1.1^LESSON 1.1. The Construction of Medical Words^4^9^,,^1242^1651%
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The Construction of Medical Words

Your confidence in using and understanding medical terms will increase as you understand the logic of how these terms are built from their individual parts or elements. The information in this lesson will enable you to:

Case Report 1.1 (continued)

From her medical records, you see that 2 months ago Mrs. Schwartz developed a right upper lobe (RUL) pneumonia. After treatment with an antibiotic, a follow-up chest x-ray (CXR) showed some residual collapse in the right upper lobe and a small right pneumothorax. Mrs. Schwartz has smoked a pack a day since she was a teenager. Dr. Senko is concerned that she has lung cancer, and he has scheduled her for bronchoscopy.

Every medical term has a root, the element that provides the core meaning of the word. For example, in Case Report 1.1:

  • A root is the constant foundation and core of a medical term.

  • Roots are usually of Greek or Latin origin.

  • All medical terms have one or more roots.

  • A root can appear anywhere in the term.

  • More than one root can have the same meaning.

  • A root plus a combining vowel creates a combining form.

Combining Forms

Roots are often joined to other elements in the medical term by placing a combining vowel on the end of the root.

For example, if the vowel “o” is added to the root pneum-, the combining form pneum/o- is made. Throughout this textbook, the combining vowel will be separated from the root by a slash (/) whenever the term is being analyzed.


Different roots can have the same meaning. Pulmon- and pneumon- both mean lung.

  • The Latin root pulmon- can also have the combining vowelo” added to make the combining form pulmon/o-:

    Any vowel, “a,” “e,” “i,” “o,” or “u,” can be used as a combining vowel.

  • Page 5

    The root respir- means to breathe. Adding the combining vowela” makes the combining form respir/a-:

    • Combine a root and a combining vowel.

    • Can be attached to another root or combining vowel.

    • Can precede another word element called a suffix.

    • Can follow a prefix.

    Many medical terms contain more than one root; when two roots occur together, they are always joined by a combining vowel:

  • The word pneumothorax has the root pneum-, from the Greek word meaning air or lung, and the root -thorax, from the Greek word meaning chest. A pneumothorax is the presence of air in the space that surrounds the lungs in the chest. The combining vowelo” is used to join the two roots together. The root and the combining vowel together make the combining form, pneum/o-.


Review: what you have just learned about the roots and combining forms on the two pages spread open in front of you. Fill in the blanks.

  1. Which element is the core or foundation of every medical term?

  2. Give two examples of the element named in question #1 above:

  3. If a combining vowel is added to the element in question #1, what is the name of the new element?

  4. Give an example of a root that has become a combining form:

  5. More than one element can have the same meaning in medical terminology. Give an example from the elements on these two pages:

    • and both mean

  6. Give an example of a term using each element in the above question:

    • means

    • means

    Study Hint

    Even though both these elements mean the same thing, they are not interchangeable. Only certain elements belong with certain terms, and you must know them.

  7. Practice using the terms in question #6 above. Write one sentence (that is not directly out of the text) for each of the terms.

  8. The following terms have not been introduced yet, but the principle remains the same. The root/combining form will always carry the same meaning. Circle the roots/combining forms that you recognize, and provide the meaning on the blank line.

  • 8a.Pneumonectomy, pneumonitis, and pneumococcal all pertain to

  • 8b.Respirator and respiratory both pertain to

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A suffix is an element added to the end of a root or combining form to give it a new meaning. Different suffixes can be added to the same root to build new words, all with different meanings. For example:

Whereas most roots are specific to body systems and medical specialties, suffixes are universal and are used across all body systems and specialties.

  • A suffix is a group of letters attached to the end of a root or combining form.

  • A suffix changes the meaning of the word.

  • If the suffix begins with a consonant, it must follow a combining vowel.

  • If the suffix begins with a vowel, no combining vowel is needed.

  • A few medical terms can have two suffixes.

  • A suffix always appears at the end of a term.

  • Suffixes that are different can have the same meaning.

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Elements: It is important for you to recognize the identity of an element. Is it a root, combining form, or suffix? This will help you to determine its place in the term when you are building terms.

  1. Build the appropriate medical term to match the definitions given. The placement of the elements is noted for you under the line; each different element is separated on the line. Write the correct elements on the line.

    1. Study of the lungs:


        Root or combining form    Suffix

    2. Pertaining to the lung:

        Root or combining form    Suffix

    3. The process of breathing:

        Root or combining form    Suffix

    4. Condition of the lung:

        Root or combining form    Suffix

    5. Use any one of the preceding terms in a sentence of your choice—one that is not a definition from above.

    6. Choose another term from above and use it in patient documentation that you write below.

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A prefix is an element added to the beginning of a root or combining form to continue to expand the meaning of medical terms. Prefixes usually indicate time, number, color, or location. Examples of prefixes defining time are described below:

  • A prefix precedes a root to change its meaning.

  • Prefixes can have more than one meaning.

  • Prefixes never require a combining vowel.

  • An occasional medical term can have two prefixes.

  • A prefix always appears at the beginning of a term.

  • Not every term has a prefix.

Examples of prefixes indicating number are described below:

  • A root can start a term and does not become a prefix.

  • A root can end a term and does not become a suffix.

  • An example of both of these is pneumothorax.

Examples of prefixes indicating location are described below:

Examples of prefixes indicating size are described below:

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S/ = Suffix  P/ = Prefix  R/ = Root  R/CF = Combining Form








-ic pertaining to

Pertaining to the stomach.


gastr- stomach




epi- above

Abdominal region above the stomach.




hypo- below

Abdominal region below the stomach.




-al pertaining to

Pertaining to one side of the body.


later- side




bi- two

Pertaining to both sides of the body.




uni- one

Pertaining to one side of the body only.




macro- large

Large red blood cell.


-cyte cell

 macrocytic (adj) (Note: The “e” in cyte is deleted to allow the word to flow.)



-ic pertaining to

Pertaining to a macrocyte.



Latin ready

Fully developed.




post- after

Infant born after 42 weeks of gestation.


-mature fully developed

pre- before




Occurring before the expected time; e.g., an infant born before 37 weeks of gestation.




micro- small

Small red blood cell.


-cyte cell

 microcytic (adj) (Note: The “e” in cyte is deleted to allow the word to flow.)



-ic pertaining to

Pertaining to a small red blood cell.




-al pertaining to

Pertaining to birth.


nat- birth, born




peri- around

Around the time of birth.




post- after

After the birth.




pre- before

Before the birth.

One of the key design concepts of this book is that all the textual and visual information that you need for any given topic will be on the two pages spread open in front of you. As part of this, in the top right-hand quarter of each two-page spread will be a Word Analysis and Definition (WAD) box designed to provide the elements, definition, and pronunciation of every new and repeated significant medical term that is given in the two pages you are reviewing. This box is always shown on the right-hand page.

Review all the terms in the WAD before you start any exercise.


Prefixes: Solid knowledge of prefixes will quickly help increase your medical vocabulary. A good example is the Word Analysis and Definition (WAD) entry for natal. The addition of three different prefixes builds three new medical terms. To begin this exercise, underline every prefix in the bolded terms below. Answer the first question, and then write the correct term on the line next to the definitions in 2 through 4. Follow the instructions for question 5.

natal:  prenatal  postnatal  perinatal

  1. The term natal means

  2. Pertaining to around the time of birth:

  3. Pertaining to after the birth:

  4. Pertaining to before the birth:

  5. In 2 through 4 above, underline the word in the definition that is the clue to the correct prefix to use in the term.