How to Guess What a Word Means
Need to know what a new word means now? Did you know the English language has over 1,000,000 words? Yet the average adult learner has a vocabulary of only 40,000-50,000 words. With so many words out there, how can you learn them all? There are various strategies that you can learn which will help you to deduce what a word means. Yes, you could just look them up in an English dictionary; but, studies show that you most likely won't remember the word after a while. However, by making your brain figure it out, a trail of understanding is left and you are more likely to remember the meaning, thus improving your vocabulary!
Perhaps you are taking a standardized test and are being asked about particular words. These strategies will help you immensely! We also provide some example sentences to help find the meaning of the word needed or of any individual words you need help with.
Context - If the word is used in a sentence, look at the other words and see if they give you clues to the word's meaning. This may help to guess, at least, part of the word's meaning.
EX. "'Proximal' refers to points on the body that are close to the torso, as opposed to 'distal.
Given the context of the sentence, we can see the word "opposed" which means "to be opposite of." If 'proximal' is opposite of 'distal' we can conclude that the word distal likely is used to refer to parts of the body that are far from the torso, like fingers. At this point, you can look in the dictionary to check our guess. You can also look at similar antonyms or synonyms for meaning of the new or unfamiliar words as well. While most English words act as idioms, the meaning of a word can be tricky if you are learning English or are learning more advanced words. Collocations can also help in the word meaning process by using context clues to find the correct answer or meaning to the word’s meaning.
STRUCTURE- Probably the most important skill when it comes to understanding words. The internal structure of words is called morphology. Morphology consists of morphemes--which are minimal units of meaning, rules for combining them into words, and rules for pronouncing the resulting words. For this article, we will keep it simple and go over a few key things.
Using your understanding of morphology helps you break down a word into smaller pieces so that you can guess what it means. For example, let's use a nonsense word, say, POIB.
*What would POIB-able mean? (Capable of being POIBed)
*What is the word class of POIB-able? (Adjective)
*So, what is the word class of POIB? (Verb)
This exercise is to show how we can make some assumptions about the word we don't know simply by how it is used in the sentence and what affixes are attached to it (affixes are a type of morpheme). This is how we can tell the word's word class: noun, verb, adjective, adverb, etc.
MORPHEME- A morpheme may be a word or less than a word. (EX. nation, re-, -al). Morphemes cannot be broken down into smaller units.
TYPES OF MORPHEMES- Prefixes, Suffixes, Infixes, Plurals, Possessives, and base(root) words.
**Free morphemes are words that can stand on their own and have meaning.
For example, "nation" does not require a prefix or a suffix attached to it to make sense. It's a word by itself.
**Bound Morphemes cannot stand on their own and must be attached to another morpheme to create a word.
For example, "dental"= dent + al. Together they make a word, but neither "dent" nor "al" are words themselves. All affixes are boundmorphemes. Some base (root) words are bound.
AFFIXES - anything that is added to a base (root) word. Determine how the affix affects the base (root) word it is attached to.
*Examples of affixes that change word class (i.e. from a verb to adverb)-er, -ly, -al, -y, -ish
*Examples of affixes that add to meaning of the base (root) word.anti-, omni-, re-, -s, -ed, dis-
***There are only about 75 prefixes in English. There are less suffixes. Memorize them.
Now that you understand what a morpheme is. The next step is to take your word and try to break it down into morphemes. Let's use the word "predetermined" as our example. Predetermined= pre + determine + ed
We may know that the base (root) word 'determine' means to decide; the prefix 'pre' means before, and the suffix 'ed' is used to mean the past tense of a verb.
Therefore, "predetermined" would mean to have already decided the outcome of something before it happened.
Another example: quadruped = quadru + ped, meaning four feet. Both "quad" and "ped" are bound morphemes that must be attached to another morpheme to create a word.
KNOW YOUR ROOTS - Sometimes after you break down your word, you still may not know the meaning because you don't know what the base (root) word means. Let's say that you didn't know the above root word "ped" was a Greek origin word meaning 'feet.' How could you try to guess what it meant?
*Think of other words you know that have "ped" in them?
- What do these words have in common?
EX. pedestal, pedal, pedestrian, millipede
You guessed it, FEET!
With the strategies above you can usually guess what a word means. If you are taking a test, use what you've assumed about the word to help with the process of elimination. Looking at word lists can also help in the meaning process.
Happy vocabulary building!
There are a few things that can help you estimate the meaning of a word, even if you have never read or heard it before. If you are taking a standardized test and will be asked about particular words, if you are learning English or if you just want to expand your vocabulary these strategies will help you immensely. Use the words around the unfamiliar word to help you guess the meaning, or use your knowledge of suffixes and prefixes to help you estimate the meaning of the new word. By figuring out the meaning of a new word, you may be more likely to remember the meaning and the new word.
Sound out the unfamiliar word if you are reading it. A word that seems unfamiliar at first may be a word you already know once you hear it out loud.
Look at the other words in the sentence to see if they give you clues to the new word's meaning. This is called "context," and may help you guess at part of the word's meaning. For example, "proximal" refers to points on the body that are close to the torso, as opposed to "distal." Here you can see the words "opposed to" which mean "to be opposite." If "proximal" is the opposite of "distal," you can conclude that the word "distal" likely is used to refer to parts of the body that are far from the torso such as fingers.
Break the new word down into its smallest parts. These small parts are called "morphemes." A morpheme may be a word or less than a word. For example, "nation," "re-," and "-al" are all morphemes. Morphemes cannot be broken down into smaller units. There are many types of morphemes including prefixes, suffixes and root words. Free morphemes are words that can stand on their own and still have meaning. For example, "nation" does not require a prefix or a suffix attached to it to make sense. It's a word by itself. Bound morphemes cannot stand on their own and must be attached to another morpheme to create a word. For example, the "s" in the word "dogs" is a bound morpheme. Without the word "dog," the "s" has no meaning.
Learn about the structure of English words. English words have their roots in Greek, Latin and Germanic languages. Sometimes after you break down your word, you still may not know the meaning because you don't know what the root word means. For example, let's say you read the word "millipede." There are two roots in this word. The root word "ped" is a word of Latin origin meaning "feet." You can guess what it means by thinking of other words that have the root "ped." You might think of "pedestal," "pedal" and "pedestrian." From these words, you can guess that your new word has something to do with feet. You might guess that "mille" has something to do with "million," and you'd be on the right track. It means "thousand," but in this word just means "many." So, a millipede is something with many legs. If you check your dictionary, you will find that a millipede is an insect with many legs. This means you guessed most of the meaning of the word simply from looking at the root words.
Learn English affixes. Anything that is added to the beginning or end of a root word is an affix. Affixes include suffixes, prefixes and pluralization. Knowing the affixes can help you determine how the affix affects the root word it is attached to. Some affixes change the word class, for example from a verb to adverb. These include affixes like "-er," "-ly" and "-ish." Some affixes add to the meaning of the root word. These include affixes like "anti-," "re-" and "-ed." While it may take some time to learn them all, by breaking words down into morphemes you will begin to recognize which are affixes and which are roots. For example, let's use the word "predetermined" as an example. "Predetermined" is made up of the prefix "pre," the root "determine" and the suffix "ed." You may know that the root word "determine" means to decide, the prefix "pre" means before and the suffix "ed" is used to mean the past tense of a verb. Therefore, "predetermined" means to have already decided the outcome of something before it happened.
Read. The more you read, the more words you will know, without even realizing it. Keep your dictionary on hand, so you can check your guesses.
- Read, read, read! The more you read, the more words you will know, without even realizing it.
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