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Understanding unfamiliar vocabulary

Understanding unfamiliar vocabulary

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Understanding unfamiliar vocabulary

In a nutshell

The word 'vocabulary' is defined as all the words that exist in a particular language. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, there are approximately 171,146 words in the English language, so you are very likely to come across words you do not understand. In this summary, you will learn strategies to understand unfamiliar vocabulary. 

Unfamiliar vocabulary

When you encounter unfamiliar words in your reading, it can be helpful to look them up in a dictionary to avoid misunderstandings. However, you may not always have a dictionary available. In that case, the following strategies can help you deal with words that you do not know.

Looking at the rest of the sentence

The meaning of a word can be determined in part by its context. Looking at the rest of the sentence to understand the word in context can help you figure out its meaning. In addition, identifying if the word is a noun, adjective or verb can give you another clue to its meaning. 


Martha kept increasing the volume of the music in her room. Even though her brother had asked her to turn it down, she was heedless of his need to study.

In this example, the word 'heedless' suggests indifference or inconsideration since the context shows how Martha does not care that her brother is studying, so she increases the volume of the music.

Break the word up into pieces

Morphology in linguistics is the study of how words are structured. Etymology is the study of the origin of words and how the meaning of words can change. These two subjects of study can help you understand the meaning of a word when breaking it into pieces.


It was my turn to speak in front of the crowd, but I was speechless, I couldn't find the right words – and then I realised I wasn't wearing any trousers! Thank God it was just a nightmare.

In this example, if you break up the word 'speechless', the suffix '-less' can help you to figure out the meaning of the word. The suffix '-less' means 'without', so the word 'speechless' refers to a lack of words due to a shocking or surprising situation.

Additionally, finding the root word can be of great help when breaking a word into pieces. The root word is generally the main part of the word from which other words can be created. The following list contains a few root words that can help you deal with unfamiliar words:

  • Bio means life. 
  • Chrome means colour.
  • Auto means self.
  • Gen means birth.
  • Mono means one.
  • Graph means write.

This list can be useful when you come across words such as 'monobrow' which means a single eyebrow and 'monochromatic' which means one colour.

Tip: Reading more and learning the meanings of different root words can help you learn more vocabulary!

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