While reading habitually is a great way to build your vocabulary, even the strongest of readers may come across words that they do not recognize. What then? In the olden days, someone would look up the word in a dictionary; nowadays, they just need to ask Google or Siri or Alexa.
But what if you run across unknown vocabulary on a test? While the ACT and the SAT do not directly test on difficult vocabulary, some questions in the English and Reading sections do ask students to select the best word for a given context, sometimes including unfamiliar words. It is important to have a strategy ready for when you encounter an unknown word.
Here are some tips to help you puzzle out the definition of any word:
Look for context clues. What is the surrounding sentence talking about? What other word would you slip into the unfamiliar word’s place if you could? Often, you can glean the meaning of a word through this process of replacement, substituting what you think the sentence intends to say for the unknown vocabulary.
Check out the prefix. Sometimes, context clues are not enough to solve the mysterious word. If that’s the case, you still have a chance. Does the word have a prefix (introdutory syllable or letters) with which you are familiar? Prefixes, such as ex-, in-, fore-, con-, or omni-, provide an important clue to figure out what a word means. For example, in “consanguineous,” the prefix con- means “with,” which we could determine if we considered other words that start with “con-,” like “connection,” “contact,” or “confidence,” or that “con” in Spanish literally translates to “with.”
Consider the root. Do you know any other words with a similar root? For example, in “consanguineous,” “sanguine” comes from a root meaning “blood.” If you are learning Spanish, French, or another Latin-based language, you can consider similar words in those languages for help with meaning, since they often share roots with English counterparts. For example, the Spanish word for blood is “sangre”; the French word is “du sang.”
Observe the suffix. Suffixes (the syllable or letters tagged onto the end of a word) often indicate what part of speech the word is (how you should use it in a sentence). For example, “ous” means full of something and creates an adjective (or descriptor of a noun).
Use word association. If you are unfamiliar with the meaning of common prefixes, roots, and suffixes, then you can also try word association. What words have similar parts to the unfamiliar word? What words have a similar feel or tone to the word you are trying to demystify?
Based on our observations, we can determine that “consanguineous” is an adjective meant to describe something or someone who is connected through blood. The process of breaking down words in this way and looking for patterns is a little like being a detective. Look for clues, make logical inferences based off of those clues, and arrive at a possible conclusion.
Let’s look at another example:
Words with same prefix: circumference, circumvent, circumstance
Logical Connection: These words all relate to going around something.
Similar Words: elocution, eloquent, colloquialism
Logical Connection: These words all relate to speech.
Words with same suffix: intuition, origanization, location
Logical Connection: I use the “tion” at the end of nouns.
My Guess Definition: Circumlocution must mean the act of speaking around something.
Merriam-Webster Definition: “(n) the use of an unnecessarily large number of words to express an idea; evasion in speech”
It can be helpful to study common prefixes, roots, and suffixes. Look for trends. For instance, many words starting with “e” imply some sort of outward movement (external, express, emit, exterminate, explicit, exile, export), while many words starting with “i” imply an inward movement (internal, impress, implicit, implode, import, invest).
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