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Health Careers : Pharmacy Calculations for Technicians, 4e : General Studies Center : Understanding Word Parts

Understanding Word Parts

Root Words

Most medical terms are formed by combining a root word with a suffix. A root word is the foundation of the medical term and is the source of meaning. Each body system has a core of root words associated with it.

For example, many terms used to describe the cardiovascular system (the heart and blood vessels) derive from the roots cardi- (heart) and angi- (vessel). Terms relating to the respiratory system (the lungs and airways) use the roots pneum- (air or lung), pulmon- (lung), or bronch- (airway), and words that refer to the nervous system (the brain, spinal cord, and nerves) are formed from the roots neur- (nerve) or cerebr- (brain). Such word parts make up the foundation of almost all medical terms.

A suffix provides an ending that modifies and gives specific meaning to the root word. Study the examples that follow and notice how adding a different suffix to the same root produces new words.

Example: tonsil-, root word meaning a gland that is part of the immune system

Adding the suffix -itis (inflammation) creates tonsillitis (inflammation of the tonsil gland); tonsil- + -itis = tonsillitis. Note than an l is added when the two parts are combined.

Adding the suffix -ectomy (surgical removal) creates tonsillectomy (operation to remove the tonsils); tonsil- + -ectomy = tonsillectomy.

Example: necr-, root word meaning tissue death

Adding the suffix -osis (condition) creates necrosis (condition of tissue death); necro- + -osis = necrosis. Note that one o is dropped when the two parts are combined.


You may note that some suffixes have more than one meaning and in some instances multiple suffixes denote a particular meaning. For example, the adjective suffixes -ac, -al, -ar, -ary, -eal, -ic, -ous, and -tic all mean pertaining to, and they are added to a root to make the adjective form of the word, as in cephalic (cephal- + -ic = cephalic, meaning "pertaining to the head").

Additional Roots

Some medical terms contain more than one root. Additional root words function the same as the first root--they may be an equal part of the term's foundation or contribute meaning to the original root. The order in which the root words appear does not always determine the translation of the term. When you are beginning to learn medical terminology, do not be concerned about trying to select the key root word of a term with several roots. Instead, study the meaning of each root. As your vocabulary grows, you will quickly learn to identify the primary root word--if there is one. Remember, some terms may contain several root words of equal importance to the term's definition.

Example: electrocardiogram, a record of the electrical activity of the heart

electr- = electric + cardi- = heart + -gram = record
(root) (root) (suffix)

Example: tracheobronchitis, an inflammation of the trachea and lungs

trache- = trachea + bronch- = lungs + -itis = inflammation of
(root) (root) (suffix)

Combining Vowels and Forms

Adding a combining vowel to a root word creates a word part called a combining form. Combining vowels make it easier to spell and pronounce medical terms. They also serve as connectors for root words when more than one root is needed to form a term. In addition, a combining vowel may be used to join a root word and a suffix. The most frequently used combining vowel is o; the second most common is i.

Example: abdominocentesis (abdomin/o + -centesis), the puncture of the abdomen for withdrawal of fluid

abdomin/o = abdomen + -centesis = puncture for withdrawal of fluid

Example: cardiogram (cardi/o + -gram), a record of electrical activity of the heart

cardi/o = combining form for heart + -gram = record


A prefix is a word part that comes before (pre- = before) the root and begins the term. Prefixes further modify the root or roots; they often give an indication of direction, time, or orientation.

Example: prenatal (pre- + natal), before birth

pre- = before + natal = birth

Example: intra-abdominal (intra- + abdomin/o + -al), pertaining to within the abdomen

intra- = within + abdomin/o = abdomen + -al = pertaining to

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