Lesson #278: ‘All Impatience To Be Off …’: 7 Negative Prefixes in Gaskell’s ‘Cousin Phillis’ (1864)

Have you heard of negative prefixes in English before? 🧐

👩‍🏫 While the grammatical term is a bit of a mouthful, they are nothing to worry about. In fact, they are useful little syllables that we place at the beginning of a word (a noun, adjective, adverb, or verb) to indicate that its meaning has been negated.

What is more, we use them nearly all the time without even thinking about them!

Perhaps you might ask: if they are such an integral part of our everyday speech, why should we bother to study them in a Lesson of their own?

🪔 The reason for today’s Lesson is that by analysing them and understanding why and where they are used, you won’t need to work hard on individually memorising new words that contain them.

Instead, you will be able to guess and understand their meanings or even know how to spell them correctly just from the principles we will cover today:

  • ➡️ About the book: Cousin Phillis
  • ➡️ Why this novella?
  • ➡️ Examples of negative prefixes, drawn from the book
  • ➡️ When and where to use each of these negative prefixes


📗 ‘Mr Holdsworth was all impatience to be off into the country …’

– Elizabeth Gaskell, Cousin Phillis (1864)

One of my favourite authors is Elizabeth Gaskell. She may be a lesser-known author of classic English literature. However, in my opinion, she understood the complexities of human relationships in a way that few other writers did.

One of the easiest books of Elizabeth Gaskell to begin reading is Cousin Phillis, a short book that only takes about 3 or 4 hours to read from cover to cover.

I won’t spoil the story for you here, since perhaps you will read it for yourself. 📜 Suffice it to say (it is enough for me to say) that it is the story of a young man, Paul Manning, who moves to a new town and there meets for the first time his distant relatives. Among them is a lovely young woman whom he calls ‘Cousin Phillis’. They become good friends, almost like brother and sister, finding many things in common. Both develop and mature as they grow and share many experiences together. Paul comes to respect Phillis’ hardworking, deeply devout father the more he gets to know him. It seems that nothing will ever shake their family peace and contentment. One day, however, Paul introduces one of his friends to the family; in a short time, all their relationships take a new turn.

Will their lives ever be as peaceful and happy again? 📜


🖊️ I have chosen some lines from this novella (short novel) to illustrate our Lesson on negative prefixes because the story itself describes some of the tensions that can arise in a family or among a community of friends.

We often use negation to show contrasting tension: for example, ‘essential versus nonessential’, or ‘correct versus incorrect’, or ‘able versus unable’.

So without further ado (without further delay), here are seven essential negative prefixes that you will come across in daily English usage.

✍️ Remember, they all mean the same: ‘not ___’.


✏️ DIS-

📗 ‘She and I examined the great sleek cart-horses; sympathized in our dislike of pigs; fed the calves; coaxed the sick cow, Daisy …’

– Elizabeth Gaskell, Cousin Phillis (1864)

‘Dislike’, as you may already know, means ‘the fact of not liking something’. Some synonyms of this word could be ‘distaste’ or ‘aversion’. Notice how ‘dis-’ emphasises ‘not’ – ‘dis-like’, ‘dis-taste’, even ‘dis-approval’ (though we always spell this latter word as ‘disapproval’, without the hyphen that I am using here only for emphasis).

Other words starting with the negative prefix ‘dis-’: disapprobation (the state/fact of not approving of something), disdain, disagreement, displeasure, dispute, disappear, disinclination, distrust.

✏️ IM-

📗 “Well, I am rather surprised at it—not at your loving each other in a brother-and-sister kind of way—but at your finding it so impossible to fall in love with such a beautiful woman.”

– Elizabeth Gaskell, Cousin Phillis (1864)

Other words that start with ‘im-’ as a negative prefix: imperfect, impolite, impotent, immoral, immaculate, immortal, immovable, impractical.

✏️ IN-

📗 “I will come back some time, never fear,” said he, kindly. “I may be back in a couple of days, having been found incompetent for the Canadian work …”

– Elizabeth Gaskell, Cousin Phillis (1864)

‘Incompetent’ means ‘not being competent or capable of [doing something]’. So in this context the speaker, Mr Holdsworth, is saying that he isn’t considered capable of doing ‘the Canadian work’.

Some other words that begin with ‘in-’ as a negative prefix include inaccurate, inattentive, incompatible, incomparable, indescribable, inexperienced, indefinite, infinite, inseparable, insupportable.

