How Medical Terms are Formed

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  • 0:02 The Language of Medicine
  • 1:00 Word Roots & Combining Forms
  • 2:35 Suffixes
  • 3:50 Prefixes
  • 5:00 How to Form a Medical Term
  • 6:20 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Adrianne Baron

Adrianne has taught high school and college biology and has a master's degree in cancer biology.

In this lesson, we'll focus on how medical terms are formed and practice forming them. You will become familiar with how to build medical terms to describe parts of the body, procedures, and bodily processes.

The Language of Medicine

Your decision to enter the healthcare field has been set, and now it is time for you to start learning everything you can about the body. The first step to learning about the body is to become familiar with the terms that are used to describe the body. Medical terms are very different from the terms you have used most of your life, so you are embarking on learning and understanding a whole new language.

To understand medical terminology, also called the language of medicine, you have to know how the terms that make up this language are put together. In medical terminology, the terms are composed of different word parts that come together to give the full word its meaning. Knowing how to break these terms into their parts makes understanding them a whole lot easier. There are three main parts to a medical term: the prefix, word root, and suffix. Let's explore each of these parts.

Word Roots and Combining Forms

The word root is the part of the medical term that gives the term its most basic or central meaning. An easy way to remember this is that it gives the central meaning and is usually found in the center of the word. There is an enormous amount of word roots. This is because there is a word root for every single part of the body, everything that enters the body, and everything that exits the body. That's a lot of word roots.

Let's start building some example words. If you want to form a term based on the heart, then you would use the word root 'card-' or 'cardi-.' To make a term about the stomach or intestines, then you would use 'gastr-' or 'enter-' respectively. Determining the correct word root to use based on what you want to describe is the first step in forming a medical term. Medical terms may include one or more word roots.

In order to make medical terms easier to pronounce when the word parts are put together, the word roots may need to be changed into a different form, which is known as the combining form. This usually involves adding the letter 'o,' 'i,' or 'a' to the end of the word root. Converting a word root to its combining form is required when you are adding a suffix or another word root that begins with a consonant. So, the combining forms for the word roots we just went over would be 'cardio,' 'gastro,' and 'entero.'


The suffix for a medical term can be found at the end of the term. The suffix serves the purpose of further telling what is happening with the word root. This can tell what the word root is doing, what is being done to it, or identify who is doing something with it. It is the part of the medical term that brings action to the term. Most medical terms will include a suffix.

Let's revisit the two terms we started working with. The first word root is 'cardi-.' There is a suffix '-centesis,' which means 'surgical puncture to remove fluid.' You could put this suffix with the combining form 'cardio-' to form the term 'cardiocentesis.' Another suffix is '-ologist.' This means 'a person who studies or specializes in.' You could put this with the combining forms 'gastro-' and 'entero-' to form the term 'gastroenterologist.' There are many suffixes to learn, but not nearly as many as there are word roots. You will get very familiar with the most commonly used suffixes and their meanings much quicker than the word roots.


The last word part that we need to discuss is the prefix. The prefix is found at the beginning of the term and gives a location, number, or time, or narrows the meaning of the word root down to a certain part. The prefix really helps to make the word root more specific. The prefix 'peri-' means 'surrounding or around.' This can be added to the term we just made, 'cardiocentesis,' to form the term 'pericardiocentesis.'

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