Latin elements in English word formation

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About 2/3 of words in English come from Latin, and a number of others from Greek; these are especially common in technical and academic vocabulary. Some of the complexities of Latin and Greek based word formation (morphology) are presented here.

1 Latin abbreviations & expressions in academic writing

Latin   English use
c. (circa) about, approximately
cf. (conferre) compare, compare(d) to
e.g. (exempliae gratia) for example
et al. (et alia) and others, etc. (for multiple authors in source citations)
errata   errors (list of typographical errors that have been found)
i.e. (id est) that is, that is to say, in other words
infra   below, see below
loc. cit.   in the place cited (for footnote-style citation systems)
op. cit.   in the work cited
passim   here and there; the point is made in several places in the text
sic   “thus” - used to marking errors in the original source
supra   above, see above
viz. (videlicet) namely, obviously


2 Latin prefixes

The following are common Latin prefixes, with alternate forms resulting from phonological blendings in Latin; for example, ad+simil-assimilate. A number of such blendings of prefixes and word stems led to double consonant spellings [“CC” below].


Prefix Alternate forms Meaning Example
ab- a-, abs- from, away abstract
ad- a-, ad-
a+CC: abb-, acc-, aff-, agg-, all-, amm-, ann-, app-, acq-, arr-, ass-, att-
to, toward advertise, afferent, agglutinate, annotate, appropriate, acquire, arrest, asset, attention, alleviate
com co-, col-, con- with, together complicate, collinear, confuse, contain
de- down, away describe, deduct
dis- di-, dif- apart, away distance, difference
dis- not dislike
ex- e-, ef- out, beyond express, effeminate
in- [1] ig-; i+CC: ill-, imm-, irr- not ignoble, inconsistent, immaculate, illiterate
in- i+CC: ill-, imm-, irr- in, into instruct, illumine, innate, irradiate
inter- between, among intersection
mis- wrong(ly) misinform
non- not nonviolent
ob- o+CC: occ-, off-, opp- against; toward obtain, obtuse, occidental, offer, oppose
per- through perfect
pre- before predict
pro- pur- forward, before; in favor of prospect, propose, purpose
re- back reduce
re- again reorganize
sub- suc-, suf-, sug-, sum-, sup-, sur-, sus- under subscribe, suffer, suggest, summation, surround, support, suspect
trans- tra-, tran- across, over, beyond transfer, trajectory

3 Latin & Greek plurals

Some Latin and Greek nouns exhibit changes in word endings, which were regular in Latin and Greek, but irregular or semi-regular in English. These are for many nouns ending in -a (Latin feminine nouns), -us (Latin masculine nouns), -um (Latin neuter nouns), and -on (Latin neuter nouns) [note: these “genders” are morphological categories of words, not usually actual biological gender].


1. -a → -ae pupa → pupae

nova, aurora, alumna, antenna, formula, alumna

2. -us → -i syllabus → syllabi

locus, alumnus, cactus, focus, octopus, hippopotamus, fungus, alumnus

3. -um → -a medium → media, datum → data

honorarium, symposium, maximum, minimum, memorandum, addendum, forum

4. -on → -a criterion → criteria

phenomenon, polyhedron, automaton


Sometimes the Latin plurals are preferred in scientific or technical contexts, while normal -s plurals are preferred in normal contexts (like cactus → cacti / cactuses).

A few nouns have the same form for singular and plural, like species and series.


3.1 Plurals from other languages

A few French irregulars exist, like beau → beaux. Hebrew words often add -im, as in seraph → seraphim, cherub → cherubim; a few Hebrew words have other endings like matzah → matzot. Some words from other languages don’t add plural endings, like samurai.

4 Noun stem changes

Some words undergo changes in the spelling and pronunciation of the stem (base, root word), due to their forms that changed in Latin and Greek.

4.1 Latin & Greek noun stems, singular → plural

Some Greek and Latin nouns change -is to -es (e.g., analysis → analyses), and some Greek and Latin nouns change -ex or -ix to -ices in the plural (e.g., index → indices, codex → codices). For those ending in -ex/-ix, the regular plural with -es is also usually possible in less formal English (indexes, apexes...).


-is → -es -ix/ex → -ices
analysis

antithesis

axis

basis

crisis

diagnosis

diaeresis

emphasis

ellipsis

hypothesis

metamorphosis

nemesis

neurosis

oasis

parenthesis

prognosis

psychosis

synthesis

testis

thesis

appendix

cervix

codex

cortex

helix

ibex

index

matrix

radix

vertex

vortex


Another pattern in more technical words looks like this:

  • stigma → stigmata
  • schema → schemata

Other stem changes occur in nouns in technical vocabulary, e.g.,

  • corpuscorpora
  • genus → generaopus opera


4.2 Noun stem changes in other words

Latin / Greek noun stem changes sometimes show up in different words derived from the same ancient root, especially in technical words. This becomes apparent in comparing noun stems with other nouns or adjectives derived from them.


base noun derived noun / adj.   base noun derived noun / adj.
chrome

crime

crux

dogma

genus

homo (sapiens)

chromatic

criminal

crucifix

dogmatic

generic

hominid

lemma

lumen

opus

rex

schema

stoma

theme

lemmatic

illuminate

opera

regal

schematic

stomatic

thematic

There are a few words from related stems in both Latin and Greek (as the two languages were close cousins), such as acute (Greek) and accuracy (Latin); coniferous (Latin, ‘cone-bearing’), metaphor (Greek, “carrying beyond”).


5 Verb stem changes

Stem changes in Latin (and also Greek) verb tenses and participle forms led to different variants of the word roots in English. The main stems are the present and the past perfect participle (similar to teach, taught in English). Occasionally, the simple past form yields some English words. Some stem changes occur when verbs are compounded (e.g., tacit – reticent). Below are some common Latin examples.


infinitive or present tense meaning derivatives from present forms perfect tense form derivatives from perfect forms
crescere grow, increase crescent cretum concrete
dicere speak, say abdicate dictum dictate, dictionary
facere do, make facile, suffice factum fact, faction
fere carry, bear transfer latum (irregular) translate
for, fari speak, delcare forensic; infant fatum fate
fingere touch figure fictum fiction
labi fall, slide labile lapsus relapse
nasci be born nascent, renaissance natum prenatal
oblivisci forget oblivious oblitum obliterate
petere seek, ask compete petitum petition, competition
pingere paint, draw impinge pictum depict
tacere be silent tacit; reticent tacitum taciturn
tangere touch, cover tangible tactum contact
tegere cover, shield tegmentum tectum tectum, protect
vincere conquer invincible victum victim, evict

The verb facere also spawned other English words through another verb form: the present passive fio/fieri ‘be made, become’ became the suffix -fy as in ‘pacify, sanctify’.


  1. The Latin negative in- is often used with Latin or Greek roots, while the Old English un- is often used with original Old English / Germanic word roots like unable. A Greek negative prefix is a-/an-, as in atom, aphasia, agrammatical, and other technical words.