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Confusing Words: Perplexing Prefixes

Confusing Words: Perplexing Prefixes

Confusing Words: Perplexing Prefixes

All writers can point to a collection of words and phrases that they find confusing—and each individual writer’s list looks a little bit different. Isn’t there a simple way to keep all of those similar-but-different words straight? Let’s take a look at some of the words that writers frequently trip up on and see if there are any common denominators.

Perplexing Prefixes

Many English words come to us from Latin. By learning a few simple Latin prepositions, we can actually solve quite many of our problems with English.

The Latin words are:

  • ab, “away from”;
  • ad, “toward”;
  • e or ex, “out of”; and
  • in, “in,” “on,” “into,” or “against.”

Note that many Latin prefixes take different forms to accommodate the spelling and pronunciation of different root words. For example, ad- becomes ac- in the word accept.


Accept is from the Latin words ad or “toward” and capere or “take. The idea is one of taking something toward oneself.

Except shares a similar origin, but uses the prefix ex- or “out of.” In other words, the concept is one of taking something out.

Therefore, accept means to take something offered to one, whether an object, an idea, or a responsibility: “I will accept the task of cleaning the room.” Except implies taking something out of a stated group or category: “Everything was finished except the task of cleaning the room.”


These two words share the root vertere, “to turn.” Adding a shortened form of the prefix ab- gives us averse, or “turned away from.”

Adding the prefix ad- gives us adverse, or “turned toward.

Both words indicate opposition, but the degree of opposition is different. Averse is milder; we are averse to exertion, so we simply turn away from it with the intention of avoiding it. Adverse is stronger; the weather has an adverse effect on our plans, as though it has turned toward us in direct confrontation.

(Also note that we may have an aversion to something, but never an adversion—adversion is not a word.)


Affect is from the Latin words ad or “to, toward” and facere or “do.” These two Latin words combined into another Latin word, affectare or “to aim at”; in other words, the two original Latin words implied acting in a particular way to move toward a desired end.

The English word affect was probably originally used to mean “to act in an affected manner,” or to act in a way that would accomplish the goal of deceiving others as to one’s true feelings, nature, etc.: “She affected a humble manner.” Later it came to have a broader meaning, simply “to have an effect on”: “She affected us with her humble manner.”

Effect is from similar origins, in this case the prefix ex– being used to form the Latin word efficere, literally “do out,” as in “accomplish”: “Her humble manner had the desired effect.”

Understanding the origin of these two English words is important, because effect is not always a noun. “Proper discipline will effect great changes in her manner” is a perfectly legitimate use of the word.


Allude and elude are both from the Latin word ludere or “to play.”

The a(d)- prefix tells us that allude literally means “to play toward,” or, figuratively speaking, “to hint at”: “He could not resist the urge to allude to the event.”

The e(x)- prefix indicates that elude literally means “to play out of,” which carries the sense of baffling someone: “He skillfully eluded his pursuers.”


Allusion is nothing more than the noun form of the word allude: “An allusion was made to the events of last night.”

The prefix il- is a variation of the prefix in- or “against.” The Latin word illudere, from which we get the English word illusion, literally means “to play against,” and was used in the sense of “to mock.” Shifting the idea of mockery to that of deception or falsehood was a very natural transition. The resulting definition is “a deceptive appearance or false impression”: “A mirage is merely an illusion.”


Notice that both of these words (and the related words emigrant and immigrant) come from the root word migrate. The Latin prefixes tell us in which direction the migration is occurring.

Emigrate carries the prefix e-, so the person in question is migrating out of the country: “Hans is emigrating from Germany.”

Immigrate carries the prefix im-, a variation of the prefix in-, which tells us that the subject of the sentence is migrating into the country: “Hans is immigrating to the United States.”


These two words also come from the same root, derived from the Latin verb minere, “to jut or project.”

The e- in eminent indicates an outward projection, hence the meaning, “outstanding” or, by extension, “famous”: “Dr. Jones is an eminent scholar.”

The im- in imminent indicates an inward projection, a sort of overhanging intrusion. “Overhanging” was in fact the original meaning of the word; today, however, it is typically used in the figurative sense of “about to happen”: “Dr. Jones fears imminent danger.”

Neither word should be confused with immanent, which comes from an entirely different root and will be discussed further on.


This pair of words has caused endless, and needless, confusion.

Flammable is the root word, with no prefix added. It comes from the Latin word flammare, “to burn or flame.”

In-, or “into,” is an intensifier in this case. Inflammare literally means “to inflame.” Inflammare is the source of the English words inflame and inflammation, neither of which have caused writers the slightest confusion.

While it is generally preferable in today’s (confused) society to write flammable, inflammable is still acceptable and invariably means “prone to becoming inflamed or ignited,” never “not flammable.” “Gasoline is highly inflammable” is a correct sentence.


Note that the word pending has no prefix. It is derived from the Latin word pendere, “to hang.” Pending is used figuratively to mean “awaiting an outcome”: “The case is still pending.”

The addition of the prefix im- adds an inward motion, idea of “hanging toward.” Thus the word impending means “about to happen,” and in English carries an ominous connotation: “Grave danger is impending.”

  • Create a section in your grammar notebook for confusing words.
  • Divide this section into three parts.
  • Title the first part “Perplexing Prefixes.”
  • Create a page for each pair of confusing words.
  • On the page you created, write:
    • The word.
    • A simple way to remember the differences between the pair of similar words.
    • A sample sentence using the word.
    • A sentence of your own using the word. (For an extra challenge, try creating a sentence that uses both words correctly.)
  • For an added memory boost, you may also enjoy illustrating the words.

Additional Resources

50+ Common Prefixes
Great way to brush up on prefix meanings.

Confusing Words: Perplexing Prefixes

10 Ways to Use Notebooking: #5 Grammar & Spelling
Ideas and resources for creating a grammar notebook.

Drawing & Writing Notebooking Paper {Free Download}
Paper for creating your notebook.

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