Prefix or preposition?

Some English native prefixes expressing location in time or space are of native origin. This post discusses whether those items are indeed prefixes or whether they are a separate base added in front of another base in forming a compound word.

This post does not discuss prefixes of non-native origin.

Native prefixes in English

Bauer, Lieber and Plag (2013) list the following 13 native prefixes:

  • highly productive: mid-; out-; over-; under.
    out-, over-, and under are much more productive with scalar / quantitative readings than with locative readings.
  • productive: after-; back-; down-; in-; off-; up-.
  • not very productive: by-; fore-; on-.

Bauer, Lieber and Plag give the following reasons for thinking these 13 items are indeed prefixes, not a separate base within a compound word:

  • in deriving verbs from verbal bases some of these items add, delete or change a direct object. For more on this point, please see below.
  • although 10 of those prefixes sound the same as prepositions, their meanings sometimes differ (the 3 exceptions are back-, fore, and mid-). For example, the prefix and preposition by share the core meaning ‘alongside’ (bystander, by the river), but the preposition can also express a means or instrument (by foot) or, if combined with a reflexive, ‘alone’ (by myself). And the prefix by can convey the meaning ‘not major’ (byproduct) or ‘not main’ (by-catch).
  • both formally and semantically, these items show parallels to non-native forms, so it seems sensible to treat them in the same way. There is no argument for treating the non-native prefixes as the first part of a compound word.

What bases do these native prefixes attach to?

The native locative prefixes typically attach to nominal bases and sometimes to verbal or adjectival bases as well. The native prefixes do not typically attach to bound bases (except perhaps in onslaught if obsolete slaught is viewed as bound). A bound base is a base that cannot also appear by itself as a separate word.

Most of these prefixes attach to words, not to compounds and phrases. Exceptions are the prefix mid- in compounds (mid-dogfight) and in phrases (mid-single-digit) and the prefixes over- and out- (with a quantitative scalar reading, over-aircondition, out-redneck).

How do these prefixes behave?

The head of a prefixed word is generally the base attached to the prefix. The head of a word is the component that determines the grammatical behaviour of the word, for example its distribution and, in some cases at least, how its form changes (inflection and conjugation).

Unlike the non-native prefixes, some native prefixes sometimes function as heads of their words, by deriving words that are distributed in the same way as prepositions or prepositional phrases. The prefixes down- and up- form such words productively (downstream), at least with topographical nouns. in- and out- are less productive in this respect, being used only in a few highly frequent words (such as in-house and outside).

When a prefixed item acts as a pre-modifier before a noun, it may be unclear whether the prefix changed the category of the pre-modified item from noun to adjective. For example, is upland in upland limestone best viewed as a noun (like land) or as an adjective?

One prefix or two?

The prefix out- has various functions:

  • deriving nouns (outfield, outhouse)
  • adding a locative meaning in deriving verbs from verbal bases (outsource, outsource ‘breed outside a particular population’)
  • adding a comparative meaning in deriving verbs from verbs (outcompete), adjectives (outsmart) or nouns (when money buys the vote, they are outdollared)

Bauer, Lieber and Plag do not attempt to decide whether out- is best viewed:

  • as a single prefix with more than one meaning (a polysemous prefix); or
  • as 2 distinct prefixes that happen to sound the same (2 homophonous prefixes).

Pronunciation and spelling

Native prefixes are typically stressed in nouns, but stress patterns are more mixed in verbs and adjectives.

Prefixed words are sometimes spelled with a hyphen and sometimes without. Personally, I prefer to spell them with a hyphen whenever these is a risk that readers may find it difficult to unravel the structure of the prefixed word—especially if I am writing for people who aren’t native readers of English.

(I almost wrote ‘pre-fixed’ there. But there is a bigger risk that readers would interpret that as meaning ‘fixed in advance’, rather than ‘bearing a prefix’.)

Comparison with non-native prefixes

Some native prefixes have similar meanings to non-native prefixes, as the following table shows.

over-super-, supra-, sur-
fore-ante-, pre-

Comments on the table

  • supra– and super– are productive with nouns and adjectives. sur– is only minimally productive. over– and super– often have a nuance of excess, but in over– this is typically negative and with super– it is often (but not always) in a positive sense. supra– does not have the nuance of ‘excess’ and sometimes conveys a spatial sense, unlike super-.
  • both under– and sub– can convey a spatial sense. under– often has a quantitative nuance, but this is only occasionally the case for sub-. under– often has a pejorative reading, especially on verbal bases (underachieve), but when sub– does carry a quantitative nuance, it generally seems more neutral than under-. On nominal or verbal bases, –sub often conveys partition or hierarchy (sub-clause), but under– does not convey this nuance.
  • of fore-, ante– and pre-, only pre– is productive. fore– sometimes brings a ‘self-consciously archaic’ flavour.
  • after– and post-are similar in both denotation and connotation, and neither has a strong flavour of evaluation. Both prefixes are productive on nouns, but post– is also productive on adjective baes.
  • by– is only nominally productive and means ‘beside’. peri– means ‘round about’ and is a little more productive, but mainly in medical and other learned terms.
  • out– and extra– share a core meaning ‘external to’, but do not overlap. extra– is productive mainly on nouns (to form pre-modifiers of other nouns) and adjectives. out– occurs mainly on verbal bases, where it has a comparative sense.
  • in- and intra– denote similar things, but there is little overlap in the bases they attach to. Only in– can attach to verbs. On nominal and adjectival bases, native bases favour in-, whereas non-native bases (especially learned bases) favour intra-. Neither prefix has a strong flavour of evaluation

Adding, deleting or changing a direct object

Some native prefixes cause a transitive verb to become intransitive, or vice versa, or change the nature of a transitive verb’s direct object:

  • on verbs of change of state or directed motion, prefixing over- allows a locative noun phrase to be added. In this case, over- often has a locative reading.
    the seaweed overgrew the seafloor
    the garbage glut threatens to overflow the world’s landfills
  • on other verbs (often denoting an activity), the prefix allows deletion of the direct object, so that a transitive verb becomes intransitive.  In these cases, over- often has a quantitative/scalar reading.
    Examples include overachieve, overbuy and overheat.
  • adding the prefix out- to a transitive verb sometimes changes the nature of the nouns that are eligible to be the direct object:
    Mary ate a pickle (direct object is a food) but
    Mary outate John (direct object is an animate being)
  • under- is much less productive than over-, but has similar syntactic effects


The Oxford Reference Guide to English Morphology, by Laurie Bauer, Rochelle Lieber and Ingo Plag (2013)

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