prefix sub Parts of words in English can often give you valuable clues to their meaning. Prefixes and suffixes usually modify the word they are attached to, so if you understand the meaning of a prefix, you can increase your understanding of a number of new words, and improve your vocabulary. For example, the prefix sub- comes at the start of many words, and usually means some form of under.

Different uses of the prefix “sub-“

If a word has sub- at the beginning, you can assume it means under, below or beneath that root word. For example, the meaning of submarine is literally under (sub-) water (-sea). This is also related to the verb submerge, usually meaning to put or sink below water, but also used for covering or suppressing something (think, generally, of any form of putting one thing under another, My dreams were submerged by my addiction to cake, as a strange poetic example).

There are many words that use sub- to mean under in one form or another:

  • subway – an underground path
  • subterranean – existing underground
  • subvert – to undermine (usually with the result of overthrowing or destroying, but coming from the literal idea of pulling an idea out from below)
  • subversive – undermining
  • subtropical – below tropical (lower, or higher on the globe, meaning it’s not quite as hot)
  • subpar – below average
  • subsection – a lesser/minor section (as in, a smaller part of a larger thing)

Sub- is so useful in this easily understood meaning that it is also used to form hythenated nouns, when the prefixed form is not a recognised word on its own.

  • sub-zero- below zero (degrees, normally)
  • sub-standard – below the accepted standard

It also exists in less obvious forms, and can be found as su-, suf-, suc- and sug-, usually based on spelling rules. These are not always so clear as prefixes, or in their meaning, however. For example, succeed is to triumph, does not clearly relate to under or below.

Of course, as is always true in English, the meaning will not always ring true, or helpful, and other words with sub- are not obviously related to under either – such as subsist and subject. But in general, paying attention to prefixes and their meanings can give you a good starting point in understanding new vocabulary.


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