Building an extensive vocabulary, and using it correctly, will allow you to express yourself more precisely, and to understand others better. In this section we will look at a few methods for achieving this goal.

1) Different types of vocabulary

I want to briefly mention the different types of vocabulary, just so we understand the task of extending it. Vocabulary is typically broken down into four different types; let’s look at them from the most limited to the most extensive.

1.1 Speaking vocabulary

Your speaking vocabulary consists of all the words you use when speaking. This is generally the most limited of the vocabularies, and perhaps the hardest to improve because we don’t have time to look up a word mid-sentence. As we will see later, when we write down new words we want to learn, it is important to make a note of situations where we want to use it. Therefore, if we want a word to become part of our speaking vocabulary, we must write down examples where that might be the case.

1.2 Writing vocabulary

Your writing vocabulary consists of all the words you use when writing. This is likely to be a bit bigger than your speaking for a number of reasons:

a) The situations you write in are likely to sometimes be more formal (e.g., scientific, essays, technical work-related writing, etc.) or have a creative element that lends to unusual words (e.g., novel writing and poetry).

b) When speaking you are likely to communicate more via body language.

c) There is generally very little time to pick your words when speaking; in contrast, when writing, there is much more time to pick the specific word.

Having said all of this, any words which you have in your writing vocabulary should ideally be transferred to your speaking one.

1.3 Reading vocabulary

Your reading vocabulary includes all the words you can define when you read them, even if you never speak, or write them. This, therefore, includes all the words you speak, write and can define when you read.

1.4 Recognition vocabulary

Your recognition vocabulary includes all of the words you can recognise when reading, perhaps even understanding them in context, but which you aren’t really sure about the definition. This includes all of the speaking, writing and reading words, plus any that have this recognition quality.

Their are two main goals in vocabulary building: 

1) Take words from your recognition vocabulary and transfer them to your reading one.

2) Take words from the recognition and reading vocabularies and transfer them into the writing and speaking ones.

2) Things to do to improve vocabulary

2.1 Read widely and regularly

The most entertaining way to learn new words is to read as regularly as possible, and to look up the new words you are sure to encounter. Make sure to pick books, and other sources, that are from a wide range of different styles to improve your vocabulary the most. This is by far the most fun way to improve your English generally because you will be learning so much more than just the English fundamentals.

2.2 Keep a file of new words you like

While you can definitely transfer new words into your speaking and writing vocabularies from just reading and looking up the words, if you want to take it more seriously, it is a good idea to keep a file of any new words you want to start using in your writing and speaking. The key with these files is to only put in words you really want to use, rather than every single unusual word you learn. Pick only the most useful, and relevant, words, and write a detailed file on each of them, rather than having a long list of definitions that you aren’t likely to use and which have no detail. Let’s take a look next at the different sorts of things you might want to write about each word.

The following are 2 online dictionaries that will be useful for finding all of the parts below:




Obviously we want to write down the definition of the new word. Online dictionaries often have many different definitions for the same word, so make a note of any different definitions the word can be mean. For example, on dictionary.com the word ‘indolent’ has these two definitions:

1.having or showing a disposition to avoid exertion; slothful:

an indolent person.

2.Pathology. causing little or no pain; inactive or relatively benign:

an indolent ulcer that is not painful and is slow to heal.

Also check for different definitions between British and American English, which can be found if you scroll down at dictionary.com.


Note any spelling variations that the word might have. For example ‘learnt’ is spelt ‘learned’ in American English. Try to make sure to drill the spelling of the new word as well because it is going to be easier to make spelling mistakes due to it being unfamiliar.


Write down a syllable break-down. This can be written in a number of ways. Most, simply, the Merrium-webster, would break down ‘indolent’ like this:


showing us the 3 syllables of the word with a dash.


Make a note of the pronunciation of the word. Merium-Webster uses the more formal notation, while dictionary.com uses a less formal, but easier to understand one. Let’s look at them both for ‘indolent’:

Merium-Webster: \ˈin-də-lənt\

Dictionary.com: in-dl-uh nt

The Merium webster is using the schwa sound symbol (ə) which makes an ‘uh’ sound. You can find a list of the International Phonetic Alphabet symbols here.

Also note how the Merrium-Webster example uses an accent before the ‘I’, and how the dictionary.com example has ‘in’ in bold. This is to show that the stress in the word goes on the first syllable in this word. Actually, dictionary.com has the choice between the two. If you click on the box to the left of the ‘syllables’ box, you can change it and get this:

/ˈɪn dl ənt/

which uses the IPA method.

