Need to know what a word means now? Did you know the English language has over 1,000,000 words? Yet the average adult 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 a 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!

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.

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.

Happy vocabulary building!


Read, read, read! The more you read, the more words you will know, without even realizing it.

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