English Alphabet and Words

English Alphabet

An alphabet is a standard set of letters (basic written symbols or graphemes) that represent the phonemes (basic significant sounds) of any spoken language. The English word alphabet came into Middle English from the Late Latin word alphabetum, which in turn originated from the Greek word alphabētos, which was made from the first two letters, alpha(α) and beta(β).

The modern English alphabet is a Latin alphabet consisting of 26 letters, each having an upper- and lower-case form. It originated around the 7th century from the Latin script. Since then, letters have been added or removed to give the current Modern English alphabet of 26 letters:

Upper-case Alphabet (also known as Capital Letters):

A  B  C  D  E  F  G  H  I  J  K  L  M  N  O  P  Q  R  S  T  U  V  W  X  Y  Z

Lower-case Alphabet:

a  b  c  d  e  f  g  h  i  j  k  l  m  n  o  p  q  r  s  t  u  v  w  x  y  z

The alphabets “A, E, I, O, U (upper case);  a, e, i, o, u (lower case)” are called Vowels.

All the alphabets excepting the vowels are called Consonants.

(Note: The article ‘a’ is placed before consonants; the article ‘an’ is placed before vowels)

1. I and U represent consonants in words such as “onion” and “quarter” respectively.
2. The letter Y sometimes represents a consonant (as in “young”) and sometimes a vowel (as in “myth”).
3. Rarely, W may represent a vowel (as in “cwm”)—a Welsh influence. The word “cwm”, pronounced as “KUUM”, is a noun and it means a steep-walled semicircular basin in a mountain; it may contain a lake.
4. W and Y are sometimes referred to as semi-vowels by linguists.

Generally, the letter most commonly used in English is E e, and the least used letter is Z z.


When uttered, each alphabet produces a distinct sound. When alphabets combine, then the sound produced by the combination of the alphabets is given a meaning by common usage, by acceptance of the majority, by agreement among linguists/ grammarians or by tradition. This meaningful sound originating from a combination of alphabets is known as a word. Thus, every word must have a sound and its corresponding meaning.

Words that are different in sound but similar in meaning are known as Synonyms (beautiful, lovely). Words that are different in sound but opposite in meaning are called as Antonyms (lovely, ugly). Words that are similar in sound but different in meaning are called as Homonyms (there, their). A book having a collection of all the words and their meanings is called a Dictionary. A book having a collection of all the words, their respective sounds, meanings, synonyms, antonyms, and example sentences is known as a Thesaurus.

A sentence that contains every letter of the alphabet, if possible with each letter only being used once, is known as a Pangram. A familiar example of a pangram, though with duplications, is the typists’ test sentence: The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.

Some alphabets/words combine before or after words to form new words. Alphabets/word that combine before words is known as a prefix; whereas, alphabets/word that combine after words is known as a suffix.


A prefix (pre = before; fix = attach) combines before a word. Some of the common prefixes are given below:

