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3.6: Vocabulary

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    Adults learn most of their new vocabulary from reading. Therefore, to increase your vocabulary, which is a major goal for many college students, the best thing you can do is read texts that aren't too easy. Your instructor should assign readings that will stretch your reading level.

    Figure: Image from Pixabay

    Strategies for Dealing with Unfamiliar Words

    Many subject-matter textbooks include key vocabulary and definitions at the beginning of chapters. However, in the humanities, this is not the case many times, so you need to figure out new vocabulary without that help. When you encounter new vocabulary, try to avoid going straight to the dictionary. And unless the word is really impeding your understanding of the text, just circle it and come back to it later after reading. However, if the same word repeats a couple of times, it might be a key word, so it could be prudent to go through the "Vocabulary from Context" activity before you move on with your reading. First, try to figure out the word from context. Second, try to figure out the meaning through words with similar roots. The suffix of the word will tell you the part of speech.

    To summarize:

    1. Context Clues
    2. Understanding words through their structure (roots, prefixes, suffixes)
    3. Dictionary and other reference tools

    Context Clues

    Context clues are bits of information within a text that will assist you in deciphering the meaning of unknown words. Since most of your knowledge of vocabulary comes from reading, it is important that you recognize context clues. By becoming more aware of particular words and phrases surrounding a difficult word, you can make logical guesses about its meaning. The following are the different types of context clues:

    1. Brief definition or restatement
    2. Synonyms and antonyms
    3. Examples

    1) Brief Definition or Restatement

    Sometimes a text directly states the definition or a restatement of the unknown word. The brief definition or restatement is signaled by a word or a punctuation mark. Consider the following example:

    If you visit Alaska, you will likely see many glaciers, or slow moving masses of ice.

    In this sentence, the word glaciers is defined by the phrase that follows the signal word or, which is slow moving masses of ice.

    In other instances, the text may restate the meaning of the word in a different way, by using punctuation as a signal. Look at the following example:

    Marina was indignant—fuming mad—when she discovered her brother had left for the party without her.

    Although fuming mad is not a formal definition of the word indignant, it does serve to define it. These two examples use signals—the word or and the punctuation dashes—to indicate the meaning of the unfamiliar word. Other signals to look for are the words is, as, means, known as, and refers to.

    2) Synonyms and Antonyms

    Sometimes a text gives a synonym of the unknown word to signal the meaning of the unfamiliar word:

    When you interpret an image, you actively question and examine what the image connotes and suggests.

    In this sentence the word suggests is a synonym of the word connotes. The word and sometimes signals synonyms.

    Likewise, the word but may signal a contrast, which can help you define a word by its antonym.

    I abhor clothes shopping, but I adore grocery shopping.

    The word abhor is contrasted with its opposite: adore. From this context, the reader can guess that abhor means to dislike greatly. The word but sometimes signals antonyms.

    3) Examples

    Sometimes a text will give you an example of the word that sheds light on its meaning:

    I knew Mark’s ailurophobia was in full force because he began trembling and stuttering when he saw my cat, Ludwig, slink out from under the bed.

    Although ailurophobia is an unknown word, the sentence gives an example of its effects. Based on this example, a reader could confidently infer that the word means a fear of cats.


    Look for signal words like such as, for instance, and for example. These words signal that a word’s meaning may be revealed through an example.

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    You can use this form to help you decipher the meaning of words through context clues:

    Vocabulary From Context Activity

    Word #1: ____________________________

    Sentence that word appears in:


    What you think the word means from context: _______________________________________________________________

    What clues in the sentence tell you it might mean this?


    Dictionary definition of word (do not use a definition that has a form of the word in it):


    Were you right? _______________

    Re-read the sentence. Does it make more sense now? ___________________

    If not, bring this sentence up for class or group discussion.

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{2}\)

    Identify the context clue that helps define the underlined words in each of the following sentences. Write the context clue on your own sheet of paper.

    1. Lucinda is very adroit on the balance beam, but Constance is rather clumsy.
    2. I saw the entomologist, a scientist who studies insects, cradle the giant dung beetle in her palm.
    3. Lance’s comments about politics were irrelevant and meaningless to the botanist’s lecture on plant reproduction.
    4. Before I left for my trip to the Czech Republic, I listened to my mother’s sage advice and made a copy of my passport.
    5. His rancor, or hatred, for socializing resulted in a life of loneliness and boredom.
    6. Martin was mortified, way beyond embarrassment, when his friends teamed up to shove him into the pool.
    7. The petulant four-year-old had a baby sister who was, on the contrary, not grouchy at all.
    8. The philosophy teacher presented the students with several conundrums, or riddles, to solve.
    9. Most Americans are omnivores, people that eat both plants and animals.
    10. Elena is effervescent, as excited as a cheerleader, for example, when she meets someone for the first time.

