Is there a general rule for the prefixation of “un-” and “de-” to words?

Given the different questions we have seen about the prefixes “de-” and “un-“, I have grown curious if there is a overarching rule for terms that need undoing.

For actions taken that need to be revoked or reversed, which prefix is preferred? Is there a distinction created by the underlying terms? Is it purely a usage issue where the one most used is the one to use? Do “un-” and “de-” actually have different meanings such that both could help determine which is most appropriate?


Some prescriptive grammarians would argue that the de- prefix should be used on verbs and un- should be used on adjectives.

So, you deregister something and it becomes unregistered, or you deselect something and it is now unselected.

The logic behind this is probably because de- only attaches to verbs to give the notion of reversal, so for the sake of order/non-redundancy/etc. you’d want un- to occupy the other domain: yielding the opposite meaning of an adjective it attaches to, and nothing else.

However, it has never really worked this way; the prefix redundancy among verbs is there, and it is very unlikely to disappear. Note that, most of the time, you can’t just use whichever one you want — usually there is one preferred form. But whether it is un- or de- is something that varies on a word-by-word basis.

FumbleFingers mentioned something else in comments that is worth mentioning: un- seems to be much more widespread, even in the verbal realm, in the production of new words in the past few decades.

Source : Link , Question Author : MrHen , Answer Author : Kosmonaut

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