Grammar Girl Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing

The wonders of the 'a-' prefix in English. 'Personal' versus 'personnel.'

Episode Summary

942. We’re diving deep into the chameleon-like nature of the "a-" prefix, tracing its journey from Latin, where it often started out as "ad-," to its function as a preposition in French, and its transformative role in Greek that gifts English words like "atypical" and "asymmetrical." You'll be wowed by the versatility of the seemingly humble "a-" prefix as we unveil its covert presence in words like "atom" and its power in creating modern English words like "asexual." Then, we explore the difference between the words "personal" and "personnel" and give you a tip for getting the spelling right every time.

Episode Notes

942. We’re diving deep into the chameleon-like nature of the "a-" prefix, tracing its journey from Latin, where it often started out as "ad-," to its function as a preposition in French, and its transformative role in Greek that gifts English words like "atypical" and "asymmetrical." You'll be wowed by the versatility of the seemingly humble "a-" prefix as we unveil its covert presence in words like "atom" and its power in creating modern English words like "asexual."

Then, we explore the difference between the words "personal" and "personnel" and give you a tip for getting the spelling right every time.

The "a-" prefix segment was by Kirk Hazen, a data scientist at CVS Health and a linguist at West Virginia University. He is the author of Introduction to Language (Wiley) and can be found on LinkedIn:

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Episode Transcription

We're gonna go a-learnin' today.

A listener named Lon Konig asked what's going on with the "a" bit at the start of words like "asleep" and "awake." When does this "a" even team up with words? Why do we have "awake" but we don’t have "awalk"? Plus the meaning of "awake" is pretty close to "wake," but "awash" does not mean full of "washing." For this answer, sometimes the most simple of disguises leads to the most complicated of backstories. We start with a single letter, the first letter of the alphabet, and end up with at least 10 different histories.

Grammar Girl here. I’m Mignon Fogarty, your friendly guide to the English language. Stick around because after we talk about the "a-" prefix, we're going to talk about the difference between "personal" and the fancier "personnel."

The modern prefix "a-" comes from a wide range of sources. This pile-up of prefixes standing behind a single letter comes from two qualities of language: On the one hand, bits of words that are unstressed get eroded over time by the currents of sound, like the word "lady" getting worn down from "hlaf-dige" to its modern form. The Old English compound "hlaf-dige" had the word "loaf" ("hlaf") and "kneader" ("dige"), with the idea being that the one who kneaded the dough for bread was the woman of the house. (As an aside, we got the word "lord" the same way. It was originally "loaf warden," guardian of the loaf.) 

On the other hand, language is perfectly fine with homophones, where two meaningful parts can be pronounced the same, like "bat" the piece of wood or "bat" the flying mammal. These two trends allowed many different forms to coalesce into the modern "a-" prefix.

These "a-" prefixes have wound up looking the same in their spelled form, but sometimes we do pronounce them differently depending on their context, such as "awash" vs. "atypical." They also have kept different meanings as they have traveled over the centuries, such as the "a" of "atop" leaning closer to "on" ("atop," "on top") and the "a" of "atypical" meaning "not" ("atypical," "not typical").

One version of the "a-" prefix comes directly from Latin. You can see it in its original full form of "ad-" in words like  "admire" and "adapt." It has a few different meanings. For example, it means "to change" in the word "adapt" (which means "change to fit"), it means "to respond with" in the word "admire" (which means "to respond with wonder"), and it indicates the motion toward something in the word "advertise" (which means "to turn toward"). You can find this "ad-" prefix in all kinds of places, and in its different sound environments, it took on a range of disguises. You'll look in a dictionary and see all kinds of words that say they use the "ad-" prefix, but they don't have a "d" in their spelling, and you'll start to think, "What the heck, man?" Well, what's happened is that the "d" of the prefix "ad-" melted into the sound after it, leaving the "a" all by itself in modern pronunciation. For "ascend" and "aspire," the "d" in the prefix "ad-" was absorbed fully into the following word. For plenty of others, the disguise depended on the following sounds: We get the reduced "ad-" prefix in "appall," "aggregate,"  "affiliate," "assume," "allude," "arrest," and "annex." Believe it or not, all those words — without any "d" — are the offspring of the "ad-" prefix.

Like the Latin "ad-," the variety of French nearest England, known as Anglo-Norman French, had itself a form of "a-" that showed up on several words brought into English, such as the word "abandon." The words "achieve" (to the top/chief), "amass" (to gather together into a mass), and "avenge" (to claim retribution on behalf of someone) were also brought in through this French connection. In French, this "a-" prefix was actually a preposition, connecting words to the rest of the sentence, so all the words from this lineage came in as two words. For example, with "abandon," it was "à bandon" as two words. For "bandon," and its cousins "bandit" and "banish," they all originally carried a meaning of public proclamation, of putting it out there for people to hear. With the French "mettre à bandon" (meaning "put in control"), the idea was to put oneself in a person’s or passion’s control. The verb "abandon" gets noted in English a century later meaning "to give up" all that control to something else.

