Tending to Word Roots

A root is the basic element of a word, and it is the foundation on which the meaning of a word is built. Many roots are real words in their own right: graph (a diagram) and term (a fixed time or date), for example. Although these roots can have other elements, they don't need other elements to be complete. Most roots, however, do need other elements. For example, the roots archy (government) and dox (opinion or belief) need to be combined with other word elements, like prefixes, suffixes, or even other roots:

  • dyarchy: a government with two rulers, from the prefix dy- (meaning two) and the root archy (meaning government)
  • anarchist: one who rebels against governmental authority, from the prefix an- (meaning without or no), the root archy (meaning government), and the suffix -ist (meaning one who)
  • orthodox: conforming to established doctrines and practices, from the prefix ortho- (meaning right or true) and the root dox (meaning opinion or belief)

The following sections give you the lowdown on roots and how you can use them to uncover the meaning of words you don't know — yet.

Exploring the basics of roots

In order to use roots to uncover a word's meaning, you need to know a few things about how roots work. Here's a quick rundown:

  • Some roots form whole words by themselves. For example: Arbor means "tree"; vent means "opening to allow air to enter"; and audio means "sound" or "hearing."
    Although these roots form words in and of themselves, you can also combine them with other word elements (like prefixes and suffixes) to make new words, as in the following:

Root

Word Element

New Word

Part of Speech

Definition

arbor

eal

arboreal (ar-bor-ee-al)

adj.

of or relating to trees

vent

ilate

ventilate (vent-il-ate)

verb

to expose to air

audio

ible

audible (aw-di-ble)

adj.

able to be heard

  • Some roots must be combined with other word elements to form words. Consider the following examples:
Root Meaning Word Element New Word Part of Speech Definition
capit head al capital (kap-ih-tul) agj. most important
carn flesh age carnage (kar-nij) noun slaughter
chrono time logy chronology (krah-nahl-ih-jee) noun timeline
  • Prefixes and suffixes alter or refine a word's meaning. For example, the word audible means "able to be heard." With the prefix in-, the word becomes inaudible, which means "unable to be heard."
  • A word can contain more than one root. For example, matrilineal contains the roots matri (mother) and lineal (line). Matrilineal, therefore, means "determining descent through the female line."

Whenever you come upon an unfamiliar word, first check to see if you recognize its root. Even if you can't define a word exactly, recognizing the root gives you a general idea of the word's meaning. For example, if you read the word geocentric, knowing that the root geo means "earth" helps you figure out that geocentric has to do with the center ("centric") of the earth, or earth as the center.

Using roots to grow words

Knowing how words are created gives you the key to figuring out the meaning of new words. When you can put together the meaning of a root with the meaning of a prefix and/or a suffix, you can unlock the definitions of words in a snap.

Adding prefixes and suffixes to roots

A prefix is a letter or group of letters attached to the beginning of a word that changes the word's meaning. A suffix performs the same function at the end of a word. You can use the blueprints below to decipher combinations of roots, prefixes, and suffixes.

Examples of adding a prefix to a root:

de + hydrate = dehydrate (to remove the water or moisture from)

anti + depressant = antidepressant (something that combats depression)

Examples of adding a suffix to a root:

zoo + ology = zoology (the study of animals)

bronch + itis = bronchitis (inflammation of the bronchial tubes)

You can figure out a word's meaning simply by recognizing its root and prefix. Table 1 shows several examples of how the combination of prefixes, roots, and suffixes work together to form words.

Table 1: Putting Prefixes, Roots, and Suffixes Together

Prefix

+

Root

+

Suffix

=

Word

Part of Speech

Definition

ab

+

duct

+

ed

=

abducted

verb

kidnapped

de

+

ter

+

ent

=

deterrent

adj.

impediment

dis

+

pell

+

ed

=

dispelled

verb

scattered

im

+

peril

+

ed

=

imperiled

verb

put in danger

in

+

cred

+

ible

=

incredible

adj.

unbelievable

re

+

puls

+

ion

=

repulsion

noun

strong dislike

re

+

ferr

+

al

=

referral

noun

connection

re

+

tract

+

able

=

retractable

adj.

able to be drawn back

Grafting roots to roots

You may wonder whether a word element is acting as a prefix or as a root when you encounter words formed by combining two roots. The truth is that, although some word elements are always prefixes and others always come at the end of a word, you can find roots in any position. And, to tell you the truth, it really doesn't matter whether the root is at the beginning of a word, in the middle, or at the end, so long as you understand the word's meaning. A few words with two roots are:

  • Cal (beauty) + graph (to write) forms calligraphy (kah-lig-rih-fee), which means "elegant penmanship."
  • Carn (meat) + vor (to eat) forms carnivore (kar-nih-vor), which is someone who eats meat.
  • Chron (time) + meter (measure) forms chronometer (krah-nahm-ih-ter) — an instrument for measuring time.

Being well-versed in roots like the ones in the preceding list can help you immensely in the language portion of standardized tests.

  • Add a Comment
  • Print
  • Share
blog comments powered by Disqus
Advertisement

Inside Dummies.com