I love being up to date on all things French.
But staying ahead of the French game isn’t just about listening to the news.
It’s not just about racing to fluency with the latest French music, movies and literature.
It’s not even just about overcoming your language anxiety and putting yourself out there, though that’s definitely a feat.
It’s also about always staying one step ahead of your learning, and keeping yourself mentally sharp and spry.
That’s where prefixes come in: cute little buggers to help you build your French vocabulary quickly and painlessly.
They’ll help you not just keep up with your vocabulary but leap ahead of it.
Sounds like a good deal, right?
So let’s get going!
What Are Prefixes, and Why Learn French Ones?
- A prefix is an affix (something that can be added) that’s placed before the stem of a word—whether a noun, verb or adjective.
- For the most part, French prefixes originate in Latin or Greek, just as in English. French and English prefixes are therefore historically linked, which means striking similarities exist between prefixes across the two languages.
- Prefixes are linguistic shortcuts. They allow you to boil down what would otherwise be a multi-word phrase into a single word. Instead of pas typique “not typical,” for example, one can simply say atypique (atypical).
- Prefixes are also “word builders” of sorts because they allow you to build more complex words from simple ones. This means that on the one hand, your vocabulary will grow rather dramatically once you’ve added some prefixes to your arsenal, and on the other, you’ll be able to decode the meanings of unfamiliar words more easily. And more vocabulary means more fluent French.
Convinced? All right, let’s get this show on the road!
Let’s look at some prefixes, shall we?
14 French Prefixes for Staying Ahead of the Game
This is an adjectival prefix, which means it’s added to the front of adjectives. It signifies “without” or “the opposite of.”
a + typique (typical) → atypique (atypical)
Marie a un parcours atypique. (Marie has an atypical background.)
This nominal or verbal prefix means “before” or “in front of.”
anté- + historique (historical) → antéhistorique (prehistoric)
Jeanne s’intéresse à l’art antéhistorique. (Jeanne is interested in prehistoric art.)
Note: Préhistorique (prehistoric) also exists. In fact, the synonym antéhistorique is less commonly used, but it’s good to keep in your pocket if you want to impress some French academics.
anté- + poser (to put down) → antéposer (to put or place something before something else)
On antéposé les adjectifs pour en accentuer l’effet. (We put adjectives in front to emphasize their effect.)
This nominal or adjectival prefix means “against” or “opposed to.”
anti- + bactérien (bacterial) → antibactérien (antibacterial)
J’utilise un savon antibactérien. (I am using an antibacterial soap.)
anti- + racisme (racism) → antiracisme (antiracism)
L’antiracisme est notre but. (Antiracism is our goal.)
This verbal prefix means “not” or “separate from.”
dés- + obéir (to obey) → désobéir (to disobey)
Hélène désobéit à sa mère. (Hélène disobeys her mother.)
This nominal and adjectival prefix means “bad,” “deformed,” “difficulty” or “abnormal.”
dys- + lexique (vocabulary, words) → dyslexique (dyslexic, literally “difficulty with words”)
La fille d’Alice est dyslexique. (Alice’s daughter is dyslexic.)
This prefix, which can either be nominal, adjectival or verbal, indicates removal.
é- + feuiller (to come into leaf) → effeuiller (to pluck the leaves off)
Marie effeuille le persil pour sa recette. (Marie plucks the leaves off the parsley for her recipe.)
This verbal prefix means “into” or “in.”
en- + fouir (to dig) → enfouir (to bury)
La souris enfouit des noix pour l’hiver. (The mouse is burying nuts for winter.)
These adjectival, nominal and adverbial prefixes transform words into their opposites.
Il- goes before words that begin with l.
il- + légal (legal) → illégal (illegal)
La société lutte contre le travail illégal. (The company is fighting against illegal work.)
Im- is used for words that begin with b, m or p:
im- + partial (partial) → impartial (impartial)
Je dois rendre une décision impartiale. (I must make an impartial decision.)
In- is the most common variant of the prefix, and is affixed to words that begin with vowels or consonants—except for b, l, m, p or r:
in- + acceptable (acceptable) → inacceptable (unacceptable)
Son attitude est inacceptable. (His attitude is unacceptable.)
Ir- is added to words that begin with r:
ir- + régulier (regular) → irrégulier (irregular)
Il y a beaucoup de verbes irréguliers en français. (There are a lot of irregular verbs in French.)
This nominal, adjectival and verbal prefix means “bad” or “mis-.”
mal- + heureux (happy) → malheureux (unhappy)
Charles est malheureux. (Charles is unhappy.)
mé- + connaître (to know) → méconnaître (to misunderstand, to not recognize)
Le médecin méconnait la cause de ma maladie. (The doctor does not recognize the cause of my illness.)
This nominal and adjectival prefix means “before.”
pré- + cuit (cooked) → précuit (precooked)
Le pain est précuit. (The bread is precooked.)
This nominal and adjectival prefix means “in favor of” or “for.”
pro- + actif (active) → proactif (proactive, in favor of being active)
Eric est proactif. (Eric is proactive.)
This verbal prefix re- and its variants can mean a few different things: to do again or to redo, to return to a previous state of being or location and, finally, it can add stress or emphasis to a verb to further underscore its meaning.
Re- is generally added to verbs that begin with a consonant or an aspirated h.
re- + faire (to do, to make) → refaire (to redo, to remake)
Elisabeth refait ses devoirs. (Elisabeth is redoing her homework.)
Re- oftentimes becomes res- when placed in front of a verb that begins with an s.
res- + sortir (to go out) → ressortir (to go out again)
Je dois ressortir ce soir. (I must go out again tonight.)
Ré- and r- are usually added in front of verbs that begin with vowels, and h muet (silent h).
ré- + écrire (to write) → récrire or réécrire (to rewrite)
Je réécris ma liste de courses. (I am rewriting my shopping list.)
r- + habiller (to dress) → rhabiller (to dress again)
Elise rhabille son enfant. (Elise dresses her child again.)
This nominal, adjectival and verbal prefix means “above,” “over” or “on top of.”
super- + poser (to place, to put) → superposer (to place on top of)
Elise a superposé les coussins pour ne pas avoir mal au dos. (Elise put the cushions on top of each other so she wouldn’t hurt her back.)
This nominal prefix means “counter” or “against.”
contre- + enquête (investigation) → contre-enquête (counter-investigation)
Il a ouvert une contre-enquête. (He opened a counter-investigation.)
If you’d like to stay even further ahead of the prefix game, check out these resources for some more practice.
- The Francophone site Études littéraires offers quick reference guides to an extensive list of prefixes (with examples!) for you to pore over and find le mot juste (the right word).
- “French Vocabulary Building with Prefixes and Suffixes” by Eliane Kurbegov is a great way for new French learners to build their vocabulary quickly and efficiently.
- “Exploring the French Language” by R. Anthony Lodge et al. is a great text for all of you budding French linguists out there. In the section entitled “Word Formation and Etymology,” we learn that French words are categorized as either simple, derived or compound, along with the historical evolution of French prefixes (and suffixes) from Old French to the French we know (or are learning!) now.
As long as you’re consistent, you’ll be sure to stay ahead of the game!