Moving on, another "a-" prefix came from the Greek language and carries the meaning "not." With that meaning, it flips the word it is attached to on its head, giving us its opposite, like "atypical" and "asymmetrical." Because it most often is attached to words with two or more syllables, it usually carries some stress and gets itself pronounced with an [e] ("atypical") or an [æ] ("agnostic"). Its negative meaning appears not to have wavered much over the years and is well entrenched with words like "achromatic" and "asynchronous." Despite its Greek roots, we can use it in modern English to make new words too, and it is not even picky about what kinds of words it attaches to: The word "asexual" has a Latin root, and the Greek "a-" prefix works just fine. 

Sometimes, this Greek "a-" prefix can be found hiding in plain sight. For example, few people would think of the word "atom" (A-T-O-M) as having more than one part, which is an interesting coincidence since it means the "smallest part that is not divisible." But the word "atom" itself was originally two parts, the negative prefix "a-" and the root word for "cut" (the same root we see in the word "appendectomy"). It is doubtful that many people today see "atom" as a word with a prefix, but it started off with the negative Greek "a-" prefix — not able to be cut. 

Most of the words our listener asked about, however, come from different Old English roots, and its diverse background is what makes the meaning of this particular "a-" prefix so difficult to pinpoint. The ancestors of these English "a-" prefixes lived separate lives as prepositions before falling in with the prefix crowd. Prepositions help attach nouns to other parts of a sentence, but often their meanings aren't nailed down. You may remember us talking about that recently in the semantic satiation episode where we referred to them as function words instead of content words. For example, the meaning of "to" in "Go to the store" and "Sick to my stomach" aren't the same; the preposition’s job is to simply attach the noun to the verb in these cases. 

One of these "a-" prefixes is the preposition "on," which comes from English’s Germanic background and has been used in hundreds of different expressions over the centuries: Expressions like "He was that day rode forth on hunting" were common in previous centuries (OED, 1635   J. Hayward tr. G. F. Biondi Donzella Desterrada 68). Modern words with this "a-" prefix include "ashore," "asleep," and "aloud." The word "awash" is part of this pack, with the OED citing it in 1833 with the meaning similar to "in the surf": "An anchor is ‘a-wash,’ when the stock is hove up to the surface of the water." So to our listener’s question about "awash" and "awake," "awash" does not have to do with laundry because the most common meaning of "wash" itself has changed over the last few centuries. 

It is this usage that people viewed as "old-fashioned" all over the United States east coast by the end of the 1800s, and it became associated with rural stereotypes of New England farmers and Appalachian hillbillies in the 1900s with phrases like "We went a-hunting and a-fishing."

So how did we get from "on" to "a"? Well, the flow of sound over time wears down certain parts of words. We know that the words "one" and "mine" eventually evolved forms with the final vowels of "a" in "a book" and "my" in "my book": The nasal sound at the end of "one" and "mine" were first lost before consonants like those examples, but were kept before vowels, as in "mine eyes have seen the glory." With "a" and "an," these two forms still share the work of pointing out nouns, but "an" is specialized in that we only use it before vowels, as in "an apple." Before 1700, the preposition "a-" from "on" was a standard usage, like in "We were a-playing last night." It survives in a few expressions today as a separate word in standard usage: "twice a day" or "three times a year." Another English form came from the preposition "of," which was eroded down just like "on." The prefix previously known as "of" landed on words such as "anew" and "afresh." 

A different Old English source for the modern "a-" prefix was a nifty prefix "ge-" [pronounce it "yeh," and then say "spelled G-E"] that attached to verbs back in the day such as "gebringan" (to bring forth, from "bring") and "geascian" (to inquire, from "ask"). In some cases, this prefix hung around but got reduced down to "a-," as in "afford" and "aware."

This gathering of "a-" prefixes has gone on for centuries. There were so many "a-" prefixes bumping about that by the time Edmund Spenser wrote in the 1500s, the "a-" prefix itself was used to make words more intense or to seem old-fashioned, becoming an ornament of style. Spenser uses the "a-" prefix here with the word "mate" (meaning "defeat") to show how the knight was especially defeated, dismayed, by his troubles: 

"For never knight, that dared warlike deede,

More lucklesse disaventures did amate"

So as you can see, there are a bunch of different origins for today’s "a-" prefix, including four others we did not even talk about, which is probably why there are so many of them still running around today! And the story of the "a-" prefix is a great example of how sounds can get worn down over time, with originally different forms becoming the same in the end. The story also shows how different meanings can stand behind the same spelling because language warmly welcomes homophones. And what we get from these two themes of language is a horde of "a-" prefixed words! Thanks for the question.