Online dictionaries also have audio of the pronunciation available, which can be very helpful. Practising being able to pronounce the word correctly is vital to be able to add it to your speaking vocabulary. Be sure to check if there is a difference in the pronunciation in British and American English, otherwise you may end up sounding a bit strange. Cambridge Dictionaries Online has both the British and American pronunciation

Origin (etymology) of root

Writing down the origin, known as ‘etymology’, of the root of the word is also a good idea. So, at dictionary.com, the origin for ‘indolent’ is:

1655-65; < Latin indolent (stem of indolēns)

We can then click on hyperlinks from that same section to get definition for the prefix ‘in’ and for the other parts of the word ‘dole’ and the suffix ‘ent’. Note that there are different definitions for the following, but in the origins bit it says:

1655-65; < Latin indolent- (stem of indolēns), equivalent to in- in-3+ dolent- (stem of dolēns) present participle of dolēre to be pain-ful, be in pain; see dole2, -ent

the 3 above the ‘in’ and 2 above the ‘dole’ are important; it is the third and second definition down the page which we need to use. Here they are:

in-: a prefix of Latin origin, corresponding to English un-, having a negative or privative force, freely used as an English formative, especially of adjectives and their derivatives and of nouns ( inattention; indefensible; inexpensive; inorganic; invariable).

dole: grief or sorrow; lamentation.

-ent: causing or performing an action or existing in a certain condition; the agent that performs an action: astringent, dependent.

If we try to piece these together we get ‘in’ (negative force) ‘dole’ (grief/pain) ent (performing an action). This links to the second definition we saw of ‘indolent’ earlier:

Pathology. causing little or no pain; inactive or relatively benign:

Breaking it down and exploring it like this can be quite fun, and sometimes makes it easier to remember the word.

Part of speech

Put down the form of the word that comes up in the dictionary first, and the parts of speech this can be. So, say you find the word ‘pragmatically’ somewhere. When you search the dictionary this will give you the base form ‘pragmatic.’ This word is generally an adjective, but dictionary.com has a couple of meanings (a noun phrase, and an archaic one) where it can be a noun. So you can write both down if you like.

Many unusual words will just be one part of speech, while some of the more common ones will have many. An extreme example of the latter is ‘well’ which can be an adverb, adjective, interjection, verb or noun.

Inflected forms

If the word is a verb, make note of any of the inflections of the verb: the past tense, past participle and present participle/gerund forms, along with some examples. So, say the word is ‘draw’ you would initially write the base form ‘draw’, then you would have:

Past tense: drew (I drew for 2 hours last night.)

Past participle: drawn (I had drawn for two hours before she came.)

Present participle: drawing (I have been drawing a lot lately.)

Gerund: drawing (Drawing is my main hobby.)

This is a good resource for finding these forms.

Other forms that add a suffix or prefix

Make a note of some of the other forms that add a prefix before, or a suffix after, the word. For example, the word ‘capricious’ can be:

capriciously (adverb) (He rules capriciously over his kingdom.)

capriciousness (noun) (capriciousness is hard to plan for.)

noncapricious (adjective) (The noncapricious leader was respected.)

noncapriciousness (noun) (noncapriciousness is easy to plan for.)

noncapriciously (adverb) (He rules noncapriciously over his kingdom.)


Synonyms are words with similar meaning. Online dictionaries usually have synonyms of the word as well, which you can copy down in your file. You will also find a decent amount of synonyms for each word at theasurus.com. Knowing the synonyms can help you make connections with the word, which can aid memory by giving context. You might also find that you end up learning groups of words with similar meanings, allowing you to be more specific in that particular topic.


Antonyms are words with the opposite meaning. They can be found both in online dictionaries, and at thesaurus.com. Again, this will help you to get to know words related to your new word.

Other related words

You could add some other related words if you like. The online dictionaries and theasurus.com provide lists.

Example/s of usage from where you have read / heard it

The idea here is to write down the sentence that you first heard the word in. You can always add more to this with time if you like, when it comes up again. This is a good idea because you are probably more likely to remember the sentence in the context of a book you read than if you just write down a random use you find on the Internet. Having said this, the dictionaries will also have examples of usage from various sources.

Example/s where you might use it in your writing or speaking

It will really help you to transfer the word from your reading vocabulary to your writing and speaking if you write down some examples where you can imagine yourself using it. For example, say you come across the word ‘pragmatic’, which means :

of or relating to a practical point of view or practical considerations.

You might then imagine yourself saying something like:

She is the most pragmatic person I have ever met.

This is one of the most important things to write down because you are likely to remember it then use it in conversation, or writing. Once you have used a word in context it is much more likely to stick in your mind. Context is really important; that is why just memorising lists of words is not generally recommended. Actually, I would say that, along with the definition, writing down where you first heard it, and some examples of where you might use it, are probably the most important ones in regards to being able to remember and use the word.

