Is finding base words from root words difficult, especially when there seems to be little measurable difference between the two?
There’s an ongoing debate in teaching organizations if there is a distinct difference between base words and root words, or if it’s just two different words for the same thing. The easiest way to determine the difference, perhaps, is to define exactly what these words mean.
A base word, for instance, some teachers think, is a word that can stand on its own. Take the word “cycle.” It can’t be stripped of any further elements (as in prefixes or suffixes), and it has meaning without the help of any other elements.
But is cycle also a root word? Some teachers of English think that a root word is one that needs a prefix or a suffix to make sense. In the case of “cycle,” if the prefix “bi” is added to it, the word becomes “bicycle.”
The prefix “bi” means “two,” so a bicycle becomes a cycle with two wheels. Is “cycle,” then, a root word or a base word? Many educators argue it is both.
Discovering a base word versus a root word may be as simple as finding the essential word underneath all the add-ons, such as prefixes and suffixes.
In fact, the word “prefix” contains both a prefix and a root/base word! In this case, “pre” means before. A prefix is a word element that is tacked onto the beginning of a base, or root, word.
In “prefix,” the suffix “pre” is added to the beginning of the base word “fix” to become a new word. A “prefix” is an English element “fixed” (as in “attached”) to the front of a base word.
Likewise, “suffix” is a word containing a prefix and a base word. Although suffix means to add the word element to the end of the word, the word itself - “suffix” - contains the prefix “suf,” and the base word “fix.” (“Suf” in this case means something below or underneath. Close enough; a suffix is a word element attached to the end of a base word!)
It’s not enough, though, to assume that a word that’s a prefix or suffix always stays that way. In some cases, the word element that served before or behind a root word can become the root itself, even though it isn’t a word on its own (remember the debate between root words and base words!)
Take the word element “ambul.” It means “walking” or “moving.” The word “ambulance” means a vehicle that moves patients from one place to another.But the prefix “ambul,” in the word “somnambulant,” is now buried in the middle of the word. “Ambul” is no longer a prefix.
Somnambulant is derived from “ambul” (to walk) and the prefix “somn,” which means to sleep. So if one is somnambulant, one is a sleepwalker.
These are just some examples of the differences in finding base words from root words.
So how do you render a word down to its essential elements? It helps to know what it is you’re looking for.
This is a case where the best way to learn something is by doing it. Take the case of the word “reaction.” The definition means to respond to a stimulus. In chemistry, the word means to revert or change back into a former state.
If someone slaps you in the face, it’s a guarantee you’ll react somehow to the slap. But the word “reaction” has a prefix, a suffix, and a root, or base, word in it.
Figuring out which is which is easy. Strip off the prefix “re” (which means “back” or “again”) and the suffix “ion” (this suffix turns the verb “react” into a noun.) What you have left is the base (root) word “act,” which means the process of doing or performing.
So by stitching together the prefix, suffix, and base word, you can come up with the meaning of “reaction” without consulting a dictionary. Such is the process of finding base words from root words.