Educators often use words with meanings that students may not fully understand. Rather than looking foolish and asking for an explanation, students may go through years of schooling and not truly grasp the meaning of important terminology.
There are three ways we learn vocabulary:
- From the sound of words
- From the structure of words
- From the context of words—how words are used in communication
Therefore, when you encounter unfamiliar words, you should ask yourself:
- Does this word sound like anything I’ve ever heard?
- Does any part of the word look familiar?
- How is this word used in the sentence I just read or heard?
Word Parts—Prefixes, Suffixes, and Roots
You use prefixes, suffixes, and word roots every day, whether you realize it or not. These parts of words make up almost all of the words we use in the English language and you will find that the meanings of many unfamiliar words become much more clear when you understand the meanings of the most common of these word parts.
A prefix is the word part placed at the beginning of a word. It is usually only one syllable, but sometimes it is more. Its job is to change or add to the meaning of a word. For example, you probably use the word review on a regular basis.What does it mean? Let’s break it down.
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First, we can break it down into syllables: re-view. View means to look at, and the prefix, re- adds to the meaning of the word. Re- means back or again, so by putting together what you already know, you can figure out that the word review means to look back at, or to look at again.
Other common prefixes include, in-, anti-, pre-, post-, un-, non-, con-, and dis-.
A suffix is a word part placed at the end of a word that signals how a word is being used in a sentence and identifies its part of speech.When you attach different suffixes onto the base of a word, they change the word’s part of speech. For example, the word sterilize is a verb meaning to sanitize.
As an adjective, it takes the suffix, -ile and becomes sterile. As a noun, it takes the suffix -tion and becomes sterilization. The suffix changes the word’s job in a sentence, and it also helps give you a clue as to the meaning of an unfamiliar word.
The pieces of words that carry direct meaning are called roots. Many English words stem from ancient Greek and Latin words, and because so many English words have their source in certain recurring root words, knowing some of the most commonly used roots gives you access to many words at once.
Thus, when you combine your knowledge of prefixes and suffixes with your knowledge of roots, you can figure out the meaning of many unfamiliar words.
For example, the word root cogn- means to know.Words that include this root are recognize, meaning to identify as known, incognito, meaning unknown, and cognition, meaning knowledge.
When you were first learning to read, you learned about syllables, the parts of words that carry separate sounds. Breaking words into syllables is one of the best strategies for seeing if a word is in your listening or reading vocabularies.
It also helps you break larger words into smaller, more manageable, and often more recognizable parts.
Rules for Dividing Words into Syllables
Here are a couple of quick rules for dividing words by syllables:
- Divide between double consonants: ham-mock.
- Divide after prefixes and before suffixes: in-vest-ment. If you already have some feel for how the word sounds, you can divide it according to the sound of the vowels:
- Divide after the vowel if it has the long sound: so-lar.
- Divide after the consonant if the vowel sound is short: pris-on.
Synonyms and Antonyms
Questions on standardized tests and civil service exams often ask you to find the synonym or antonym of a word.
A word is a synonym of another word if it has the same, or nearly the same, meaning as the word to which it is being compared. For example, the words conceal and hide are synonyms. They both mean the same thing: to keep out of sight.
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An antonym is a word that means the opposite of the word to which it is being compared. A couple of obvious examples of antonym pairs are happy and sad, good and bad, and love and hate.
Denotation and Connotation
The denotation of a word is its dictionary definition, while the connotation of a word has to do with the tone of the word—the emotions it evokes in the reader. For example if you were to look up the word joke in the dictionary, you might get a definition similar to that of synonyms like quip, or prank—something like “something said or done to provoke laughter”—but all three of these words have different connotations.
In other words, they bring to mind different feelings—one positive, one negative, and one neutral.
Homonyms are words that sound the same, but aren’t. They have the same pronunciation, but they are neither spelled the same way, nor do they have the same meaning. For example, which and witch are homonyms, and so are their, there, and they’re. When you are listening to the words, or reading them in context, it is easy to work out their meaning; however, it is very important to know which definition corresponds to the correct spelling of the homonym. If you misspell a homonym, people will have a difficult time understanding what you are trying to communicate to them.
Context is the surrounding text in which a word is used. Most people automatically use context to help them determine the meaning of an unknown word. When you encounter a word in its surroundings, it is much easier to figure out its meaning, or at least its connotation. The best way to take meaning from context is to search the surrounding text for key words in sentences
or paragraphs that convey the meaning of the unfamiliar word.
Often, restatement and contrast clues will lead you right to the meaning of unfamiliar words. For example, read the following sentence and see if you can figure out the meaning of the italicized word from closely examining the surrounding text.
“Although when Hannah joined the company she was promised perquisites every six months, she has been working at the company for two years and has never received any sort of bonus.”
The words although and bonus should give you a clue as to the meaning of perquisite. You know that Hannah has never received a bonus in two years of work for the same company, and you know that she was promised something, so the word although gives you the final clue because it signals a contrast. You can conclude that a perquisite is a synonym for bonus.
“She was exempt from duty that day. She was excused because she had been injured.”
In this sentence, the meaning of exempt is restated for you. Exempt is a synonym for excused.
Good communication skills—including vocabulary and spelling—are essential. A good vocabulary increases your ability to understand reading material and to express yourself in speaking and in writing. Without a broad vocabulary, your ability to learn is limited.