“U” is for negatively un-

UletterYou could probably say that un- is the most negative prefix of them all, but a very useful one when you want to reverse the meaning of lots of words. In its simplest form, un- means ‘not’. The Cambridge Guide to English Usage lists some examples: unable, uncertain, uncommon, unfit, unjust, untidy, unusual, and unwilling. The guide makes a distinction with some words where un- simply reverses the meaning rather than just meaning ‘not’. The guide’s examples include: uncover, undo, undress, unfasten, unleash, unload, unlock, unplug, untie, unwind. You would have to agree that applying the simple meaning of ‘not’ to these latter examples would sound silly (not do!) and would not convey the meaning of the word.

Now, let’s look at some of the words from the first list of examples. If you are writing, whether it be a story or a non-fiction work, a number of these negative words could be replaced by words that are in the ‘positive’ but mean the same. I’ll take some of the examples and show you alternative words you could use in the right context. I am not saying their usage is always more effective, but they show the diversity and possibilities of our English language.

  • Uncertain = doubtful
  • Uncommon = rare
  • Untidy = messy
  • Unwilling = obstinate
  • Uncover = reveal
  • Undo = loosen
  • Unleash = release
  • Unlock = open

I know that you may say that the alternatives expressed here may not ‘equal’ the negative term in all circumstances, and that is why you need to consider the context that they are within.

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