Contemporary vs Historical Prefixes

Contemporary vs Historical Prefixes

In a nutshell, the two types of prefixes are:

  • Contemporary (or separable) prefixes are attached to word that already exists on its own.
  • Historical (or inseparable) prefixes are part of the word.

In the page about affixation, it was fairly easy to distinguish the affixes from the roots, but this is not always the case. Sometimes, the distinction is not always clear cut. For example, are re– and con- prefixes in these words or part of the root: represent, rebate, rebel, recruit, consign, conceal, conclusion?

This is not an easy question. Actually, it depends on the approach that we want to adopt. As far as stress rules are concerned, it is useful to consider re– and con– as prefixes, since they functioned as prefixes in the past. Consequently, we have two categories of prefixes: contemporary and historical prefixes.

Contemporary prefixes (or separable)

Contemporary prefixes: a unit is considered to be a contemporary prefix if the word still has some meaning when the prefix is removed.

Example: the prefix un– is a contemporary prefix in the following words: unaffected, unaltered, unarguably.

Why? They are called contemporary because speakers can still use them to change the meaning of the word, with the root contributing a constant meaning.

Historical prefixes (or inseparable)

Historical prefixes: a prefix is considered a historical prefix if the word no longer has any meaning when the prefix is removed.

Example: con– is a historical prefix in the following words: construct, conduct, concise.

Why? They are called historical because speakers can no longer attach these prefixes to a root to change the meaning of the root. Those prefixes are now part of the word itself.

Contemporary = Separable & Historical = Inseparable

Useful_Information_word_stressThe terms “contemporary” and “historical” prefixes are not widely used in linguistics. Instead, the terms “separable” and “inseparable” prefixes are sometimes preferred, but they may confuse learners, since a separable prefix does not mean that it can stand on its own somewhere else in the sentence. Furthermore, the terms “contemporary” and “historical” reflect the fact that the history of the language has a lot to do with the complex situation of affixation in English.

Wikipedia makes this distinction with the following terminology: Native vs. non-native (neo-classical) prefixing

Important Notes

  1. Certain prefixes can be contemporary or historical, depending on the root. Examples: re– and pre- are contemporary in words such as re-do, pre-heat; and are historical in words such as respect and prepare.
  2. It is not because a cluster of letters is a prefix in certain words that it is always a prefix. For example, re– at the beginning of a word is not a prefix in words such as real, or realize.
  3. Since historical prefixes cannot be identified mechanically (e.g. if we remove it, the root still has a meaning), how can we recognize them? Historical prefixes generally have Latin and Greek origins; so it will be easier if you know Greek or a Romance language. But even if you don’t, it will become easy to recognize them with a little practice.


List all the contemporary and historical prefixes that you can think of.

  • Contemporary prefixes:
  • Historical prefixes:


In each of these words, indicate whether the prefix is contemporary or historical.

  1. revolt
  2. constitute
  3. revision
  4. beside
  5. prefer
  6. amid
  7. present
  8. amiss
  9. renew
  10. renounce
  11. alive
  12. account
  13. biannual
  14. reoccur
  15. reply
  16. repress
  17. bifurcate
  18. besmirch
  19. reroute
  20. multichannel

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