2.3 Example of a word file

Here is an example from a word file, using the word ‘capricious’.


capricious: subject to, led by, or indicative of a sudden, odd notion or unpredictable change; erratic:


ca-pri-cious (3)


\kə-ˈpri-shəs, -ˈprē-\

kuh-prish-uh s, –pree-shuh s

Origin (etymology) of root

1585-95; < Italian capriccioso

capriccioso: capricious; fantastic in style (music related)

caprice: a sudden, unpredictable change, as of one’s mind or the weather.

ous: a suffix forming adjectives that have the general sense “possessing, full of” a given quality (covetous; glorious; nervous; wondrous);

Part of speech

Adjective (She is a capricious leader.)

Other forms that add/remove a suffix or prefix

capriciously (adverb) (He rules capriciously over his kingdom)

capriciousness (noun) (Capriciousness is hard to plan for)

noncapricious (adjective) (The noncapricious leader was respected)

noncapriciousness (noun) (Noncapriciousness is easy to plan for)

noncapriciously (adverb) (He rules noncapriciously over his kingdom)

caprice (noun) (The caprice of the narrator was prominent)


variable, flighty, mercurial, fickle, changeable, changeful, flickery, fluctuating, fluid, inconsistent, inconstant, mercurial, mutable, skittish, temperamental, uncertain, unpredictable, unsettled, unstable, unsteady, variable, volatile.


constant, consistent, certain, changeless, immutable, invariable, predictable, settled, stable, stationary, steady, unchangeable, unchanging, unvarying

Other related words

aimless, arbitrary, desultory, erratic, haphazard, hit-or-miss, irregular, random, scattered, slapdash, stray; ambivalent, hesitating, shaky, shilly-shally, shilly-shallying, vacillating, wavering; dicey, undependable, unreliable, untrustworthy; adaptable, mobile, protean, versatile

Example/s of usage from where you have read / heard it

‘The essence of tyranny is not iron law. It is capricious law.’ Christopher Hitchens

Example/s where you might use it in your writing or speaking

Describe people:

Do you like capricious people?

Do you know anyone you would describe as capricious?

Describe inanimate things:

Is the essence of tyranny ‘capricious law’?

The capricious photocopier needs changing.

Final comment on file

If you really want to master a word, you could pick a couple of important words a week, make a file like this, then see if you can give the answers for each of these headings without looking. Adding a 100 words a year to your writing and speaking vocabulary like this will make a huge difference to your ability to express yourself. The final bit where you come up with examples yourself is really important. It is here that you start thinking about situations which are best described by the word. This can be really interesting; as you can see from my examples above, it made me think of a few questions I could now discuss with friends.

3) Greek and Latin roots

The root (or stem) is the part of the word to which prefixes and suffixes are added. For example, the root ‘fin’ means ‘end’, ‘boundary’ or ‘limit’. This is the root of many words, such as:

final: pertaining to or coming at the end; last in place, order, or time.

finite: having bounds or limits; not infinite; measurable.

confine: to enclose within bounds; limit or restrict.

finale: the concluding part of any performance, course of proceedings, etc.; end.

finish: to bring (something) to an end or to completion; complete.

infinite: unbounded or unlimited; boundless; endless.

These words all have clear links to ‘end’, ‘boundary’ or ‘limit’. Some other words with the root ‘fin’ in are less obviously linked to these definitions. Take the noun ‘definition’. This can be defined as:

‘the act of defining, or of making something definite, distinct, or clear.’

What has this got to do with ‘end’, ‘boundary’ or ‘limit’? Well, if we think about what a definition is doing, it is providing a boundary, limit, or end for what we can use a word to describe.

Many English roots come from Latin and Greek. Click here for a long list of them.

I would try to learn these roots in conjunction with any new words you learn. Whenever you learn a new word, figure out what the root is as well, and what it means. Add to this by looking up the other words that have that root, and figure out the connection.

Knowing these roots should help you move your recognition vocabulary into reading, and then speaking and writing. I say this because you are much more likely to be able to figure out what a word you sort of recognise means if you can figure out the root and then apply the meaning to the word. However, while the root is the central part of the word, there will very commonly be prefixes and suffixes surrounding it. Prefixes are two different forms of affixes; let’s look at them next.


Affixes are morphemes (smallest grammatical unit that has meaning) that, in English, are usually added on to the beginning (prefix) or end (suffix) of a root. There are other types of affixes, which can be seen here, but we will just focus on the very common prefixes and suffixes in this section.

3.1 Prefixes

A prefix is an affix that attaches onto the beginning of a root to alter its meaning somehow. A list of prefixes can be found here. Let’s look at a few common examples.

Let’s start with ‘dis-‘. At dictionary.com You can search for prefixes by typing in the prefix followed by the hyphen, ‘-‘, giving ‘dis-‘. This is because the prefix will be followed by a word, such as ‘dismiss’, so the hyphen is signalling there will be some expression after it. Let’s start with ‘dis-‘:

1) dis-

Dictionary.com gives this definition for ‘dis-‘:

a Latin prefix meaning “apart,” “asunder,” “away,” “utterly,” or having a privative, negative, or reversing force (see de-, un-2. ); used freely, especially with these latter senses, as an English formative: disability; disaffirm; disbar; disbelief; discontent; dishearten; dislike; disown.

