all, on Wordformation (Morphology) and Lexical Creativity, which we could hold whenever you suggest! I was saving it for after the winter holidays, but we could do it whenever, really!
    Thanks so much for your notes. We will publish them on too, if you like! You could have a little “webita” if you think you want to contribute more!
    See you all in class today! ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for your feedback and your positive comments, I’m glad you find it interesting. Sorry for the mistakes, prepositions are something that I need to check twice. You are right too about the questions of “rules”, languages are like “living creatures” changing all the time, but no so freely as we may think. Instead of “rules”, which perhaps is associated with an “imposed order”, we can use the word “patterns”. Language patterns do exist and our usage of language is based on them, also for the development of “new patterns”. For instance, within negative prefixation, not everything is allowed, some combinations do not occur because of phonological restrictions, such as *ininflamable, or due to semantic incompatibility as in *unsad (negative prefixes do not combine generally with bases that have a negative value). So, these patterns are quite useful for second/foreign language learners, as we can use them to “guess” how to form a particular word or construction that we have not learnt/used before.
    Of course, I agree that the best way to know and to use a language is to keep learning it all the time!! So, here we are in the road!!
    Thanks again.

    Liked by 1 person

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