Spelling long words (2) - Prefixes (1)

Long words are difficult to spell because they are... well, long! There's a lot to remember. So break them down into separate parts.
Look at this word: uncomfortable.

We can break it into un (prefix) comfort (base word) and able (suffix).

We pronounce this word like this:

In other words, the 'or' in the middle is silent. So if you know the pronunciation maybe you will try to spell it *'uncomftable'* This is wrong. Usually (not always I'm afraid) the spelling of the base word doesn't change even if the pronunciation changes.

The part before the base word ('un') is the "prefix".

Two things to remember about prefixes:

1. A prefix usually changes the meaning of the word (makes it negative or opposite, for example).
2. The full prefix is added to the full base word. So:

unnecessary ( 'un' + 'necessary': so double 'n')
misspelling ('mis' + 'spelling': so double 's')
illegal ('il' + 'legal': so double 'l')
disappear ('dis' + 'appear': so only one 's')

This is one reason why Albrow says that English spelling is 'for the eye rather than the ear' (Albrow, K.H., The English Writing System: notes towards a description, Longman 1972).


  1. This is one of those words where Americans have a spelling advantage, because we articulate all five original syllables; at least the rhotic majority do.

  2. Replies
    1. that's very helpful for improving our English language

  3. Johanna, I hadn't quite realised this about prefixes so thanks. It helps a lot. I'm interested in the 'a' prefix eg alive, away, again. It never comes up but knowing about it really helps with reading. (Put your finger over the a and students have a much better chance of working the word out.) Knowing this one also helps with accross/across. I made my students photograph cross sections of fruit and veg last week so I could labour this point - oh it had some link to maths as well. btw their photos look wonderful and one student photographed bamboo under a microscope so it links to science as well. If anyone writes accross I will drag them out to the board!

    I do know that it is in adding suffixes, especially aroung the letter y and any doubling rules that young children come unstuck.

    For the same reason as your prefix observation I also labour the suffix 'ly'. For one thing I like to draw attention to adverbs but also you can't misspell 'really' if you know it is real+ly or get any of the fully words wrong as you know it is ful (which means full of) + ly.

  4. That's really interesting, what you say about children reading words beginning with prefix 'a'. Any idea why, Megan?

  5. Struggling readers are often relying on sounds so if they look at 'away' they first see 'aw' and are trying to make it make sense. Same with again. They are running through 'ag'or 'aj' kinds of sounds and since vowels present so much difficulty who knows what else? But I've noticed when I cover the a and get them to look at the base, that starts with a consonant, it is much easier to read, then we put the a back on the front.

    If we were chopping the word up (which we do on paper or cardboard) to chunk it, the first cut would be between the 'a' and 'way'.

  6. Johanna, do you think of op as a prefix, or perhaps a very old one, as in op/position, op/portunity, op/ponent?