Let’s look at some words:

dislike: to regard with displeasure, antipathy, or aversion.

dis (“apart,” “asunder,” “away,” “utterly,” or having a privative, negative, or reversing force) + like (to take pleasure in; find agreeable or congenial)

So, essentially, we have a negative version of ‘like’, defined as ‘taking pleasure in something.’ Therefore, ‘dislike’ relates to not taking pleasure in something. Interestingly, ‘like’ can also mean ‘of the same form, appearance, kind, character, amount, etc’. This means we can have words such as ‘unlike’ – which has the prefix ‘un’ (meaning ‘not’) + this other meaning of ‘like’ ( ‘of the same form, appearance, kind, character, amount, etc’.) which gives us ‘unlike’: defined as ‘different, dissimilar, or unequal; not alike’. This could get confusing because ‘un’ means ‘not’ and ‘dislike’ essentially means to ‘not’ like. Perhaps this is why we use ‘un’ with one form of ‘like’ ( ‘of the same form, appearance, kind, character, amount, etc’.), and ‘dis’ with the other form (‘to take pleasure in; find agreeable or congenial’)?

disable: to make unable or unfit; weaken or destroy the capability of; incapacitate.

dis (“apart,” “asunder,” “away,” “utterly,” or having a privative, negative, or reversing force) + able (having necessary power, skill, resources, or qualifications; qualified)

So here we have a negative version of ‘able’, defined as having the power to do something. Therefore, ‘disable’ means to take away the power to do something.

disown: to refuse to acknowledge as belonging or pertaining to oneself; deny the ownership of or responsibility for; repudiate; renounce.

dis (“apart,” “asunder,” “away,” “utterly,” or having a privative, negative, or reversing force) + own (of, relating to, or belonging to oneself or itself)

So we have a negative version of ‘own’, defined as ‘belonging to oneself’. Therefore, ‘disown’ means to get rid of the ownership of something.

As we can see, ‘dis-‘ has a similar meaning in each of these examples, although there is usually a subtle difference for each as it interacts with the rest of the word.

2) re-

The dictionary.com definition of ‘re-‘ is:

a prefix, occurring originally in loanwords from Latin, used with the meaning “again” or “again and again” to indicate repetition, or with the meaning “back” or “backward” to indicate withdrawal or backward motion: regenerate; refurbish; retype; retrace; revert.

Let’s look at some examples of words:

regenerate: to re-create, reconstitute, or make over.

re-(meaning “again” or “again and again” to indicate repetition, or with the meaning “back” or “backward” to indicate withdrawal or backward motion:) + generate (to bring into existence; cause to be; produce.).

So here we have the idea of going backwards, and thus bringing something back into existence. So it isn’t just to generate something; it is to generate it again. Note how this has the implication that something must have been somehow lost (the opposite of generated) for it to be regenerated.

rewrite: to write again.

re-(meaning “again” or “again and again” to indicate repetition, or with the meaning “back” or “backward” to indicate withdrawal or backward motion:) + write (to trace or form on the surface of some material, as with a pen, pencil, or other instrument or means; inscribe)

Here we have the act of writing done again. This is interesting because to ‘rewrite’ something often means to make it better in some way than it was before. We could say ‘rewrite’ in the sense of completely copying something out again, if, for example, we lost the material. However, we usually mean to write it again so as to improve on the past one, perhaps because of errors in the original document.

react: to act in response to an agent or influence.

re-(meaning “again” or “again and again” to indicate repetition, or with the meaning “back” or “backward” to indicate withdrawal or backward motion:) + act (anything done, being done, or to be done; deed; performance)

So here we have the idea of doing something directly because of something else. This relates to the repetition definition because we are repeating some form of action by acting in response. So, if someone throws a punch at you, then you might throw one back. This is both repeating what has been done, and doing something in relation to something that happened in the past. You might also duck the punch and then run; the ducking isn’t exactly repeating what the person did, but it is repeating in the sense that some form of action is occurring in response to some other form of action.

3) un-

‘un-‘ is an interesting one because it has two definitions. This can happen fairly commonly with prefixes, so it is worth looking out for.

The two dictionary.com definitions of ‘un-‘ are

a prefix meaning “not,” freely used as an English formative, giving negative or opposite force in adjectives and their derivative adverbs and nouns (unfair; unfairly; unfairness; unfelt; unseen; unfitting; unformed; unheard-of; un-get-at-able), and less freely used in certain other nouns (unrest; unemployment).


a prefix freely used in English to form verbs expressing a reversal of some action or state, or removal, deprivation, release, etc. (unbend; uncork; unfasten , etc.), or to intensify the force of a verb already having such a meaning (unloose).