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{3}\)

    On your own sheet of paper, write the name of the context clue that helps to define the underlined words.

    Maggie was a precocious child to say the least. She produced brilliant watercolor paintings by the age of three. At first, her parents were flabbergasted—utterly blown away—by their daughter’s ability, but soon they got used to their little painter. Her preschool teacher said that Maggie’s dexterity, or ease with which she used her hands, was something she had never before seen in such a young child. Little Maggie never gloated or took pride in her paintings; she just smiled contentedly when she finished one and requested her parents give it to someone as a gift. Whenever people met Maggie for the first time they often watched her paint with their mouths agape, but her parents always kept their mouths closed and simply smiled over their “little Monet.”


    Please share with a classmate and compare your answers.

    Writing at Work

    Jargon is a type of shorthand communication often used in the workplace. It is the technical language of a special field. Imagine it is your first time working as a server in a restaurant and your manager tells you he is going to “eighty-six” the roasted chicken. If you do not realize that “eighty-six” means to remove an item from the menu, you could be confused.

    When you first start a job, no matter where it may be, you will encounter jargon that will likely be foreign to you. Perhaps after working the job for a short time, you too will feel comfortable enough to use it. When you are first hired, however, jargon can be baffling and make you feel like an outsider. If you cannot decipher the jargon based on the context, it is always a good policy to ask.

    Writing Application

    Write a paragraph describing your first job. In the paragraph, use five words previously unknown to you. These words could be jargon words, or you may consult a dictionary or thesaurus to find a new word. Make sure to provide a specific context clue for understanding each word. Exchange papers with a classmate and try to decipher the meaning of the words in each other’s paragraphs based on the context clues.

    For some practice using context clues to understand new vocabulary, try these activities from Lethbridge College.

    Understanding Words Through the Word Structure

    The English language contains an enormous and ever-growing number of words. Enhancing your vocabulary by learning new words can seem overwhelming, but if you know the common prefixes and suffixes of English, you will understand many more words.

    Mastering common prefixes and suffixes is like learning a code. Once you crack the code, it becomes not only easier to spell, but it also becomes easier to recognize and perhaps even define unfamiliar words.


    A prefix is a word part added to the beginning of a word to create a new meaning. Study the common prefixes in Table 3.6.1 “Common Prefixes”.


    The main rule to remember when adding a prefix to a word is to avoid adding or leaving out any letters. See Table 3.6.1 “Common Prefixes” for examples of this rule.

    Table 3.6.1 - Common Prefixes
    Prefix Meaning Example
    dis not, opposite of dis + satisfied = dissatisfied
    mis wrongly mis + spell = misspell
    un not un + acceptable = unacceptable
    re again re + election = reelection
    inter between inter + related = interrelated
    pre before pre + pay = prepay
    non not non + sense = nonsense
    super above super + script = superscript
    sub under sub + merge = submerge
    anti against, opposing anti + bacterial = antibacterial

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{4}\)

    Identify the five words with prefixes in the following paragraph, and write their meanings on a separate sheet of paper.

    At first, I thought one of my fuzzy, orange socks disappeared in the dryer, but I could not find it in there. Because it was my favorite pair, nothing was going to prevent me from finding that sock. I looked all around my bedroom, under the bed, on top of the bed, and in my closet, but I still could not find it. I did not know that I would discover the answer just as I gave up my search. As I sat down on the couch in the family room, my Dad was reclining on his chair. I laughed when I saw that one of his feet was orange and the other blue! I forgot that he was color-blind. Next time he does laundry I will have to supervise him while he folds the socks so that he does not accidentally take one of mine!

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{5}\)

    Add the correct prefix to the word to complete each sentence. Write the word on your own sheet of paper.

    1. I wanted to ease my stomach ________comfort, so I drank some ginger root tea.
    2. Lenny looked funny in his ________matched shirt and pants.
    3. Penelope felt ________glamorous at the party because she was the only one not wearing a dress.
    4. My mother said those ________aging creams do not work, so I should not waste my money on them.
    5. The child’s ________standard performance on the test alarmed his parents.
    6. When my sister first saw the meteor, she thought it was a ________natural phenomenon.
    7. Even though she got an excellent job offer, Cherie did not want to ________locate to a different country.
    8. With a small class size, the students get to ________act with the teacher more frequently.
    9. I slipped on the ice because I did not heed the ________cautions about watching my step.
    10. A ________combatant is another word for civilian.


