What do the prefixes "in-," "il-" and im-" mean?


The Latin prefixes "in-," "im-," "il-" and "ir-" can all mean the same thing: "not." For example, if someone is incapable of performing a task, they are not capable. If a jacket is irreversible, it cannot be reversed. Which of the prefixes you use depends on the first letter of the root word.

A prefix is a word or set of letters attached to the front of a root word that alters or adds to that word's meaning. The three most common prefixes that mean "not" are "un-" (as in "unmistakable"), "a-" (as in "apathy") and "in-" (as in "incomplete"). Unlike the first two, the prefix "in-" changes to "ir-," "il-" or "im-" to accommodate the next letter in the word.

"In-" can be used to precede most consonants and all vowels as in "invalid" or "ineffective." "Ir-" is only used when the next letter is r, as in "irrevocable" or "irreparable." Similarly," il-" is only used when the next letter is l, as in "illiterate" or "illegitimate." "Im-" is used when the next letter is m, as in "immaterial" or "immeasurable," but it is also used when the next letter is b or p, as in "imbalance" or "impolite." A good way to remember is that "im-" is used whenever the next letter is a bilabial consonant, meaning that you need to touch your lips together to say it.

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