Posted by: Jack Henry | July 7, 2016

Editor’s Corner: Prefixes, Part 2: A- Strikes Back

Several readers wrote to tell me that they enjoyed last month’s post about the prefix be-, so in the spirit of Hollywood blockbuster season, I churned out a sequel. This week, let’s discuss the prefix a-.

From Greek

Sometimes, a- means not or without, as in words like atypical (not typical), asocial (not social), amoral (neither moral nor immoral), and apolitical (having no interest or involvement in political affairs).

This meaning of the prefix a- comes from Greek. When used in this sense, a-:

  • Usually accompanies words with Greek roots (like typikos and politikos) or Latin roots (like socialis and moralis).
  • Is usually pronounced with a long a sound (as in day or fade).

From German

What about words like asleep (in a state of sleep) and afoot (on foot)? Why don’t they mean "not sleeping" and "not on foot"?

In addition to Greek and Latin, English borrowed many words from German. Old English used the prefix a- in a variety of ways unrelated to the Greek meaning. Merriam-Webster includes the following definitions:

  • on : in : at <abed>
  • in (such) a state or condition <afire>
  • in (such) a manner <aloud>
  • in the act or process of <gone a-hunting> <atingle>

When used in this sense, a-:

  • Usually accompanies words with roots in Old High German (like slf, sleep; fuot, foot; betti, bed; fiur, fire; and hlt, loud).
  • Is usually pronounced with a neutral vowel sound (as in about or supply).

With the exception of asleep, I think these words sound quaint. Unless you’re trying to write in an old-fashioned style, I recommend using equivalent prepositional phrases when they exist (like on foot, in bed, on fire, and out loud).

Ben Ritter | Technical Editor | Symitar
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