Building Words: Spelling Review Study Guide (page 2)

Updated on Aug 25, 2011


The roots of a plant anchor the plant in the soil so that it can stand. A word root serves a similar function. Roots are the basic building blocks of all words. Every word either is a root or has a root. Just as a house cannot be built without a foundation, a word must have a root to give it meaning. Roots combine with a wide range of prefixes and suffixes to make words.

Roots can be a helpful key to understanding how to spell a word. For example, the Latin root cred means "believe." This is the root of the word incredible. Other words that share the same root are credible, incredulous, and credit. If you know that the root of these words is spelled cred, you are already well on your way to spelling all of these words.

The trickiest thing to remember about roots is that the same root can be spelled in different ways. For instance, the words proceed, recede, and recess all have the same root, which is commonly listed as ced/ceed/cess. This root means "to go, to come, or to yield."


THE TERMS roots and base words are sometimes used interchangeably, but they have different meanings. Roots are the basic building blocks of meaning, and they are mainly derived from Greek or Latin words. Usually, roots cannot be used as words all by themselves. Base words, on the other hand, are the most basic forms of words. Base words have roots, but roots do not have base words.

For example, the word fiction is a base word. You can add the suffix -al to make the adjective, fictional, or you can add the prefix non- to make the noun nonfiction. The most basic form of the word from which fictional and nonfiction are made is fiction. The root of fiction is fic, meaning "to do or to make." Fic is not an English word all by itself. Fiction is a base word, because it stands on its own as a word, and fic is a root, which cannot stand on its own as a word.

Prefixes and Suffixes

Prefixes and suffixes are groups of letters that connect to roots to create words. Prefixes come before the root, while suffixes come after the root. Like roots, prefixes and suffixes have a fixed meaning that remains the same, no matter which word they are attached to.

Prefixes enhance or change the meaning of a word. Although you cannot tell the meaning of a word from the prefix alone, the prefix can help you get an idea of what the word is about. The prefix omni-, for example, means "all." This prefix can be found in the word omnipotent, which means "all powerful." Now read the following sentence:

Most humans are omnivorous eaters.

If you recognize that the prefix omni- means "all," you can take a guess that this word means "all eating" … and you would be correct! The root vor means "to eat"; an omnivorous eater eats both plants and animals. Someone who is an omnivorous eater is described as an omnivore.

In addition to enhancing or changing the meanings of words, suffixes determine which part of speech the word will be. In the preceding sentence, for example, the word omnivore is a noun, while the word omnivorous is an adjective. The suffix -ous is an adjective ending, meaning "full of, having the qualities of, or relating to." You could add a second suffix to this word, -ly, to make the adverb omnivorously, as in: He eats omnivorously. We have just changed a noun to an adjective to an adverb, simply by changing the ending. Magic!


MANY PREFIXES HAVE similar meanings, such as dis-, il-, and un-. Unfortunately, you cannot just substitute one word for the other willy-nilly. This is the case with the words disable and unable. Disable means "to cripple." Someone might disable the electricity before working with electrical wires, for example. Unable, on the other hand, means "not able." You could be unable to answer a phone because you were busy. You would never say that you were disable to answer the phone, even though both dis- and un- mean "not."

The same applies to suffixes. The adjective endings -able and -ible mean "capable of worthy of; tending or liable to." These endings can be a source of confusion in spelling, because they sound alike and there is only one letter difference between them. You cannot use them in place of one another, however; the word meaning "can be eaten" is spelled edible, not edable.

But don't lose hope just yet! There is a rule that addresses the -ible and -able dilemma. The rule is, if the word is not a complete word on its own, use -ible, as in edible, visible, and incredible. If the word can be used on its own in a sentence, add -able, as in fashionable, comfortable, and bearable. (If the word is a complete word that ends in an -e, drop the final e before adding the -able, as in excusable and valuable.)

There are a few exceptions to this rule, such as reversible and digestible, but the -able/-ible rule can help you remember how to spell many of the most common words.

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