3 Important English Rules You Didn't Learn in School! (Part I)

English is full of interesting or, depending on your perspective, frustrating, rules that native speakers follow without actually knowing!  But, they're very important for English learners to learn and know in order to reach their goals!  Today we'll look at the first of 3 rules that are helpful, but that you may not truly "know" yet!:

Rule #1: Using 'IN-' vs. 'Un-'

"Unhappy." "Incomplete." "Uninspiring." "Indisputable."  When should we use "Un" and when should we use "In" to make a negative word?  It's baffling!  We've even asked many native speakers what they think and....They have NO IDEA!!

Fortunately, there are some hints! Many people know that the English language is a mixture of many language families, the two major ones being Germanic (aka. "German") and Latin.  And these two families have different rules that affect how English works today:


Now, as is the case with many "rules" in languages, this is more of a "guideline" than a hard and fast rule.  After all, languages get messy as they evolve! And, like any "rule," there are exceptions.  For instance "unfavorable," "undeniable," and "unfortunate" are all of Latin origin.  But, this guideline is a good start!

But, now you're asking, well, how do I tell the Germanic and Latin words apart?  Well, there are a few hints you can use:

A.) The "science-y" test: If the word looks more like it would be found in a science textbook, it's probably...of Latin origin!

-->  In fact most English words that have multiple syllables are Latin.

 --> Most English words that are only one syllable, are actually German words! 

 This is just a "eyeball test," but compare these lists of similarly-meaning words to each other and you'll get the idea:

B.) Morphemes, prefixes, and suffixes, oh my!:  If you want to get more specific, then you may want to just note a few common patterns for identifying German or Latin words:

Probably a Latin word:
--> Begins with these letters: a-, ex-, in-, im-, e-, de-, ad-, ab-, ob (obstuct, expand, devriate)r
--> Ends with these letters: -ate, -ous, -or, -us, -um, -ude, -ine, -ia, -ic, -ile
(Initiate, porous, asinine, etc.)
--> Has these letter clusters-ips-, -ct-, -mps- (elipsis, dictate, assumption)

Probably a German word:
--> Begins with letters: be-, for-, wh (belittle, whittle, formation, whistle)
--> Ends with these letters: -ish, -some, -ing, -less, -red, -the, -if, -mb, -hood, -dom, -ye (peckish, wholesome, fatherhood, kingdom)
--> Has these letter clusters: kn, gh, ow, ck, th (know, laugh, window, stalk, wither)

So, there you have it! The simple rule for when to use "un" vs. "in" is that Germanic words use "un" and Latin words use "in"....But, the messy truth is that to use that rule, you have to be able to tell Germanic vs. Latin words apart!  Fortunately, we can take some educated guesses by looking at the words and paying attention to their prefixes and suffixes.  Hope this helps!

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