Vocabulary Strategies

You will naturally encounter many words and phrases in your college reading that are new to you, and you will want to understand them well enough to employ them in your own writing. There are three fundamental strategies for understanding these unfamiliar words and thereby improving your own vocabulary: context clues, word parts, and dictionaries.


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:

  • Brief definition or restatement
  • Synonyms and antonyms
  • Examples


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.


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.



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 surmise 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 1

Identify the context clue that helps define the underlined words in each of the following sentences.

  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.

Writing at Work

Jargon 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.


Word Parts

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, you can not only spell words more correctly but also 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 the table below.


The main rule to remember when adding a prefix to a word is not to add letters or leave out any letters. See the table below for examples of this rule.


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 2

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 3

Add the correct prefix to the word to complete each sentence.

  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. Study the suffix rules in the following boxes.

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 4

Write the correct 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



Even professional writers need help with the meanings, spellings, pronunciations, and uses of particular words. In fact, they rely on dictionaries to help them write better. No one knows every word in the English language and their multiple uses and meanings, so all writers, from novices to professionals, can benefit from the use of dictionaries.

Most dictionaries provide the following information:

  • Spelling. How the word and its different forms are spelled.
  • Pronunciation. How to say the word.
  • Part of speech. The function of the word.
  • Definition. The meaning of the word.
  • Synonyms. Words that have similar meanings.
  • Etymology. The history of the word.

Here is an example of a dictionary entry:

myth, mith, n. [Gr. mythos, a word, a fable, a legend.] A fable or legend embodying the convictions of a people as to their gods or other divine beings, their own beginnings and early history and the heroes connected with it, or the origin of the world; any invented story; something or someone having no existence in fact.—myth • ic, myth • i • cal

Here is an analysis of the information this example has provided:

  • Spelling: “myth”
  • Pronunciation: “mith”
  • Part of speech: “n.,” which means noun
  • Definition: “A fable or legend embodying the convictions of a people as to their gods or other divine beings, their own beginnings and early history and the heroes connected with it, or the origin of the world; any invented story; something or someone having no existence in fact.”
  • Synonyms: In this entry, the synonyms are merely suggested rather than explicitly listed; those synonyms are fable and legend.
  • Etymology: “Gr. mythos,” which means it comes from the Greek language, where the original word was mythos, meaning “a word, a fable, a legend”


Note that every dictionary is a separate and unique publication. So there is no such thing as just The Dictionary, nor is there just a Webster’s Dictionary (these are general-use terms that any book may employ). Also note that many search engines, such as Google, show glimpses of definitions from specific dictionaries as part of their search results, so “Google defines…” is not accurate. When citing the dictionary you’re using, state its actual title.


Exercise 5

Directions: Use the boldface dictionary entry below to answer the following questions.

lance (lans) [ME launcen, F lancer, L lanceare, lancea] n., 1. a steel-tipped spear carried by mounted knights or light cavalry; 2. any of various sharp objects suggestive of a lance. v.t., 1. a: to pierce with or as if with a lance, b: to open with or as if with a lancet; 2. to throw forward or hurl.

1. Is lans an acceptable alternative spelling of lance?

2. Can lance can be used as a verb?

3. Which languages does the word lance come from?

4. As used in the following sentence, which is the correct definition of lance? “Ajax lanced the weapon over the heads of his allies, across the battlefield, to the chest of his foe.”

5. In the example sentence in number 4, which part of speech is lanced used as?



Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

The Writing Textbook Copyright © 2021 by Josh Woods, editor and contributor, as well as an unnamed author (by request from the original publisher), and other authors named separately is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book