Learners' Questions

Intermediate level

Which prefix? 'Out-' or 'over-'?

Episode 191119 / 19 Nov 2019

This week's question

What are the differences between the prefixes 'out-' and 'over-'? - Tamanna 

Answer this

Which prefix can mean 'more than' in both a neutral way and a way that implies there is a problem?

Language points

Prefix

A prefix is a group of letters added to the start of a word to change its meaning or make a new word. Examples are: mis-, un-, out-, over- 

  • Did you understand or did you misunderstand?
  • That was an unsuccessful attempt. Try to be more successful next time.

Out- = not central
Out-
can mean 'not central' or 'external' to nouns and adjectives: outskirts, outlying, outpatient.

  • The building is on the outskirts of town.
  • Most of the outlying region is desert.

Out- = away from
Out-
can mean 'away from'

  • What time is the outbound train?
  • She met me with outstretched arms.

Out- = better
Out-
can attach to verbs to add the meaning 'going further than' or 'being better than'. E.g. outlive, outmatch and outperform

  • My grandma is very healthy. She'll probably outlive us all.
  • Last night, my football team were totally outmatched.

Over- = too much 
Over-
commonly means 'too much' or 'more than enough' E.g. overcook, overreact, overpriced, overconfident, overheat and overdo.

  • I'm late. I totally overslept.
  • It's only a handstand. Don't get overexcited.

Over- = more than
Over- can mean 'more than' but without also meaning 'too much' in a negative way.

  • Look! I've found a holiday for the over-60s.
  • I can't tonight. I'm working overtime.

Over- = across
Over- can mean 'across'

  • Do you prefer the underground or overland train?

Over- = above
Over-
can mean 'on top of' or 'above'

  • The overseer wasn't a very nice person.
  • Watch out for that overhanging branch!

The answer

'Over-'. It can mean 'more than' in a neutral way (A holiday for the over-60s) or 'more than' in a negative way (I overslept!)

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