Some people tout learning GRE word roots as the key to conquering the vocab questions on the Verbal section. But are they correct?
In this comprehensive introduction to root words for GRE Verbal, we’ll introduce the root word strategy, consider the pros and cons, and make our own recommendation about how to best use and study root words in your own prep plan. Plus, we have a list of some common word roots that you may find useful for the GRE!
GRE Root Words: the Strategy
Root words (also called word roots) are smaller, more basic words or word parts that are modified by prefixes and suffixes to make more complex words. For example, “flam-” is a root word meaning “fire or burning,” which can be combined with various prefixes and suffixes to make words like “inflammable,” “flaming,” “aflame,” “flamboyant,” “inflammatory,” and so on.
The idea behind learning root words for GRE Verbal is that if you memorize a whole bunch of root words, prefixes, and suffixes, and their meanings, you’ll then be able to combine those parts into a number of more complicated words and figure out the meaning from the combination. This strategy thus allows you to memorize a smaller number of word parts but still dramatically expand your vocabulary via the combination of those parts. It should also help you to decipher unfamiliar words when you encounter them based on your knowledge of the component parts of words.
But does this strategy actually work?
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Pros and Cons to GRE Root Words
There are both pros and cons to the root words GRE strategy. We’ll go over both here.
- Knowing common prefixes, suffixes, and other word parts will help you decipher unfamiliar words when you encounter them on the GRE.
- There are some roots that are component parts of a huge number of words, so you can theoretically gain at least a small level of familiarity with tons of words just by learning a few roots. This can make learning root words an efficient vocabulary enhancement strategy.
- Some roots that are very similar or identical in sound have very different meanings. For example, the Greek root “arch” (or “archi”) means most important or principal, and forms a part of the words archenemy, patriarch, archon, and monarch. But another Greek root “arch” (or “archa” or “archi”) also means old or ancient, and forms a part of the words archaic and archaeologist. It’s very easy to get confused!
- Additionally, because English has borrowed words from many different language families, words that sound alike may have completely different origins and roots. For example, the word “manual” comes from the Latin root “man,” meaning “hand.” However, the similar-sounding word “manna” comes from Old English “manna” meaning “a providentially provided substance” tracing all the way back to the Hebrew root “man-” meaning “substance exuded from the tamarisk tree.” This means it is very easy to ascribe a totally incorrect meaning to an unfamiliar word.
- Also, even if you deploy your knowledge of prefixes, suffixes, and roots perfectly, with no mistakes, it’s still only going to get you at a vague approximation of the actual meaning of a word, and you’ll have no idea how to use it in context. Essentially, knowing word roots won’t help you memorize actual entire vocab words, which is critical for the GRE.
So, what’s the conclusion on the GRE root words strategy? GRE vocabulary questions require you to be able to identify the best word for a specific context with a lot of precision. You need to not only recognize specific words, but also understand exactly how to use them. Essentially, you need to increase your functional vocabulary—the number of words that you confidently and correctly use in a sentence.
Unfortunately, as we can see from the pros and cons of this strategy, root words can really only ever give you a vague impression of a word on their own. Because root words don’t really give you a precise handle on specific complex vocabulary words, root words should not be your complete vocabulary strategy on the GRE.
However, that doesn’t mean that root words, prefixes, and suffixes have no utility as part of a GRE prep plan. We’ll discuss how to best incorporate them in your study plan in the next section.
GRE Root Words: How to Study Them
Root words, prefixes, and suffixes can form a valuable ancillary part of your vocabulary strategy. There’s some benefit in devoting a small amount of vocabulary studying time to learning some of the most major roots, prefixes, and suffixes. They can provide some clues if you end up with some really unfamiliar words on GRE test day and will make any guessing you do a little more educated. So you might consider making a few (like 50) GRE root words flashcards to drill as a small subset of your larger, word-focused vocabulary strategy.
Another thing to keep in mind is that you will actually learn some root words naturally through expanding your vocabulary. As you expand the pool of words that you know, you will start to notice patterns of words that sound alike (or have parts that sound alike) and have similar meanings. For example, you may notice that pathos, empathy, antipathy, and apathetic all have to do with emotions and affect. This is because they all share the Greek root “path,” meaning feeling or emotion. But you don’t necessarily need to know the specific root or its origins to pick up on the fact that words with “path” in them often have to do with affect and emotions.
