Why do I call this the “Words You Should Know” podcast? It’s not a lecture. The whole idea of grammar police annoys me. This is the podcast that reminds you that Ben Franklin and Kurt Cobain both influenced our modern English language, and spelling memes deserve to be debunked. See past episodes for those details.
And speaking of last episodes, it’s kind of ironic that the episode after I talk about apples, “how do you like them apples,” and old versions of the expression about how they keep the doctor away, I get sick.
But onward, as always. Thanks for bearing with my slightly scratchy voice today.
Season 2, Episode 5 – Et tu, Brute! (And the Latin Prefixes that Stump You)
Today, we’re going to explore a great question that came in. Yes, I do love your questions and comments. Please do keep sending them on.
The question was, “what’s the deal with using both “un-” and “in-” as prefixes, and is there any logic behind when you use each one?”
It’s a great question, an awesome question. So let’s devote this episode to the Latin you didn’t realize you already knew. Et tu, Brute! It’s true.
The good news is that there is solid reasoning behind when you use the prefix of “in-” versus when you use “un-”; the bad news is that this logic will only help you if you have a solid understanding of language history.
In all cases discussed here, these prefixes mean “not” or the opposite of something. We see them in action all of the time:
The answer to their usage relies on their roots. If the base word stems from a Germanic language, the proper prefix is “un-.” If it stems from a Latin word, the proper prefix is “in-.” Yes, it’s a nice simple answer, but not the easy answer that English spellers were hoping for.
If you’re still confused, don’t worry. Because this scholarly answer hasn’t been well understood over time, many words have fluctuated between prefixes. My favorite example is from the Declaration of Independence itself. There, as we all well know, is a discussion of “unalienable rights.” Are you doing a double-take? Yes, it’s written as “unalienable,” not “inalienable,” as is the more common form today—and technically, “inalienable” is the correct form, since we’re talking about a word with a Latin root.
If you’re arguing that this is unacceptable or inconclusive, I hear you. But at least you’ll have your answer now, whether it’s one that you’ll put to use or not.
*Answer – The correct word is “insurmountable,” since the root word comes from Latin.
It’s not Latin itself that trips people up, per se, but it’s the spelling of the dead language. When interwoven with our everyday speech, Latin usage sometimes allows us to say our ideas in a more sophisticated tone, but this sophistication crumbles if we spell it “per say.”
Hear what I’m saying? Seriously, social media posters, do you? Think hard about “per se” vs. “per say.”
Remember, “per se” translates to “by itself” and means intrinsically or as such. This phrase is a quality insertion that can elevate your communication a notch, and being clever and educated is often a valuable stylistic choice. Ipso facto, don’t let a typo be your downfall.
Mea culpa if I’m pushing too hard here, but it’s the little things that we have to pay attention to. Making sure you know the right answer is just my modus operandi.
Carpe diem, and happy writing!
Back to pre-fixes, here’s my extra curve ball:
When the discussion gets heated, are tempers “inflamed” or “enflamed”? Is there a difference? Which one should you use? Some days, it might feel hard to keep yourself in check, but before passions flare (or is it “flair”?), let’s settle this once and for all.
The big question is, should we start by going back to Middle English (arguably the first English form of this word) or should we go all the way back to Latin? In the 1400s, the word “enflamen” came from the Anglo-French word enflamer, but just before you want to call it a win for the “en-” form, let’s travel further (not farther) back in time to the Latin root. Now, we see where the confusion started, because this root is inflammare. Suddenly, you’re thinking about “inflammable,” “inflammation,” and a number of other words that share this same origin, all with the “in-” prefix.
Thus, in short, there have been centuries of confusion and waffling between the two spellings, but since roughly 1600, “inflamed” has been the more popular form. Many dictionaries and spellcheck programs will let you get away with “enflamed,” but know that “inflamed” with that “i” is the standard spelling.
Who knew there were so many word confusion issues surrounding the idea of fire? “Lit” vs. “Lighted.” “Immolate” vs. “emulate.” “Burned” vs. “burnt.” I guess this is just one more for the list, fighting fire with grammar-checked fire.
In- … Un- … En-
Do you have another inquiry? Oh, shoot, is it “enquiry”? Oh, the fun never stops. Yes, I did say fun.
The English language isn’t built just to confuse you, per se, but it does do that sometimes. Is your challenge insurmountable? Absolutely not.
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Words. Language. Communications. You’ve got this.