How to Find Out What Words Mean   back

The University of Alabama
Center for Academic Success
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348-5175

  1. Learn to use the context, that is, the surrounding words, phrases, and sentences. Hints provided by the context sometime give us clues to what an unknown word means. Such hints include:

  • punctuation marks

  • helping words and phrases such as "for example," "that is," "which means"

  • a sentence that tells the opposite of the unfamiliar word

  • a following or preceding sentence that explains the new word

  • a sentence written expressly to define the strange word

  • a list of examples and known words used to define unknown words

  1. In an unknown word, look for parts of the word whose meaning you already know. New words are coined, made up, from parts of known words; for example, homework, midterm, and freshman.
    Other words contain groups of letters that have meanings of their own. These groups of letters change the meaning of a known word and are classified in two types: prefixes, which appear at the beginning of the word; and suffixes, which appear at the end of the word. The word that has a prefix or suffix attached is called a root word.

  2. A wordís meaning is made up of both denotation and connotation. DENOTATION is the literal (dictionary) meaning of the word. CONNOTATION is the emotional impact of the word, the reaction to the word that a reader or hearer has. Skillful writers choose words for their connotations.

  3. Learn to differentiate between the shades of meaning of similar words. Such words can express quite distinct things; for example, boat, a small craft usually open at the top, and ship, a large seagoing craft. The best place to find the shades of meaning of words is in a dictionary.

  4. Applying these dictionary pointers will help you find meanings easily:

  • Know and use proper alphabetical order.

  • Use guide words to save time.

  • Check all abbreviations and symbols in the special sections.

  • If at first you donít succeed in finding the word, donít give up. You might need to check several possible spellings before finding the word.

  • Substitute the meaning you find for the word in the sentence. Be sure you select the most appropriate meaning, not merely the first one you come to.

  • Try saying the word aloud after you look at the pronunciation key.