So the bottom line on GRE root words is that it’s not a good strategy for your entire vocabulary prep, but a small amount of root word work with some major roots, prefixes, and suffixes can help you when you need to guess or decipher something unfamiliar on the Verbal section.
I advise making GRE root words flashcards and to use the waterfall method to drill. I also advise you to study these separately from your main vocab words, so you don’t get confused.
In the next section we offer 50 roots, prefixes and suffixes you should drill for the GRE.
50 Common Word Roots for the GRE
Below find a list of 50 common word roots, prefixes, and suffixes that may help you on the GRE, as well as some words that use each of those roots. This list was drawn up by looking at what roots appeared repeatedly on official GRE prep materials.
|Root, Prefix, or suffix||Meaning||Examples|
|a-||without||amoral, amorphous, asexual|
|ambi-||on both sides||ambidextrous, ambivalent|
|ante-||before or in front||antecedent, antedate|
|aqu/aqua-||water||aquatic, aqueous, aquarium, aqueduct|
|bene-||good||benefit, benediction, benevolent|
|bi-||two||bifurcate, biannual, bisect|
|bio-||life||biology, biography, biome|
|cede/ceed||go or yield||precede, exceed, recede|
|circum-||around||circumscribe, circumnavigate, circumvent|
|contra-||against or opposite||contradiction, contraception, controversy|
|de-||reduce or remove||deescalate, defenestrate, decelerate|
|di-, dis-||apart or away||digress, disappear, diverge|
|dict||speak or say||edict, dictation, dictator, prediction, contradiction|
|dox||belief||orthodox, paradox, heterodox|
|du-, duo-||two||dual, duology, duochrome|
|em-, en-||into, in||embrace, enclose, encircle|
|esce||becoming||coalesce, adolescence, obsolescent, tumescent|
|ex-||out or way||exit, exhale, extirpate, exile|
|extra-, extro-||beyond or outside||extraordinary, extraterrestrial|
|fid/e||faith||bonafide, fidelity, confide|
|fore||before, previously, earlier||forestall, before, forebear, forebode, forecast|
|gram||writing, letters||diagram, grammar, epigram, telegram|
|graph||writing, recording||stenography, autograph, graphics|
|hetero-||different||heterosexual, heterozygous, heterogeneous, heterodox|
|homo-||same||homogenous, homosexual, homologous|
|hypo-||under, below||hypothermia, hypocrite, hypoglycemic|
|intra-/intro-||inside, within||introvert, intramural, intravenous|
|junct||joining||juncture, conjunction, disjunct|
|-less||without||listless, aimless, heartless|
|-logy||the study of||biology, geology, psychology|
|mal, male||bad, evil||malediction, malice|
|mis-||bad or incorrect||misprint, misbehave, misstep|
|-ness||state of being||likeness, greatness|
|non-||not, without||nonfiction, nonresident|
|ob-||against or before||obdurate, obfuscate|
|omni-||all, everything||omnipotent, omniscient, omnivorous|
|pedi, pede||foot||pedestrian, pedicure|
|phil||love or affinity||bibliophile, philanthropy|
|pre-||before or earlier||pretest, preamble|
|pro-||before or forward||proceed, prologue|
|re-||again, backwards||reaction, rebound, reuse|
|sub-||under or lower||submarine, subprime|
|temp||time||temporal, contemporary, temporarily|
|trans-||across or beyond||transnational, transit|
|un-||not or opposite||unimpressive, unwanted, unwarranted|
Review: Root Words for GRE Verbal
The idea behind the GRE root words strategy is that you learn a number of root words, prefixes, and suffixes and then are able to combine those parts into a huge number of different words and know their approximate meanings from what all the word parts mean.
Unfortunately, this can only ever get you a fairly vague understanding of most words. The GRE really requires that you have specific knowledge of individual words and exactly how to use them.
However, while this learning root words doesn’t work super-well as a main GRE vocab strategy, it can be useful to learn some key roots, prefixes, and suffixes. These will help you be more equipped to deal with unfamiliar words and make educated guesses on test day.
We recommend using our list of 50 roots, prefixes, and suffixes above!
Looking for other practice resources? See our complete GRE FAQ to answer all your questions, our 34 critical GRE tips and strategies, our ultimate GRE study guide, a complete collection of GRE practice tests, our review of the best GRE prep books, and all 6 official GRE practice tests from ETS.