Brush Up on Prefixes, Suffixes, and Roots for the GRE Test - dummies

Brush Up on Prefixes, Suffixes, and Roots for the GRE Test

By Ron Woldoff

You can’t get around it: You absolutely must know vocabulary to do well on the graduate record examination (GRE). The GRE tests your grasp of commonly used academic and intellectual vocabulary words. Mastering prefixes, suffixes, and word roots can bump up your Verbal score significantly. Although prefixes and suffixes abound, the ones discussed here are the most common. Take the time to memorize them.

If English isn’t your first language, vocabulary may be the hardest part of the exam for you. Using roots, prefixes, and suffixes to tell a word’s meaning can help you.

Prefixes to know when taking the GRE

A prefix is one or more letters at the beginning of a word that alters its meaning. For example, if a feat is possible, then you can do it. With a simple prefix, you can change that feat to impossible, meaning you can’t do it. Knowing that in this case im- means not, you can narrow down the possible meanings of a word starting with im-, such as impermeable. Whatever the word is, the im- usually stands for not. (Because permeate means to pass through, impermeable means not capable of being passed through.)

prefix illustration
©By TungCheung/Shutterstock.com

Following are the most common prefixes you need to know with several related examples:

  • a-/an- = not or without: Someone amoral is without morals or conscience; someone atypical isn’t typical or normal. Someone apathetic is uncaring or without feeling. Similarly, an anaerobic environment is without oxygen, and anarchy is without rule or government.
  • ambi- = dual: Someone ambidextrous uses both left and right hands equally well; an ambivert is both introverted and extroverted. Something ambiguous has dual meanings, but that word typically refers to something that’s unclear.
  • ante- = before: When the clock reads 5 a.m., the m. stands for ante meridiem, which means before the middle of the day. Antebellum means before the war. Tara in Gone with the Wind was an antebellum mansion, built before the Civil War.
  • ben-/bon- = good: A benefit is something that has a good result, an advantage. Someone benevolent is good and kind. Bon voyage means have a good voyage; a bon vivant is a person who lives the good life.
  • contra- = against: A medical treatment that’s contraindicated for a certain condition is something that would make the condition worse, not better. Contravene means to deny or oppose.
  • de- = down from, away from (to put down): To descend or depart is to go down from or away from. To denounce is to put down or to speak badly of, and demote means to reduce in rank or stature.

Many unknown words on the GRE that start with de- mean to put down in the sense of to criticize or bad-mouth. Here are a few more: demean, denounce, denigrate, derogate, deprecate, and decry.

  • eu- = good: A eulogy is a good speech, usually given for the dearly departed at a funeral. A euphemism is a good way of saying something or a polite expression, like saying, “Oh, dang!” instead of using certain other words.
  • ex- = out of, away from: An exit is literally out of or away from it — ex-it. (The word exit is probably one of the most logical words around.) To extricate is to get out of something. To exculpate is to let off the hook — literally to make away from guilt, as culp means guilt.
  • im-/in- = not: Something impossible isn’t possible — it just can’t happen. Someone immortal isn’t going to die but will live forever, because mortal means able to die. Someone implacable can’t be calmed down, because placate means to ease one’s anger. Similarly, something inappropriate isn’t appropriate, and someone inept isn’t adept, meaning he’s not skillful. Someone who’s insolvent has no money and is bankrupt, like most students after four years of college.

Note that im- and in- can also mean into — (immerse means to put into), inside (innate means something born inside of you), or beginning (as in initial) — but these meanings are less common.

  • ne-/mal- = bad: Something negative is bad, like a negative attitude. Someone nefarious is full of bad, or wicked and evil; you may read about a nefarious wizard in a fantasy novel. Something malicious also is full of bad, or wicked and harmful, such as a malicious rumor.
  • post- = after: When the clock reads 5 p.m., the m. stands for post meridiem, which means after the middle of the day. Something postmortem occurs after death.

There’s an exception to every prefix. For example, a-/an- may mean the opposite in most contexts, but with the word aver, it does not refer to the opposite of ver, which means truth. The prefix ambi- may refer to dual, but someone ambitious doesn’t necessarily have dual goals.

Suffixes you should know before taking the GRE

A suffix is usually three or four letters at the end of a word that give the word a specific inflection or change its type, such as from a verb to an adjective; for example, to transform the verb study into the adjective studious, you change the y to i and add the suffix -ous. Following are some common suffixes along with related examples:

  • -ate = to make: To duplicate is to make double. To renovate is to make new again (nov means new). To placate is to make peaceful or calm (plac means peace or calm).
  • -ette = little: A cigarette is a little cigar. A dinette table is a little dining table. A coquette is a little flirt (literally, a little chicken, but that doesn’t sound as pretty).
  • -illo = little: An armadillo is a little armored animal. A peccadillo is a little sin. (You might know that pecar means “to sin.”)
  • -ify (-efy) = to make: To beautify is to make beautiful. To ossify is to become rigid or make bone. (If you break your wrist, it takes weeks to ossify again, or for the bone to regenerate.) To deify is to make into a deity, a god. To liquefy is to turn a solid into a liquid.
  • -ist = a person: A typist is a person who types. A pugilist is a person who fights, a boxer (pug means war or fight). A pacifist is a person who believes in peace, a noncombatant (pac means peace or calm).
  • -ity = a noun suffix that doesn’t actually mean anything; it just turns a word into a noun: Anxiety is the noun form of anxious. Serenity is the noun form of serene. Timidity is the noun form of timid.
  • -ize = to make: To alphabetize is to make alphabetical. To immunize is to make immune. To ostracize is to make separate from the group, or to shun.
  • -ous = full of (very): Someone joyous is full of joy. Someone amorous is full of amour, or love. Someone pulchritudinous is full of beauty and, therefore, beautiful. Try saying that to your loved one.

