How to Find Word Roots

By DavidC

Identifying the root of a word can lead to a better understanding of how the word is best used. Because there are many words in the English language with overlapping meanings, the root of a word can be used to determine which word best applies to a particular context.

The process of identifying word roots has more to do with stripping away additional word elements than directly locating the root. This is because there are so many more possible roots than there are extra word elements like prefixes and suffixes.

Identify any prefixes. Prefixes appear at the beginning of a word and are usually two- to four-letter formations like "re," "pre" and "post," but they can be shorter or longer in some cases. If you are unsure of a suspected prefix, look it up in the dictionary and see if it is listed as a prefix.

Identify any suffixes. This step works exactly like Step 1, but rather than identifying prefixes at the beginning of the word, you identify any suffixes that might be at the end of the word. Common suffixes are "ly," "ing" and "er." If you are unsure of a suspected suffix, look it up in the dictionary and see if it is listed as a suffix.

Rewrite the word without prefixes and suffixes. The result should be the word root you are looking for.

Research the root word to identify its language of origin and meaning if you want to further your understanding of the original word's proper use.


Quickly identifying prefixes and suffixes is a skill that is acquired through reading and familiarity with the English language and its constructs.

Following are a few examples of how to find word roots: Failing--There is no prefix, but the common suffix "ing" is found. After stripping the suffix, the root word "fail" is uncovered. Antiseptic--Here there is one prefix, "anti," and one suffix, "ic." After stripping them both, the root "sept" is found. Swimmingly--This word has no prefix but two suffixes, "ing" and "ly." Prefixes and suffixes can occur in multiples. In this case, the root word is "swim."