How can word parts help me understand new vocabulary?

There are many ways to learn new vocabulary.  One way is to know about the different parts of words.  Sometimes they can help you guess the meaning of new words. Sometimes they can help you guess how the new words are used.  Knowing more things about new words can also help you remember them.

Some words have prefixes at the beginning.  These have their own meanings.  They can help you guess the meaning of the new word.  They can sometimes even help you make new words form the words you already know.  It’s a good idea to know common prefixes. Here are a few examples:

Prefix  Meaning Example
 co-  together  cooperate, colleague
 re  again  repeat, replay
 pre-  before  preview, prepaid
 trans–   across  transport
 mis-  badly/incorrect  mistake, misunderstand
 inter-  between  international, interpret
 over-  too much/more  oversleep, overpay


Word roots
Sometimes you can also guess the meaning of new words by looking at their roots.  These are word parts that also have their own meanings.  Many word roots come from the Latin and Greek languages.  They are more common in academic English.  For example the word biology has two roots that give you the word meaning bio- (life) and -logy (study).  It’s a good idea to know some of the common ones. Here are a few examples.

Root Meaning Example
 mono  one  monorail
 logy  study  geology
 cent  one hundred  century
 multi  many  multiply
 auto  self  automobile
 tele  far off  telephone
 port  to carry  transport

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Some words have suffixes at the end.  These can tell you how the word is used grammatically.  They can tell you the part-of-speech of the word – whether the word is a noun, verb, adjective, or adverb.  Here are some common suffixes and parts-of-speech.

Suffix Part-of-speech Example
 noun retirement
 verb communicate
 adjective accidental
 -ly  adverb  quickly

Suffixes can also sometimes help you the guess the meaning of the word.  For example, the suffix -er can sometimes mean the person doing an action eg. player or buyer.


Syllables and primary stress
Syllables are groups of sounds in a word that are pronounced together.  For example the word happiness has three syllables ha-ppi-ness.  One syllable in a word is always pronounced more strongly than the others.  This is called the primary stress.  Sometimes the primary stress can help you guess the word’s part-of-speech.  For example, with two syllable words, when the stress in on the second syllable the word is usually a verb.  But, when the stress is on the first syllable, it is more likely to be a noun.  For example PREsent (a gift) is a noun, but preSENT (do a talk) is a verb.



These are all the sounds in a word. Syllables are made up of one or more phonemes.  Phonemes will not help you guess the word’s meaning but they will tell it’s correct pronunciation.  Knowing the correct pronunciation of the word will also help you remember it.  It’s also good to know the phonemes you find difficult to pronounce.  Also, be extra careful with pronouncing the phonemes in the primary stess syllable. English phoneme table.


Extra tip!:  It’s also important to know how words are used in a sentence. If you’re making a word list, also write the sentence where you found the word.  When checking new words in a dictionary, check the example sentences.  Also, make a note of any words (collocations) that your new word is often used together with.

Related links

More prefixes, suffixes, and word roots

Recommended free vocabulary learning sites (and apps)

Recommended free online dictionaries (and apps)