    A suffix is a word part added to the end of a word to create a new meaning. They also indicate the part of speech. Please see Table 3.6.2 for examples.

    Table 3.6.2 -- Suffixes

    Suffix Meaning Example
    Noun Suffixes    
    er someone who performs an action helper
    ion action or process of celebration
    ity the state or condition of equality
    ment the action or result of movement
    ness a state or quality fairness
    or a person who is something investigator
    sion state or being confusion
    ship position held internship
    th state or quality strength
    Adjective suffixes    
    able, ible capable of being/doing preventable
    al pertaining to theatrical
    ant inclined to or tending to defiant
    ary of or relating to budgetary
    ful full of grateful
    ic relating to heroic
    ious, ous having qualities of gracious
    ive quality or nature of creative
    less without something hopeless
    y made up of or characterized by tasty
    Verb Suffixes    


    past tense version of a verb climbed
    en become lengthen
    er action or process, making a comparison faster
    ing verb form/present participle of an action swimming
    ize, ise to cause or to become advertize
    Adverb Suffixes    
    ly the manner in which something is done slowly
    ward in a certain direction forward
    wise in relation to clockwise

    Suffixes and Spelling

    There are a number of spelling rules that apply when adding a suffix to a word.

    Rule 1

    When adding the suffixes –ness and –ly to a word, the spelling of the word does not change.


    • dark + ness = darkness
    • scholar + ly = scholarly

    Exceptions to Rule 1

    When the word ends in y, change the y to i before adding –ness and –ly.


    • ready + ly = readily
    • happy + ness = happiness

    Rule 2

    When the suffix begins with a vowel, drop the silent e in the root word.


    • care + ing = caring
    • use + able = usable

    Exceptions to Rule 2

    When the word ends in ce or ge, keep the silent e if the suffix begins with a or o.


    • replace + able = replaceable
    • courage + ous = courageous

    Rule 3

    When the suffix begins with a consonant, keep the silent e in the original word.


    • care + ful = careful
    • care + less = careless

    Exceptions to Rule 3


    • true + ly = truly
    • argue + ment = argument

    Rule 4

    When the word ends in a consonant plus y, change the y to i before any suffix not beginning with i.


    • sunny + er = sunnier
    • hurry + ing = hurrying

    Rule 5

    When the suffix begins with a vowel, double the final consonant only if (1) the word has only one syllable or is accented on the last syllable and (2) the word ends in a single vowel followed by a single consonant.


    • tan + ing = tanning (one syllable word)
    • regret + ing = regretting (The accent is on the last syllable; the word ends in a single vowel followed by a single consonant.)
    • cancel + ed = canceled (The accent is not on the last syllable.)
    • prefer + ed = preferred

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{6}\)

    On your own sheet of paper, write correctly the forms of the words with their suffixes.

    1. refer + ed
    2. refer + ence
    3. mope + ing
    4. approve + al
    5. green + ness
    6. benefit + ed
    7. resubmit + ing
    8. use + age
    9. greedy + ly
    10. excite + ment

    Writing Application

    Write a paragraph describing one of your life goals. Include five words with prefixes and five words with suffixes. Exchange papers with a classmate and circle the prefixes and suffixes in your classmate’s paper. Correct each prefix or suffix that is spelled incorrectly.

    Additional Practice

    For practice of this skill, try the Structural Analysis Exercises from Lethbridge College.

    Using Reference Tools

    The Dictionary

    With so many different dictionary options out there, this video offers good advice in finding one that fits your personal needs.


    The Thesaurus

    The thesaurus is a very useful tool (book or website) to expand your vocabulary through finding synonyms. Beware! It is easy to choose a word with the wrong connotation or denotation, which could make your writing seem strange or unclear because the nuances of meaning may not be correct. However, when use in conjunction with a dictionary, expanding your vocabulary with a thesaurus can be useful.

    Figure: CC BY-ND: Attribution-NoDerivatives

    This website, also provides a way of expanding your vocabulary by demonstrating word webs, or words that are related to the word you are investigating.


    To check your understanding of vocabulary, take this quiz.

    Contributors and Attributions

    This page titled 3.6: Vocabulary is shared under a CC BY-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Athena Kashyap & Erika Dyquisto (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative) .