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Negation words: Misleading Roots

Though Halloween is now over, beware of these trick-or-treaters. They are disguised as something they are not. You’ll notice that, in each case, there is a prefix that typically negates the word (in-, im-, un-). In the cases below, these roots are misleading.



Think of somebody, or something, that you simply can’t tolerate. That thing is insufferable. A person bleating into their cell phones on a crowded bus is insufferable. So is a person who only talks about him or herself, and usually in the most flattering vein possible. Depending on the person, certain television shows or genres can be insufferable. This word is derived from the second definition of suffer, which means to put up with, or tolerate.



Impertinent can actually be the opposite of pertinent, but this definition is seldom accounted. Most of the time, impertinent means not showing the proper respect. You can think of it this way – if somebody’s behavior is not pertinent to the given social context, e.g. an occasion calling for formality, then you can think of that person as being impertinent. The definition usually only applies if a person is being rude where respect is expected, and not staid where frivolity is apt.

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If you are thinking of being knocked over the head and lying in a pool of blood on the sidewalk, you have the wrong word (not to mention a vivid imagination). In this case, the correct word is unconscious. If an act is so horrible and deplorable that it makes everyone around aghast, then that action is unconscionable. Unconscionable can also mean something that is in excess of what is deemed tolerable. This second definition doesn’t have the unethical smear of the first definition.

The felon committed the unconscionable act of robbing a blind person.

The lawyer’s demands were unconscionable, and rather than pay an exorbitant sum or submit himself to any other inconveniences, the man decided to find a new lawyer.



While immaterial can describe a ghost, phantom, or run-of-the mill ectoplasm, immaterial primarily means not relevant.

The judge found the defendant’s comments immaterial to the trial, and summarily dismissed him from the witness stand.



Depending on the circumstances, this can be a very important word. That is, if you read that something is inflammable, that means it can easily light on fire. The opposite would be nonflammable. Strangely enough, inflammable is the same as flammable in the sense that it describes anything that can light on fire. Inflammable – but not flammable – can mean extremely controversial, incendiary.



This word does not mean to make less nervous, but its opposite. If you unnerve a person, you disconcert him or her to the point he or she is likely to fail.

At one time unnerved by math problems, she began avidly “Clemmonsdogparking”, and soon became adept at even combinations and permutations questions.



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