Root Words | Definition, List & Examples

A root word is the most basic form of a word that cannot be further divided into meaningful segments. Root words are used to form new words by adding letters at the beginning (i.e., a prefix) and/or the end (i.e., a suffix).

For example, the word “unfaithful” is made up of these different parts:

root words example

prefix        root word     suffix

By adding a suffix and/or a prefix to a root word like “faith”, we can make other words such as “faithful”, “faithfully”, “unfaithful”, and “unfaithfully”. These words are linked both in terms of spelling and meaning and are called a word family.

What are root words?

A root word is the fundamental unit of a word. A root word has nothing added at the beginning or the end. While some root words are standalone words in English, others need a prefix (like “anti-” or “un-”) and/or a suffix (like “-able” or “-ist”) to create a meaningful word.

For example, “cede” is a root word for other words like “recede” or “precedent”, but it is also a word on its own (meaning “to give up”). On the other hand, the root word “struct” does not constitute an understandable word in itself and other letters need to be added for it to make sense (e.g, “instructor”, “destruction”, “structural”).

Many words are created from Latin or Greek root words and usually cannot function as standalone words in English. For example, “chrono” comes from Greek and is the root of words like “chronology”, “synchronise”, and “chronic”, but it’s not a separate word in English.

Learning about root words can help you work out the meaning of new or longer words. When you know how to decode unknown words by identifying their root words and affixes (i.e., the prefix or suffix attached to them), you can navigate more complex or specialised texts. For example, many root words derived from Latin and Greek are common in math and science terminology, like “centi” (“hundred”) or “geo” (“earth”).

Affixes are short words that are added to root words to change their meaning. Affixes cannot be used independently.

  • When added at the beginning of the word, they are called prefixes. Common prefixes include: “an-” (“without”), anti- (“against”), “hyper-” (“over”), “non-” (“lack of”), “pre-” (“before”), and “post-” (“after”).
  • When added at the end of the word, they are called suffixes. Common suffixes include: “-acy” (“state or quality”), “-able/-ible” (“capable of”), “-al” (“pertaining to”), “-ic/-ical” (“having the form”), and “-less” (“without”).

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Example root words

Some root words can be used independently, while others need to be combined with a prefix (i.e., letters at the beginning), a suffix (i.e., letters at the end) or another root word (e.g., -logue) to form a standalone word.

Root word Meaning Examples
act to do react, action, activity
centr/o/i center eccentric, egocentric, centrifuge
cycl circle cycle, bicycle, encyclopedia
domin master domineering, dominate, dominant
ego I (first person singular) egomaniac, egotistic, superego
employ apply/make use of unemployment, employee, disemploy
form shape uniform, formality, information
friend friend unfriendly, befriend, friendship
norm a carpenter’s square/ a pattern abnormal, enormous, normalise
note comment upon keynote, denote, connotation
place spot misplaced, displaced, workplace
use take or hold user, useless, misuse

Root words vs. base words

The terms root words and base words are often used interchangeably. However, they are not exactly the same. While root words cannot always be used as standalone words in English, base words can be used on their own or combined with other words or letters to create complex words.

For example, “code” is a base word that can be used independently or to create other words like “barcode”, “decode”, or “codify”. On the other hand, the root word “aud” (which comes from Latin) cannot be used by itself and has to be combined with other letters to form words like “auditorium”, “audition”, and “audible”. Because many root words are of Latin or Greek origin, they don’t make sense as independent words in English.

Sometimes, root words and base words overlap. For example, the word “act” is a root word of Latin origin, but also a standalone word in English. By adding a prefix or suffix, we get new words like “reaction”, “exact”, and “actor”. In this case, “act” is both a root word and a base word.

Latin root words (free downloadable list)

Below is a list containing common Latin root words, their meaning, and examples of words based on each root. You can also download this list in the format of your choice below.

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Latin root words
Root  Meaning  Examples
anim(a) breath or soul animate, animal, unanimous
aqua water aquarium, aquatic, aquamarine
aud to hear/listen audio, inaudible, audition
bene good benefactor, benefit, benign
brev short abbreviation, brevity, brief
cand/cend to glow/shine incandescent, candid, candidate
carn meat or flesh carnivorous, carnage, reincarnation
cred to believe/trust incredible, credentials, creed
dict/dic to say dictionary, diction, dedicate
doc to teach doctrine, docile, document
don to give/grant donor, condone, pardon
duce/duct to lead deduce, induction, produce
hospit host, guest hospital, inhospitable, hostess
jur/jus law/right/oath conjure, jurisdiction, justice
libr book library, libretto, librarian
luc/lum brightness/clarity elucidate, lucid, illuminate
magn great/large magnanimous, magnificent, magnifying
manu hand manuscript, manicure, manipulate
pac peace Pacific, pacifier, pacifist
port to carry export, import, reporter
scrib/script to write describe, script, nondescript
sens to feel sense, consensus, desensitise
terr earth terrain, territory, extraterrestrial
vac empty evacuate, vacancy, vacuum
vis/vid to see invisible, video, evidence