Let’s look at a word from the first definition first.

unfair: not fair; not conforming to approved standards, as of justice, honesty, or ethics.

Un- (not) + fair (free from bias, dishonesty, or injustice)

This is nice and simple. We just take ‘fair’ and change it to ‘not fair’.

Now let’s look at an example from the second definition:

unbend: to straighten from a bent form or position.

un- ( a reversal of some action or state) + bend (to force (an object, especially a long or thin one) from a straight form into a curved or angular one, or from a curved or angular form into some different form)

Notice the difference here? We aren’t saying to ‘not’ bend; we are saying ‘to reverse the bend’.

Multiple prefixes can have the same meaning: in-, im-, il-, ir-

It is worth pointing out that sometimes multiple prefixes can be used for the same purpose. This often occurs with in-, im-, il- and ir- where they can all mean ‘not’. With the latter three ( im-, il- and ir-) this usually happens when the prefix is followed by a word beginning with ‘m’, ‘l’ and ‘r’ respectively. Take a look at these 4 examples:

incapable: not capable

immobile: not mobile

illegal: not legal

irreducible: not reducible

 Prefixes en- and in- can be added to create verbs from nouns

We can sometimes create verbs by adding the prefixes ‘en-‘ and ‘in-‘ onto the beginnings of words. For example:

code >>> encode

code: a system for communication by telegraph, heliograph, etc., in which long and short sounds, light flashes, etc., are used to symbolize the content of a message:

encode: to convert (a message, information, etc.) into code.

The definitions of ‘en-‘ at dictionary.com is:

‘a prefix occurring originally in loanwords from French and productive in English on this model, forming verbs with the general sense “to cause (a person or thing) to be in” the place, condition, or state named by the stem; more specifically, “to confine in or place on” (enshrine; enthrone; entomb); “to cause to be in” (enslave; entrust; enrich; encourage; endear); “to restrict” in the manner named by the stem, typically with the additional sense “on all sides, completely” (enwind; encircle; enclose; entwine). This prefix is also attached to verbs in order to make them transitive, or to give them a transitive marker if they are already transitive (enkindle; enliven; enshield; enface).’

From this we see many more examples:

slave >>> enslave

trust >>> entrust

rich >>> enrich

courage >>> encourage

This process of changing the part of speech of a word is actually very common in suffixes. Let’s take a look at them next.

3.2 Suffixes

Suffixes are the morphemes (smallest grammatical unit) at the end of words. They often change the part of speech of the word, as we just saw in prefixes. Let’s look at examples of suffixes changing different parts of speech.

Suffixes -ize and -ise can change nouns/adjectives into verbs

‘-iz’ is generally the American, and ‘-ise’ the UK, suffix. We can change nouns into verbs by adding these on the end.

If we search -ize on dictionary.com we get the following:

‘a verb-forming suffix occurring originally in loanwords from Greek that have entered English through Latin or French (baptize; barbarize; catechize); within English, -ize, is added to adjectives and nouns to form transitive verbs with the general senses “to render, make” (actualize; fossilize; sterilize; Americanize), “to convert into, give a specified character or form to” (computerize; dramatize; itemize; motorize), “to subject to (as a process, sometimes named after its originator)” (hospitalize; terrorize; galvanize; oxidize; simonize; winterize). Also formed with -ize, are a more heterogeneous group of verbs, usually intransitive, denoting a change of state (crystallize), kinds or instances of behavior (apologize; moralize; tyrannize), or activities (economize; philosophize; theorize).’

Here are words that are often used as nouns being turned into verbs:

baptist : baptise

fossil: fossilise

computer: computerise

oxide: oxidise

crystal: crystallise

apology: apologise

philosophy: philosophise

Here are words often used as adjectives being turned into verbs

barbaric: barbarise

galvanic: galvanise

active: activise

human: humanise

Suffixes can change verbs into nouns

There are many examples where suffixes can change verbs into nouns. Here are some examples with the suffix in bold at the end:

ignite: ignition

allude: allusion

refuse: refusal

develop: development

seize: seizure

abide: abidance

accept: accepter

behave: behaviour

supply: supplicant

abhor: abhorrent

Suffixes can change nouns into adjectives

There are many examples where suffixes can change nouns into adjectives. Here are some examples with the suffix in bold at the end:

beauty: beautiful

love: loveless

ambition: ambitious

nerve: nervous

dream: dreamy

accident: accidental

neurosis: neurotic

Poland: Polish

Germany: German

element: elementary

Suffixes can change adjectives into nouns

happy: happiness

civil: civility

violent: violence

accurate: accuracy

expedient: expediency

Suffixes can change adjectives into verbs

fertile: fertilize

fast: fasten

liquid: liquefy

Suffixes can change verbs into adjectives

stop: stoppable

reverse: reversible

correct: corrective

Suffixes can change adjectives into adverbs

glad: gladly

careful: carefully

like: likewise

3.3 Combining forms

There are 4 things worth looking at in regards to combining forms.