a- (not, without) asymmetric, acyclic, asexual, atonal, atheist
a- (verb > predicative adjective with progressive aspect) afloat
after- (following after, behind) aftermath, afterlife
ambi- (both) ambidextrous, ambivalent
an- (additional) anaerobic
an- (not, without) anemic
an-, ana- (up, against) anode, analog, anacardiaceous
Anglo- (relating to England) Anglo-Indian, Anglo-American, Anglo-Norman, Anglo-Saxon
ante- (before) antechamber, antedate, antenatal
anti- (against, opposite) anti-freeze, anti-inflammatory, antivirus, anticlimax (Note: in some words, a hyphen is used after the prefix)
auto- (by oneself or itself) automobile, automatic
back- (behind an object/structure (locative/directional)) backhoe, backfire
be- (equipped with, covered with, beset with (pejorative or facetious)) bedeviled, becalm, bedazzle, bewitch
bi- (two) bicentennial
by- (near to, next to) byway, bypass, by-product
co- (joint, with, accompanying, together) co-worker, coordinator, cooperation, cohabitation
de- (reverse action, get rid of, negative, remove) de-emphasize, deactivate, demoralise
dis- (negative, remove, not, opposite of, reverse action, get rid of) disappear, disapprove
dis- (not, opposite of) disloyal, disagree
dis- (reverse action, get rid of) disconnect, disinformation
down- (from higher/greater to lower/lesser) download, downright, downbeat
dys- (negative, badly, wrongly) dysfunction
en-, em- (to make into, to put into, to get into) empower, enmesh
ex- (former) ex-husband, ex-boss, ex-colleague, ex-wife
fore- (before, in front) forearm, forerunner, forebode
hind- (after) hindsight, hindquarters
hyper- (more than required) hypercalcemia
hypo- (less than required) hypothroidism
ig- (before gn- or n-) ignoble, ignorant
il- (before l-) illegal, illegible
im- (before b-, m-, or p-) imbalance
in- (before most letters) inactive
ir- (before r-) irregular
macro- (large scale) macroeconomics
micro- (small-scale) micrometer
mid- (middle) midstream, midlife
midi- (medium-sized) midi-length
mini- (small) mini-market, mini-room, minivan
mis- (wrong, astray) misinformation, misguide, misfortune
non- (no, not) non-stop
off- (non-standard, away) off-colour, offish, offset, off-centre
on- (immediate proximity, locative) onset, ongoing, oncoming
out- (better, faster, longer, farther) outreach, outcome, outlier
over- (excess, too much; on top, above) overreact, overcoat, overbearing
post- (after, behind) post-election, post-graduation, post-war
pre- (before) precast, prequel
pro- (for, forward, in favour of) propulsion, propound, pro-life
re- (again, back) redo, revisit, rerun, reorganize, revitalise, rejuvenate
self- (self) self-sufficient, self-explanatory
step- (family relation by remarriage) stepbrother, stepsister, stepmother, stepfather
sub- (below) subzero, subway
twi- (two) twilight
un- (not, against, opposite of, remove, reverse action, deprive of, release from) unnecessary, unremarkable, unequal, undesirable, unhappy, unopened, undo, untie, unexpected, unlock
under- (below, beneath, lower in grade or dignity, lesser, insufficient) underachieve, underpass, undergo
up- (greater, higher, or better) upgrade, uplift, upright
with- (against, back, away (from)) withstand, withhold


A suffix (also called ending) is an affix that is placed after the stem of a word. Common examples are case endings, which indicate the grammatical case of nouns or adjectives, and verb endings, which form the conjugation of verbs.

Suffixes can carry grammatical information (inflectional suffixes) or lexical information (derivational/lexical suffixes).

Inflectional suffixes: Inflectional suffixes do not change the word class of the word after the inflection. Inflectional suffixes in Modern English include:
-s third person singular present
-ed past tense
-t past tense
-ing progressive/continuous
-en past participle
-s plural
-en plural (irregular)
-er comparative
-est superlative

Derivational suffixes usually change the word class of the word after the derivation. Derivational suffixes in Modern English include:
-ise/-ize (usually changes nouns into verbs)
-fy (usually changes nouns into verbs)
-ly (usually changes adjectives into adverbs)
-ful (usually changes nouns into adjectives)
-able/-ible (usually changes verbs into adjectives)
-hood (usually class-maintaining, with the word class remaining a noun)
-ess (usually class-maintaining, with the word class remaining a noun)
-ness (usually changes adjectives into nouns)
-less (usually changes nouns into adjectives)
-ism (usually class-maintaining, with the word class remaining a noun)
-ment (usually changes verbs into nouns)
-ist (usually class-maintaining, with the word class remaining a noun)
-al (usually changes nouns into adjectives)
-ish (usually changes nouns into adjectives/ class-maintaining, with the word class remaining an adjective)
-oid (usually changes nouns into adjectives)
-like (usually changes nouns into adjectives)
-ity (usually changes adjectives into nouns)
-tion (usually changes verbs into noun)
-logy/-ology (usually class-maintaining, with the word class remaining a noun)
-ant (usually changes verbs into nouns, often referring to a human agent)

1. Adams, Valerie. (1973). An introduction to modern English word-formation. London: Longman.
2. Bauer, Laurie. (1983). English word-formation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
3. Brown, Roland W. (1927). Materials for word-study: A manual of roots, prefixes, suffixes and derivatives in the English language. New Haven, CT: Van Dyck & Co.
4. Simpson, John (Ed.). (1989). Oxford English dictionary (2nd ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
5. Marchand, Hans. 1969. The categories and types of present-day English word-formation: A synchronic-diachronic approach. Munich: Beck
6. Wikipedia.org
7. Merriam-Webster.com

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