Are Base Words and Root Words the Same?

, M.A. English
Updated March 31, 2022
Are Base Words and Root Words the Same?
    base and root word diagram for bicycle
    Karl Weatherly / Corbis Documentary / Getty
    Used under Getty Images license

The English language is made up of many closely related words. In fact, it's possible to build new words from existing words by adding affixes to the beginning and/or end of a base word or root. Base words and roots are slightly different. Exploring the meaning of a base word vs. root word will help you understand what these are and how to use them, which will help you improve your vocabulary skills.

Basic Parts of a Word

Many words in the English language have been borrowed from other languages. The origins are usually Latin or Greek. A word can have three parts to it: a root, a prefix and a suffix. A prefix or suffix is a meaningful affix that doesn't function as a word on its own but can be attached to a base word or root.

  • Prefixes (like pre-, anti- or de-) go at the beginning of a base or root word.
  • Suffixes (like -tion, -ness and -ment) go at the end of a base or root word.

It's the middle part of a word that holds the most meaning, however. This may be a root or a base word.

The Difference Between Base Words and Root Words

People sometimes use the terms root word and base word as if they mean the same thing, but they are different. Discover the similarities and differences.

Root Words

Root words come from Latin or Greek. They aren’t usually words that can stand alone in English. They are also referred to as a "word root." When you hear these referred to as "roots," this is a modern take on root words and indicated the part of the word can't be further broken down. For example, aud is a Latin word root that means to hear or to listen.

  • Aud doesn't mean anything on its own in English — that is, you can't use it as a stand-alone word.
  • It is the root of common English words like auditorium, audio, audience, and audition, all of which have to do with hearing someone or something.

Understanding root words will help you learn more words in English quickly. As you begin to understand the Greek and Latin roots of common words, you'll notice them in more places, and this will give you a clue to the meaning of an unfamiliar word. Knowing the meaning of a word’s root makes it easier to figure out what the English words that use it mean.


Base Words

Base words, on the other hand, are always words that can stand alone in English. These words have meaning on their own, but they can also have prefixes and suffixes added to them to make new words. For example, cycle is a full word in English, but it can function as the base of other words when affixes are added. Modern linguists suggest that a base is any form you can add affixes to.

  • Cycle is the base word, or the simplest form of the word without any prefixes or suffixes added.
  • Prefixes can be added to make words like bicycle, tricycle and motorcycle.
  • Suffixes can be added to make words like cyclist, cyclical or cyclers.

Knowing base words will help you understand new words as well as how prefixes and suffixes can change a word's meaning. Keep in mind, though, that most English words have Greek or Latin roots. The word cycle, for example, is actually based on the root cyc (which means circle).


Base Word vs. Root Word Confusion

When dealing with root and base words, the fact that most English base words actually have a Greek or Latin root can cause things to get a bit tricky. For example, like cycle, the word civil meets the definition of a base word. It is a standalone English word that can stand on its own. However, it does also have a Latin root.

Civil as a Base Word

Civil is a base word that describes someone courteous, the rights of ordinary citizens or legal proceedings based on legal matters that are not criminal in nature. This English word can stand alone, and it can also be expanded to create words like civilization, civility and civilian.

Civil as a Root Word

Though civil can stand alone as a base word in English, it comes from the Latin root civ (from the Latin word civis), which relates to citizens. You can't use civ on its own in English, but it's still part of the base word civil.

  • So, civ is the root of civil, which then serves as a base word forming other words.
  • Civ is also a root for other words that are not connected to the base word civil, including the word civics.

Bottom Line Breakdown

To make sense of what this means, consider the breakdowns of words related to civil (base word) and civ (root).

  • civil: The root of civil is civ. Civil is a base word.
  • civilization, civility and civilian: The root of these words is civ. They also have a base word, which is civil.
  • civics: The root of civics is civ. This word does not have a base word.

A Further Complication: Identical Roots and Bases

Occasionally, a base word in English is the same as a Latin root. For example, act is a standalone word in English, making it a base word. However, act is also a Latin root that comes from the Latin word actum. Prefixes and suffixes can be added onto act in order to make English words like action, reaction and actual. In this case, the root word and base word are the same (act) for each of these terms.

diagram word reaction prefix, root/base, suffix
    labeled diagram for prefix, root/base, and suffix for reaction
    Created by Beth Wiggins for YourDictionary
    Owned by YourDictionary, Copyright YourDictionary 

The Importance of Base Words and Root Words

Base words and root words are not the same, even if in a few cases a word can be labeled as both. Review some examples of root and base words to expand your knowledge. Then, practice with roots, bases, prefixes and suffixes. When you see how all the pieces of a word work together, you'll have a greater appreciation for English and how its vast vocabulary came to be.