The Grammarphobia Blog

The power of negative thinking

Q: What is the difference between the prefixes “a” and “un,” as in “apolitical” and “unpolitical”?

A: English has a vast supply of small negative prefixes: “a,” “de,” “dis,” “il,” “im,” “in,” “ir,” “mal,” “mis,” “non,” and “un.” (There are larger ones, too: “ante,” “anti,” “counter,” “contra,” and others.) Conventions for using them have developed over the years through common usage, rather than through a set of rules.

These little bits of negativity can be bewildering, especially to people learning English as a second language. We all know the difference between “misinformation” and “disinformation,” but often the distinction between negative pairs is more subtle.

“Irreligious” suggests a hostility to religion, while “nonreligious” means a lack of religion. “Amoral” means denying that there are moral distinctions, or not caring about right or wrong; “unmoral” and “nonmoral” mean unrelated to morality. And “illiterate” means unable to read and write, while “nonliterate” means without a written language.

Sometimes, however, there’s no difference (“defrocked” and “unfrocked” pop to mind), and that’s the case with “apolitical” and “unpolitical.”

The prefix “a” means not or without, and “un” means not or the opposite of. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed) defines “apolitical” as having no interest or involvement in political affairs, having an aversion to politics or political affairs, or having no political significance. M-W defines “unpolitical” as meaning “apolitical.”

In short, only the dictionary can tell you whether two negatives with the same stem but different prefixes mean the same thing or not.

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