Grammar What Is a Root Word? |
The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation

What Is a Root Word?

We use words constantly to express ourselves and exchange thoughts with others. We write, speak, hear, read, and listen to words. Some research suggests the average person can speak from 4,000 to 7,000 words in a day.

All words have origins that might date from days to millennia since their inception. The English language is about 1,400 years old; one of the earliest-known English dictionaries, The Elementarie (1582), contained 8,000 words. Today’s English dictionaries can include up to hundreds of thousands of them.

Words can be complex or simple. Different word parts also can combine to form new words with new meanings. The root of a word—also referred to by some as a base word—is its primary morpheme, which is the smallest grammatical unit that cannot be divided further into parts. Every word in American English has at least one morpheme.

The grammatical unit can be a free morpheme, which is a word that can stand alone, or a bound morpheme, which is an affix (a prefix or a suffix) that cannot stand alone but can form a word by combining with other morphemes.

More than half of English words have roots in Latin and Greek. Many words also have German, French, and Spanish origins, which often have their own Latin roots as well.

When standing alone, the foreign root words themselves might not always make sense to English writers and speakers, but we can quickly recognize their contributions to our lexicon when they are combined with other word parts.

Root Meaning Origin Word
carn flesh or meat Latin carnal, carnivore
deca ten (10) Latin decade, decameter
tele distant Greek telephone, telegram
mal bad, evil Latin malice, malpractice
psycho soul, spirit Greek psychic, psychology

In our contemporary English vocabulary, we can readily infer the different parts of words, including their roots and prefixes or suffixes.

Word Root Prefix Suffix
unkindness kind un- -ness
action act -ion
misplayed play mis- -ed
fearless fear -less

Word Roots in Different Parts of Speech

You may have noticed that roots appear in parts of speech other than nouns. They also apply to verbs, adverbs, and adjectives, as in the following recognizable English words.

Word Part of Speech Root Prefix Suffix
description noun script de- -ion
disappear verb appear dis-
nicest adjective nice -est
aimlessly adverb aim -less, -ly

Those familiar with English know that in the preceding words, the root has an understood meaning, and the prefixes and suffixes offer much less meaning to us without the root. When combined, however, they form a word that can express.

Let’s look at a few more words with Greek and Latin roots:

Word Part of Speech Root Origin
bibliophile noun biblio (book), phil (love) Greek
(to) chronicle verb chrono (time) Greek
benevolent adjective bene (good) Latin
ambiguously adverb ambi (both) Latin

Word Roots for Expanding Vocabulary

Being familiar with word roots and how words originate becomes a versatile tool in building vocabulary and interpreting unfamiliar words.

For example, many versed in English recognize that the Greek root “phobia” stands for “fear.” Sometimes that root is attached to prefixes we readily know, such as with claustrophobia (fear of small, confined spaces) and arachnophobia (fear of spiders).

We also might encounter words such as demophobia (fear of crowds) and anthrophobia (fear of flowers). We might not instantly recognize the fear the prefix identifies, but because we understand the word root, we’re halfway to comprehension.

Understanding roots also helps to better deconstruct words. For example, uncharacteristically is a 20-letter adverb common to English vernacular that means “not consistent with established or expected qualities or attributes” (e.g., James is uncharacteristically late).

This word contains four parts (morphemes): character (root, free morpheme), un- (prefix, bound morpheme), -istic (suffix, bound morpheme), and -ally (suffix, bound morpheme). Breaking the full word down this way can simplify the spelling of it as well as our initial insight into its meaning, even if we understand only a couple of parts as opposed to all of them.

(Character stems from the Greek charassein: “to sharpen, cut in furrows, or engrave.” This word also gave the Greeks charaktēr: “a mark; a distinctive quality,” a meaning the Latin character shared. English adopted character in the 14th century to express “a distinctive differentiating mark” as one of the word’s earliest English meanings.)

Word Roots and Affixes for Word-Count Reduction

Understanding word roots and their conjoining parts further can support written precision by allowing us to reduce word count.


against the establishment > anti-establishment (three words to one word with three morphemes: anti-, establish, -ment)

to act against > counteract (three words to one word with two morphemes: counter-, act)

Shelly is the one who can run with more speed than any other runner on the team >
Shelly is the fastest runner on the team (Seventeen words to eight words, achieved mainly by inclusion of fastest, which is one word with two morphemes: fast, -est.)

Related Topic

How Does a Word Become a Word?

Pop Quiz

Applying what we’ve discussed about word roots, identify the root in each following word. Some can be recognizable English words, and others can be from original roots such as Latin or Greek.

1. international

2. nonexistent

3. contradict

4. enlightenment

5. destruction


Pop Quiz Answers

1. international

2. nonexistent

3. contradict

4. enlightenment

5. destruction

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