Word roots to know for the GRE test

The root of a word is the core part of a word that gives the word its basic meaning. Recognizing a common root helps you discern the meaning of an unfamiliar word. For example, knowing that ver means truth, as in verify, you can recognize that the unfamiliar word aver has something to do with truth. Aver means to hold true or affirm the truth. Following are some common roots along with related examples:

  • ambu = walk, move: In a hospital, patients are either bedridden (they can’t move) or ambulatory (they can walk and move about). A somnambulist is a sleepwalker. Som- means sleep, -ist is a person, and ambu is to walk or move.
  • andro = man: An android is a robot shaped like a man. Someone androgynous exhibits both male (andro) and female (gyn)
  • anthro = human or mankind: Anthropology is the study of humans, and a misanthrope hates humans.
  • bellu, belli = war, fight: If you’re belligerent, you’re ready to fight — and an antebellum mansion, mentioned above with prefixes, was created before the Civil War. (Remember that ante- means before.)
  • cred = trust or belief: Something incredible is unbelievable, such as the excuse “I would’ve picked you up on time, but there was a 15-car pileup on the freeway. I barely got out of there!” Saying something is incredible is like saying it’s unbelievable, and if you’re credulous, you’re trusting and naive (literally, full of trust).

Be careful not to confuse the words credible and credulous. Something credible is trustable or believable. A credible excuse can get you out of trouble if you turn a paper in late. Credulous, on the other hand, means full of trust, naive, or gullible. The more credulous your professor is, the less credible that excuse needs to be. Furthermore, if you’re incredulous, then you doubt something is true.

  • gnos = knowledge: A doctor shows his or her knowledge by making a diagnosis (analysis of the situation) or a prognosis (prediction about the future of the illness). An agnostic is a person who doesn’t know whether a god exists. Differentiate an agnostic from an atheist: An atheist is literally without god, a person who believes there’s no god. An agnostic hasn’t decided yet.
  • greg = group, herd: A congregation is a group of people. A gregarious person likes to be part of a group — he or she is sociable. To segregate is literally to make away from the group. (Se- means apart or away from, as in separate, sever, sequester, and )
  • gyn = woman: A gynecologist is a physician who treats conditions and ailments specific to women. A misogynist is a person who hates women.
  • loq, log, loc, lix = speech or talk: Someone prolix or loquacious talks a lot. A dialogue is talk or conversation between two or more people. Elocution is proper speech.
  • luc, lum, lus = light, clear: Something luminous is shiny and full of light. Ask the teacher to elucidate something you don’t understand (literally, to make clear). Lustrous hair reflects the light and is sleek and glossy.
  • meta = beyond, after: A metamorphosis is a change of shape beyond the present shape.
  • morph = shape: Something amorphous is without shape, while morphology is the study of shape.
  • mut = change: Something mutates from one state to the next, and something immutable isn’t changeable; it remains constant. Don’t confuse mut (change) with mute (silent).
  • pac = peace, calm: Why do you give a baby a pacifier? To calm him or her down. To get its name, the Pacific Ocean must have appeared calm at the time it was discovered.
  • path = feeling: Something pathetic arouses feeling or pity. To sympathize is to share the feelings (literally, to make the same feeling). Antipathy is a dislike — literally, a feeling against.
  • phon = sound: Phonics helps you to sound out words. Cacophony is bad sound; euphony is good sound. Homophones are words that sound the same, such as red and And of course, there’s the phone you use to talk to someone.
  • plac = peace, calm: To placate someone is to calm him or her down or to make peace with that person. Someone implacable can’t be calmed down.
  • pro = big, much: Profuse apologies are big, or much — in essence, a lot of apologies. A prolific writer produces a great deal of material.

Pro has two additional meanings less commonly used on the GRE. It can mean before, as in “A prologue comes before a play.” Similarly, to prognosticate is to make knowledge before, or to predict. A prognosticator is a fortune-teller. Pro can also mean for. Someone who is pro freedom of speech is in favor of freedom of speech. Someone with a proclivity toward a certain activity is for that activity or has a natural tendency toward it.

  • pug = war, fight: Someone pugnacious is ready to fight. A pugilist is a person who likes to fight, such as a professional boxer. Also, the large sticks that marines train with in hand-to-hand combat are called pugil sticks.
  • scien = knowledge: A scientist is a person with knowledge. Someone prescient has forethought or knowledge ahead of time — for example, a prognosticator. (A fortune-teller, remember?) One who is omniscient is all-knowing.
  • somn = sleep: If you have insomnia, you can’t sleep. (The prefix in- means not.)
  • son = sound: A sonic boom breaks the sound barrier. Dissonance is clashing sounds. A sonorous voice has a good sound.