Determining Word Meanings
Regardless of our level of schooling, whether you are a student or working in a corporate environment, we all come across words that we don’t know. Thankfully, figuring out the meaning of words can be done without Google or a dictionary. Here are a few tips on how to find the meaning of an unknown word.
Context is the “setting” or scene in which an idea or event takes place. In writing, context can help us understand the situation in how a word is being used. In other words, the sentence the unknown word is in can help you figure out its definition. Read the sentences before and after the unknown word to help you determine what the word could mean. The actual definition of a word can be changed depending on the context around it.
Let’s look at an example.
It’s a match!
Here, the word match has little context to it. Are we referring to a match that makes fire, or did someone find an identical pair of shoes? We don’t really know in this case what match means because there is no context.
So, let’s add some:
She pulled a 3 of clubs from the deck of cards and placed it next to the 3 of diamonds and yelled, “It’s a match!”
Here, because of context we know we are not reading about a match that makes fire, but a matching pair of cards. As you can see, context can make quite the difference.
Let’s look at using structural analysis, or looking at the different parts of the word.
Many words, even some of the shortest ones you can think of, are made up of some combination of prefixes, suffixes, and roots.
Prefixes are the parts of words that come at the beginning. Examples of prefixes are re-, pre-, de-, and many more. Each of these word segments has a meaning.
Here are a few examples:
The prefix re- means “to do again,” like in the word reuse.
The prefix pre- means “before,” like in the word prepare.
The prefix de- means “to undo,” like in the word detach.
Prefixes can also change the original meaning of a word. For example, the word do means “to perform an action.” But what if we add the prefix un- to it? It now becomes undo, which means the opposite of do.
Knowing what prefixes mean can help you determine a word’s meaning.
Suffixes serve the same role as prefixes, but suffixes come at the end of a word. For example:
The suffix -ment means “a result,” like in the word government.
The suffix -ion refers to a process, like in the word invention.
The suffix -ful means “full of,” like in the word useful.
Again, just like prefixes, suffixes can change the original meaning of a word. For example, govern means to rule over something; it’s an action or verb. When we add the suffix -ment to the word it now becomes government which is a system that rules over something (the word government is a thing or noun).
Though Latin is no longer used in the common world, many English words have Latin roots. Knowing and recognizing these root words in common English can help you determine a word’s meaning. Here are a few examples of words with similar Latin roots.
The Latin root rhino means “nose.” You can see this in the words rhinoplasty, rhinoceros, and rhinovirus.
The Latin root reg means “to control.” You can see this in the words regulate, regime, and regal.
The Latin root tox means “poison.” You can see this in the words toxic, detox, and intoxicated.
This doesn’t mean you need to learn a dead language to learn the definition of more English words. However, the more English vocabulary you learn, the more connections you’ll be able to make to new words you didn’t know before.
For example, if you don’t know the meaning of a word, look at the root word and see if you can think of other words that you do know that have similar roots. For example, if you don’t know the definition of animate but can identify the root anim, you can think of words with the same root that you do know, like animal. From there, you can determine what the root word anim means (“alive/life), along with context, if there is any, and figure out how it relates to the unfamiliar word. In this example, we know anim means “life,” just like animals are alive and move freely. Therefore, we can figure out that animate, the act of moving objects, is aptly named because it’s bringing still or motionless objects to “life.”
What if we took this example a step further and add a prefix to the word animate? The prefix in- means “not.” Therefore, if we add in- and animate together, we get the word inanimate, which means, you guessed it, “to not move.”
Prefixes, suffixes, and roots make up countless words, and the context of the sentence these mystery words are found in can also bring its true meaning to light. When put together, these tools can be used to solve the meaning of unknown words and make reading and writing easier.
Thanks for watching, and happy studying!