1) That there are terms which change the word meaning more strongly than a prefix or suffix

Compare these 2 words:

decommission (prefix ‘de’ + word ‘commission’): to deactivate; shut down, remove something from service: especially often in relation to officially stop using (a ship, weapon, dam, etc.).

acidity (root ‘acid’ + suffix ‘ity’): the quality or state of being acid

With these two words:

biomechanics: (combining form ‘bio’ + word ‘mechanics’): the study of the action of external and internal forces on the living body, especially on the skeletal system.

photography (combining form ‘photo’ + combining form ‘graphy’): the process or art of producing images of objects on sensitized surfaces by the chemical action of light or of other forms of radiant energy, as x-rays, gamma rays, or cosmic rays.

Let’s look at the word ‘decommission’ first.

Here we have the word ‘commission’ – made up of the prefix ‘com’, the root ‘miss’ and the suffix ‘ion’, meaning:

‘the act of committing or entrusting a person, group, etc., with supervisory power or authority’ often used for ‘a formal written warrant granting the power to perform various acts or duties’.

Before ‘commission’, we have the prefix ‘de’, which means:

‘privation, removal, negation, separation or descent’.

So combined they basically mean to take away the authority to do something. We can see here that the prefix ‘de’ is not changing the words central meaning around having authority to start something too much. Instead, it is changing the direction, from being given the authority, to having it taken away.

Now let’s look at the word ‘acidity’. Here we have the root ‘acid’ – which is a specific type of compound – as the main meaning of the word. The suffix ‘ity’ simply changes it to describe the state of something, rather than just the compound. This doesn’t change the general meaning of the word much. We can see that in these two sentences:

The bottle has acid in it.

The acidity of the liquid is high.

Now let’s take a look at the two words that have combining forms in them.

Let’s start with ‘biomechanics’. Here we have the combining form ‘bio’ which means:


and the word ‘mechanics’ which means:

the branch of physics that deals with the action of forces on bodies and with motion, comprised of kinetics, statics, and kinematics.

In this case, the type of mechanics has been changed to a specific type, rather than just slightly adjusting it. In fact, ‘bio’ has limited ‘mechanics’ to a specific type, thus getting rid of all of the other types of mechanics which don’t relate to biological lifeforms.

Now lets look at ‘photography’. Here we have the combining word ‘photo’ – which means:


and the other combining word ‘graphy’ which means:

‘a form of drawing, writing, representing, recording, describing, etc., or an art or science concerned with such a process’

So both of these combining words are central to the meaning of the word. Without ‘photo’, ‘graphy’ could be made into many other types, such as ‘biography’, ‘geography’ and ‘demography’, and, without ‘graphy’, ‘photo’ could relate to many other things relating to light, for example, ‘photocopier’, ‘photoreceptor’ or ‘photosynthesis’.

To summarise, the morphemes described as combining forms in the second two examples appear to have a stronger effect on the word than the prefixes and the suffixes.

2) That there are morphemes which can be linked to suffixes to form a word

We can’t generally link prefixes with each other, or with just suffixes. That would lead to things like

dede (prefix-prefix) (incorrect)

dely(prefix-suffix) (incorrect)

lyde(suffix-prefix) (incorrect)

lyly(suffix-suffix) (incorrect)

Usually we need a root, or a word, to do this. However, combining forms can sometimes take suffixes on the end of them. For example:

cephalic (combining form ‘cephal’ + suffix ‘ic’)

photon (combining form ‘phot’ + suffix ‘on’)

Note that ‘phot’ is the combining form used when the next letter is a vowel. In this case the next letter is ‘o’, so we shorten to ‘phot’ rather than ‘photo’ to prevent having the ‘o’ repeated as in ‘photoon’.

biotic (combining form ‘bio’ + suffix ‘tic’)

electrode (combining form ‘electr’ + suffix ‘ode’)

Note that ‘electr’ is the same as ‘phot’ – it would be ‘electro’ if there wasn’t a vowel coming after it. Without this we would repeat the ‘o’ again, as in ‘eletroode.’

It seems very rare to see a prefix + a combining word, but we regularly see combining word + combining word. A prefix + a combining word would give things like:


In contrast, combining words + combining words are very common, as in:









These words all happen to be very similar to compound words. Let’s look at that next.

3) Combining forms often link to other roots/words, or other combining terms, to have a similar effect to compound words

Combining forms often link to other roots/words, or other combining terms, to have a similar effect to compound words. Compound words are where two words are linked together into a single one, for example ‘bittersweet’ combines ‘bitter’ and ‘sweet’ to make a new word.