That segment was by Kirk Hazen, a data scientist at CVS Health and a linguist at West Virginia University. He is the author of Introduction to Language (Wiley) and can be found on LinkedIn."  ( 


'Personal' or 'Personnel'?

by Mignon Fogarty

Trent Armstrong (our former Modern Manners Guy) sent me a picture of a sign that mixed up the words "personal" and "personnel." That's one I hadn't seen before. It read, "Keep Out. Thunderbird Personal Only."

'Personal' versus 'personnel': the root

"Personal" and "personnel" have the same Latin root — "personalis" 1,2  — which means that knowing the root is no help if you’re trying to remember the different spellings.

'Personal' versus 'personnel': the definitions

"Personal" relates to your person or your body, or implies a sense of closeness. For example, if you are someone’s personal friend, you’re suggesting that the two of you are closer than just casual friends; and if you have a personal favorite, "personal" just adds emphasis. (Some people may even argue that "personal" is redundant in the phrase "personal favorite.") A personal affront is an insult directed specifically at one person. You get the idea. 

When you refer to "personnel," you’re talking about a group of people, usually people who work at a company or for the military. "Personnel" can also be the name of a department that manages a company’s employees and can be used as an adjective to describe situations related to employees ("After the confetti incident, we had to make some personnel changes").

'Personnel': singular or plural?

"Personnel" can be both singular and plural. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage and say some people object to "personnel" being plural, but that the plural use is widespread and acceptable. (In fact, some writers also objected to the word in general for the first 50 to 100 years after it was introduced to English from French in the early 1800s.) 3,4

Modern style guides suggest that when "personnel" is plural, it means "people," as in "people at the company." The singular use is less common, and pops up when you're treating it as a collective noun similar to "staff" and "board." Here are some examples:

'Personal' versus 'personnel': a quick and dirty tip

You can remember that "personnel" means "many people" by noting that it's spelled with more N’s than "personal":

'Personal' versus 'people': plain language

And a final note, for those of you interested in writing with plain English, when you're tempted to use the word "personnel," ask if it would be simpler and more clear to use a word such as "people" or "workers" instead.

If you found that segment interesting, check out episode 865 too where we talked about "material" versus "materiel." 


1. personal. To know more click on this link (accessed February 4, 2012).
2. personnel. To know more click on this link (accessed February 4, 2012).
3. personnel. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage. Springfield: Merriam-Webster. 1994, p. 733.
4. personnel. Unabridged. Random House, Inc. To know more click on this link (accessed February 04, 2012).

Finally, I have a familect story from our very own Adam Cecil.

"Hello, this is Adam from QDT, and I have a familect story, maybe two. We'll start with the first one and see if it's any good, but I don't know actually don't know if this is a familect or just like a Britishism, but I guess in my wife's family, a thing that her Dad would say, which is they were gonna take a rekkie, or do a rekkie, which is short for like a reconnaissance mission to be used in a concontext like if you're headed to the mall or some kind of large food court area or a mixed commercial area with the restaurants and stores, and you wanna see if maybe there's a long wait at a restaurant you could kinda take a rekkie down down near the restaurant to see how busy it is, you could do that with a bar as well, and I would always use it incorrectly early on in our relationship, which always upset my wife, and yet here we are today many years later. And the second one, a similar restaurant-style story, wasn't getting at a restaurant out in California and Flamingo Heights near Joshua Tree, and with a couple of friends after a wedding, and we had to wait a little bit because we didn't do a rekkie, and we were out in this kind of like waiting area, and my friend went to go check on the reservation, and he came back and he's gave us two thumbs up and he said, 'We're good.' And we all kinda stared at him like, 'What does that mean? We are good? Like we're good like the reservation is in, like we're waiting, we're ready for the table?' It just didn't need anything like that: two thumbs up, we're good. So sometimes, now my wife and I and our other friends who were there will say that to each other in nonsensical situations, similar to your story about finding the dog. We're just "two thumbs up. We're good." Even if we're not good. 

Thanks, Adam! I can definitely imagine using "do a rekkie" in the future. That's a great familect.

If you want to share the story of your familect, a word your family and only your family uses, call the voicemail line at 83-321-4-GIRL. It’s in the show notes, and be sure to tell me the story behind your familect because that’s always the best part.

Grammar Girl is a Quick and Dirty Tips podcast. Thanks to our audio engineer, Nathan Semes, and our director of podcasts, Adam Cecil. Thanks also to our ad operations specialist, Morgan Christianson; our marketing associate, Davina Tomlin; and our digital operations specialist, Holly Hutchings who loves getting into a hot car after being in a cold store or restaurant. Mmm. I do too!

And I’m Mignon Fogarty, better known as Grammar Girl. That's all. Thanks for listening.