Try guessing the meanings of the words in this list which I have just written out for you. I am sure you will easily understand what they mean! If in doubt, check an online dictionary for a quick confirmation.

✏️ IR-

📗 ‘I felt strange and sick, and made irrelevant answers, I am afraid.’

– Elizabeth Gaskell, Cousin Phillis (1864)

‘Irrelevant’ means ‘not relevant, not suitable or appropriate’. In this case, the narrator, Paul Manning, is telling readers like us that he offered answers that were not suitable or meaningful.

Can you think of other things you might say or do that would be irrelevant in a particular context?

For example: I enjoyed reading all about the history of the American civil war because I was interested in it. However, it was irrelevant for the British history course I was studying at university.

Now for some other words that begin with the negative prefix ‘ir-’: irrational, irreverent, irresponsible, irresolute, irresistible, irredeemable, irreconcilable.

✏️ IL-

📗 ‘Sometimes I have come upon him, sitting on the hedge-bank resting; and he has begged me to read him an address, too illegible for his spectacled eyes to decipher.’

– Elizabeth Gaskell, Cousin Phillis (1864)

‘Illegible’ is a word that shows its Latin roots: ‘legible’ (meaning ‘readable’) comes from the Latin word legere, meaning ‘to read’. Thus ‘illegible’ means ‘un-readable’.

Notice how this negative prefix ‘il-’ helps us to distinguish the differences between the words ‘eligible’ (meaning ‘having the right to do or obtain something; satisfying the appropriate conditions’) and ‘illegible’. As soon as you understand that ‘il-’ refers to ‘not’, then you can correctly distinguish which word (eligible or illegible) means what!

Other words that begin with the negative prefix ‘il-’: illegal, illiterate, illogical, illicit, illegitimate.

✏️ UN-

📗 “He told me out of his kind heart, because he saw—that I was so very unhappy at his going away.”

– Elizabeth Gaskell, Cousin Phillis (1864)

This word ‘unhappy’ needs no explanation!

Remember that not all words that seem to begin with a negative prefix actually do: words like ‘unicorn’ or ‘understand’ do not have any negative prefix. Words that do have ‘un-’ as a negative prefix include untold, unacceptable, unclear, unreal, unfair, unemployment, unsophisticated, uncommon, unable, unintentional, undress, unaware, unconsciousness.

✏️ NON-

Last but not least, this very common prefix ‘non-’ is used in words like ‘nonsense’ and ‘nondescript’, to mention a few.

📗 One such word, which is particularly relevant to our Lesson, is ‘non-Conformist’ or ‘nonconformist’.

It can simply mean ‘someone who doesn’t conform to expectations or situations’, or else it can also mean, as in our book today, ‘someone who didn’t conform to the Anglican (or state) Church in Britain’. Such groups might include the Baptists or Methodists or Quakers, to mention a few. We don’t know for sure what denominational group Phillis’ family belonged to, but we do know that Elizabeth Gaskell herself came from a Unitarian family. Unitarians were also another group of non-Conformist Christians.

Here are some words that begin with ‘non-’ as a negative prefix: non-profit, nonstop, nonsense, nondescript, nonlinear, nonentity, nonexistent.


Lastly, I would like to draw your attention to when and where we use these different negative prefixes:

DIS- can be used with words beginning with either consonants or vowels.

IM- is only used in words beginning with the letters M or P (for example, ‘important’, ‘immoral’, ‘impolite’, etc).

IN- can be used with words that begin either with a consonant or vowel.

IR- is only ever used with words that begin with R (for example, ‘irrelevant’, ‘irresponsible’, ‘irrational’, etc).

IL- is only ever used with words that begin with L (for example, ‘illiterate’, ‘illegal’, etc).

UN- can be used with words that begin with either consonants or vowels, although we usually see it in words that start with a vowel (for example, ‘unacceptable’, ‘undesirable’, or ‘unkind’).

NON- can be used with words that begin with either consonants or vowels (e.g., ‘nonessential’, ‘nonsense’, ‘non-fiction’, etc).

As always, I hope this has been helpful. Feel free to message me through the query form on the Home Page if you have any questions (just make sure to reference this Lesson’s number).

by J. E. Gibbons

English language tutor and researcher at 'Learn English Through Literature' (2024)