Combining forms mimic this when there is a combining form + a combining form, as we just saw. Let’s look at the examples again:









To use ‘geography’ as an example, we have the combining form ‘geo-‘ – which means ‘the earth’ – and the other combining form ‘graphy’ – which means ‘a process or form of drawing, writing, representing, recording, describing, etc., or an art or science concerned with such a process’. This is essentially creating a compound word, even if ‘geo’ and ‘graphy’ aren’t words alone like ‘bitter’ and ‘sweet’ are.

If we then compare this to prefixes and suffixes we see these compound words can’t be made in the same way.

Looking at prefixes first: compare the following two words with different prefixes (‘inter’ and ‘ex’), but the same end word (‘change’)



with these two with different combining forms (‘geo’ and ‘bio’) with the same end combining form (‘graphy’).



So we have

a) interchange: ‘to put each in the place of the other’

inter (meaning ‘between’) + change (meaning ‘to make something different’)

So, essentially, we are making something different by moving things between different places.

b) exchange: ‘to give up (something) for something else’

ex (meaning ‘out-of’, or ‘from’) + change (meaning ‘to make something different’)

So, essentially, we are making something different by changing it for something else.

Notice how both of these have a very similar meaning, with the type of change being the only thing that is moving. These aren’t two whole huge concepts being linked together, but more one big concept, ‘change’, being adjusted. Now let’s do the same for the combining form examples:

a) geography: ‘the science dealing with the areal differentiation of the earth’s surface, as shown in the character, arrangement, and interrelations over the world of such elements as climate, elevation, soil, vegetation, population, land use, industries, or states, and of the unit areas formed by the complex of these individual elements’

geo (meaning ‘earth’) + graphy (meaning ‘a process or form of drawing, writing, representing, recording, describing, etc., or an art or science concerned with such a process.’)

So we have a science involving drawing, writing, representing, recording, describing etc., the earth.

b) biography: a written account of another person’s life:

bio (meaning ‘life’) + graphy (meaning ‘a process or form of drawing, writing, representing, recording, describing, etc., or an art or science concerned with such a process.’)

Here we have a form of writing describing a person’s life.

The point of all this is that ‘the earth’ (geo) and ‘life’ (bio) are complete concepts which allow a compound form to be created, whereas ‘between’ (inter) and ‘out-of’ (ex) are more add ons to the main word, and don’t stand alone by themselves. This latter point about standing alone is important. The concepts ‘between’ (inter) and ‘out-of’ (ex) cannot stand alone; they are begging the questions: ‘between’ what?, and ‘out-of’ what? In contrast, ‘the earth’ (geo) and ‘life’ (bio) can stand alone, just like ‘bitter’ and ‘sweet’ can.

Let’s now compare two words with different combining forms at the end (‘logy’ and ‘graphy’), with two words which have different suffixes (‘able’ and ‘less’).  So we will compare the combining forms:






Let’s start with the combining forms:

a) biology: ‘the science of life or living matter in all its forms and phenomena, especially with reference to origin, growth, reproduction, structure, and behaviour.’

bio (meaning ‘life’) + logy (meaning ‘indicating the science or study of’)

Here we have a term which talks about the science of life.

b) biography: ‘a written account of another person’s life’

bio (meaning ‘life’) + graphy (meaning ‘a process or form of drawing, writing, representing, recording, describing, etc., or an art or science concerned with such a process.’)

Here we have a form of writing describing a person’s life.

Now let’s look at the suffixes:

a) lovable: ‘of such a nature as to attract love; deserving love; amiable; endearing.’

love (a profoundly tender, passionate affection for another person) + able (a suffix forming adverbs from adjectives)

b) loveless : ‘without any love’

love (a profoundly tender, passionate affection for another person) + less (adjective suffix meaning ‘without’)

After looking at these examples do you agree that the combining forms have a stronger impact on the word than the suffixes? That is to say that ‘lovable’ and ‘loveless’ are much closer in meaning than ‘biography’ and ‘biology’.

3.4 Using knowledge of roots, prefixes, suffixes and combining forms to work out the meaning of a word

Now that we have explored prefixes, suffixes and combining forms, we should be able to understand the building blocks of words a bit better. The hope is that doing this when learning a new word will help to ingrain it in our head, and perhaps even learn the words that surround it. Let’s look at some examples, bringing all the factors in we have learnt so far.

enlightenment: ‘the state of being enlightened / the act of enlightening’

Here we have a word which has the word ‘enlighten’ (‘to give intellectual or spiritual light to’) + the suffix ‘ment‘ (‘a suffix of nouns, often concrete, denoting an action, resulting state or means’). Note that ‘enlightenment’ is the state of having this intellectual or spiritual light; a direct combination of these two elements.

enlighten‘ (to give intellectual or spiritual light to) itself has the prefix ‘en-‘(‘a prefix which forms verbs with the general sense to cause a person or thing to be in the place, condition, or state named by the stem’) + the word ‘lighten‘ (‘to become lighter’). So here we have the prefix ‘-en’ forming a verb with ‘lighten’, which expresses a particular state or condition to be achieved  involving increased light (at least in metaphorical terms; that is, spiritual, or intellectual light)

lighten‘ (‘to become lighter’) itself has the word ‘light‘ (‘something that makes things visible’) + the suffix ‘-en‘ (a suffix which can create verbs). So here we have the suffix ‘-en’ being used to turn the word ‘light’ (which actually can be a verb, noun or adjective) into the verb ‘lighten’.