Greek root words (free downloadable list)

Below is a list containing common Greek root words, their meaning, and examples of words based on each root. You can also download this list in the format of your choice below.

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Greek root words
Root  Meaning  Examples
aero air aerodynamic, aeronautics, aerobic
aesthet related to the senses aesthetic, anesthetic, anesthesia
anthrop human anthropology, misanthrope, philanthropist
astro/aster star astronomy, astronaut, asteroid
auto self automatic, autobiography, autofocus
biblio book bibliography, bible, bibliophile
bio life biology, biography, symbiosis
chrome color monochrome, chromosome, chromatic
chrono time chronicle, chronological, synchronise
cosm(o) world/universe cosmology, cosmopolitan, microcosm
dyn power dynamic, dynamite, electrodynamics
gnos know diagnosis, prognosticate, agnostic
graph write telegraph, calligraphy, geography
hydr water hydrogen, hydration, dehydrate
logy study epistemology, ecology, trilogy
mania frenzy mania, megalomaniac, egomania
melan black melatonin, melamin, melancholy
metr/meter measure metric, asymmetry, diameter
narc numbness/sleep narcotic, narcolepsy, narcosis
paleo old paleontology, Paleolithic, paleobotany
phon sound/voice microphone, telephone, symphony
photo light photograph, photon, photocopy
psych soul/spirit psychology, psychiatrist, psychic
rhe flow rhythm, rheology, diarrhea
schem shape/manner scheme, schematic, schemer
therm heat hypothermia, thermometer, thermostat

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Base words

Base words can stand alone, but can also be combined with other letters to create new words.

Base word Derived Word
act transaction
appear disappear
break unbreakable
care careful
color discolored
do undo
harm harmful
honest honestly
hope hopeless
kind kindness
like dislike
love beloved
mark unmarked
pack unpack
paint repainted
place displacement
play downplay
reason unreasonable
spell spellbound
worth worthless

Worksheet: Root words

Want to test your understanding of root words? Try the worksheet below. In each sentence, see if you can identify the root word(s) of the highlighted word.

  1. The hotel lost our reservation, and the receptionist was really unhelpful.
  2. We came to a unanimous decision that more staff is needed during peak hours.
  3. ANOVA is an abbreviation of “Analysis of Variance”.
  4. My father is agnostic when it comes to religious matters.
  5. One of the three aqueducts supplying water to the Los Angeles area is from the Colorado River.
  1. The root word is help. The word “unhelpful” is made of three parts: “un-” (prefix), ”help” (root word), and “ful” (suffix).
  1. The root word is anim. The word “unanimous” is made of two parts: “unus” (meaning “one” in Latin) and “animus” (meaning “spirit” or “mind” in Latin).
  1. The root word is brev. The word “abbreviation” comes from Latin “ad” (prefix meaning “to”) and “breviare” (“shorten”), from brevis (“short”).
  1. The root word is gnost. The word “agnostic” is made of three parts: “a” (prefix meaning “not” or “without”), “gnost” (root word meaning “to know” in Greek) and “ic” (suffix).
  1. This word contains two Latin root words: aqua (“water”) and duct (“to lead”).

    Frequently asked questions about root words

    How do you find the root of a word?

    Although there is no particular rule for finding the root of a word, one way to do this is to check if the word has any affixes (suffix and/or prefix) added to it.

    For example, the word “hyperactive” has the prefix “hyper-” (meaning “over”) and the suffix “-ive” (meaning “having the nature of”). If we remove the affixes, we get the root word (“act”).

    What does the root word “dorm” mean?

    The root word “dorm” means “sleep” in Latin. So words with this root word will have a meaning related to sleep. For example, the words “dormant,” “dormitory,” and “dormouse” all come from the same root word.

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    Kassiani Nikolopoulou

    Kassiani has an academic background in Communication, Bioeconomy and Circular Economy. As a former journalist she enjoys turning complex scientific information into easily accessible articles to help students. She specialises in writing about research methods and research bias.