Hopefully, now when we look a the word ‘enlightenment’, we are a little more, well, enlightened, about why it makes sense for it to the have the meaning it does with the morphemes and words which it is made of.

electrophysiology: the branch of physiology dealing with the electric phenomena associated with the body and its functions.

Here we have a word made up of the combining form ‘electro‘ (‘electric/electricity’) + the word ‘physiology‘ (‘the branch of biology dealing with the functions and activities of living organisms and their parts’). This nicely matches up with the definition of ‘electrophysiology’: ‘a branch of physiology relating to electrical phenomena.’

The word ‘physiology‘ (‘the branch of biology dealing with the functions and activities of living organisms and their parts’) itself is made up of the combining form ‘physio‘ (‘physical, or physiological’) + the other combining form ‘ology‘ ‘(names of sciences or bodies of knowledge’). Again, this correlates nicely with the definition of physiology: a science dealing with physical/physiological processes.

4) Blended words

Some words are are mixture, or blend, of two, or more, words. This can happen in a number of ways. Let’s look a few of the more common ones.

1) The beginning of one word is added to the end of another

This is sometimes called a ‘portmanteau’. Apparently, a ‘portmanteau’ was originally used to describe a suitcase that opens into two equal sections. I guess the idea is that there is one singular suitcase (one word) with two compartments inside (two words that blend together).

A common example is ‘brunch’ (‘a meal that serves as both breakfast and lunch’) which is a combination of the ‘br’ at the beginning of ‘breakfast’ and the ‘unch’ at the end of ‘lunch’.

One that is used in gyms to describe a boxing exercise class is ‘boxercise’, which is made up of the ‘box’ at the beginning of ‘boxing’ and the ‘ercise’ from the end of ‘exercise’.

My final example is ‘smog’, used to describe a situation where smoke and fog have combined, which is a combination of the ‘sm’ from the beginning of ‘smoke’ and the ‘og’ from the end of ‘fog’.

2) The beginnings of two words are combined

The beginnings of two words can also be combined. For example:

‘cyborg’ has the ‘cy’ from the beginning of ‘cybernetic’ and the ‘org’ from the beginning of ‘organism’.

3) Two words are more loosely formed by blending sounds

Blended words can also be created more loosely by blending sounds. For example:

‘motel’ blends ‘motor’ and ‘hotel’, with the ‘t’ being in both of the words.

You could even make up some of your own blended words, and see if they catch on. I suppose the main rule should be that they make the language more efficient. So, for example, we don’t have to say ‘a meal that serves as both breakfast and lunch’ a ‘boxing exercise class’, or ‘combination of smoke and fog’ every time we want to express the idea of ‘brunch’, ‘boxercise’ or ‘smog’, respectively. Actually, that shouldn’t be the only rule; if your word is simply beautiful, I see a good argument for adding that too.

5) Word of the day

Finding new words from the books, articles and academic papers you read, or from lectures, talks, audiobooks, films or conversations you hear, are probably the best methods because you have a context which can help you remember the new word. Nevertheless, you could supplement this by having a ‘word of the day’ come into your email everyday. There are number of places that do this, for example:




6) Using words correctly

When learning new words – especially long and fancy ones – there is always the risk of overusing the long words to try and sound smarter. This is a really bad habit. I think the basic rule, at least in the majority of situations, is to pick the word based on its meaning, and the rhythm and flow it creates in the sentence/paragraph. That is to say, pick the word which is the most precise for what you are trying to say, and which flows the best in the sentence/paragraph, even if it is a much more simple word. In fact, if there is a choice between two words which are equally as precise for what you want to say, and flow equally well as far as the rhythm of the sentence/paragraph goes, the more simple word is probably the best option. There are obviously caveats to this. For example, in poetry, the ‘beauty’ of the language is particularly important, and some more complex words might just sound better. Then again, in a lot of cases, the sounding better is probably related to the ever important rhythm and flow of the poem coming from the meticulously designed rhythm and structure.

The other potential problem with a newly learnt word is that the definition might be a little hazy in our heads, making it easier to use it wrongly. This is why it is important to spend a bit of time thinking about all of the things I mentioned earlier in your vocabulary file, including thinking of times you might like to use it. It is much better to learn one new word really well than five hazily.