Vocabulary: Learning Unknown

Using English for Academic Purposes: Vocabulary

Learning Unknown Words

Working out the meaning of unknown words

Difficult words.

It is unlikely that you will know every word in a text and even if you think you have seen every word before, it is unlikely that you will have seen a particular word in its present context. It is therefore necessary to work out the meaning of unfamiliar words in context and, perhaps, familiar words in new contexts. This is necessary even if you have a dictionary as your dictionary does not know the exact context in which the word is being used.

A. Is it necessary to know the exact meaning of a particular word? Often a rough meaning is enough (does the word have a positive or negative meaning?). First, though, you need to decide how important the word is for you and your subject. For some words it is enough to know just enough about a word so you can understand it when you hear or see it used in context. For other words, though, that you will need to use productively you will need as much information as possible about the words.

B. Look for definitions. The author may know a particular word may be new so explains. The author may also be using the word in a new, or unusual way so will need to explain how it is being used. This will be done by using a definition, an explanation, an example or by using a synonym (a word with the same meaning). The phrases “called“, “known as“, “is the name applied to“, “in other words“, “that is“, “is said to be” are often used.


1. The words “polybrachygyny” and “leks” are explained

Some male birds spend all their time mating and do not provide the female with any benefits other than indications of their vigour. This condition, called polybrachygyny, means that males that show the most effective displays are most persuasive in attracting females. These displays are given at localised courting places called leks.

2. The phrases “free-running experiments” and “free-running rhythms” are explained.

Because there are no constraints placed upon the timing of the volunteer’s activities in such a time-free environment, these are called free-running experiments and the rhythms measured during them are known as free-running rhythms.

3. Synonym in apposition or with “or

A majority of experts agree that neandertaloids were the first members of our species, Homo sapiens.

Most metals are malleable; they can be hammered into flat sheets; nonmetals lack this quality. Some metals are also ductile; they can be drawn out into thin wires; nonmetals are not usually ductile.

Glandular fever, or infectious mononucleosis, is a serious disease.

Each transformed organism is fitted to or adapted to its habitat.

4. Example

We humans are Animalia: mobile, multicelled organisms that derive energy from ingestion (“eating”).

Methadone is an example of a synthetic narcotic drug.

5. Description

The Anthropoidea, on the other hand, are sometimes called the “higher primates.” They have relatively larger and rounder skull cases, flatter faces, and mobile lips detached from the gums.

6. Explanation using “that is

Each tribal group, identified by the language it speaks, is an exogamous unit; that is, people must marry outside the group and therefore always marry someone who speaks another language.

7. Explanation using “-”

Today, the sense of anomie – alienation, disconnectedness – at Apple is major.


Exercises: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11

C. Work out the meaning of the word or phrase.

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

(From Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky”)

There are two main approaches to doing this. It may not tell you the exact meaning of the word, but it may help you to narrow down the possibilities so the text makes sense:

1. You can analyse the word itself. You can look inside the word. You can use your knowledge of similar words and look at how the word is constructed. Using this information you can find information about (a) the meaning of the word as well as (b) grammatical information.

a. Affixes can help you work out the meaning of an unfamiliar word. For example, if you do not know the meaning of the word “incomprehensible“, you can work it out if  you are familiar with “comprehend” meaning understand, “in” meaning not, and “-ible” meaning can. Therefore “an incomprehensible sentence” refers to a sentence that you cannot understand.

In the Jabberwocky text above, we know “outgrabe” is a verb because “out-” is a common verb prefix (“outwit“, “outdo“)

b. It is not usually difficult to work out the grammatical category: noun, verb, adjective, adverb etc. If the word ends in “-ing” or “-ed” it could be a verb; if the word ends in “-ly“, it may be an adverb; if the word ends in “-tion“, it is possibly a noun. If the word ends in “-ise“, it is probably a verb. If you see a sentence like “The spid claned lanly“, you can work out that “claned” is the past tense of the verb “clane“, and “lanly” is an adverb.

In the Jabberwocky text above, we know “borogroves“, “raths” and “toves” are nouns because “-s” is a common noun suffix, and “slithy” is an adjective because “-y” is a common adjective suffix.


Exercise 12

2. You can use the context. You can make use of the other words, phrases, sentences and information around the problematic word. Using this information you can find information about the meaning of the word as well as grammatical information. (a) Grammatical information can be obtained from the place of the word in the sentence. (b) Information about the meaning of the word can come from the meanings of the other words in the context.

a. By using your knowledge of typical English clause and phrase structure, you can often work out the grammatical function of a particular word. Typical clause structures are SVO, SVA, SVOC.

In the sentence, “The spid claned lanly“, as articles usually precede nouns, you can also assume that “spid” is a noun.

In the Jabberwocky text above, we know “slithy” is an adjective because it comes between “the” and “toves“.

b. Information about the meaning of the word can come from the meanings of the other words in the context. Using your knowledge of the world and your subject can help. You can, for example, make use of your knowledge of the relationship between object and purpose, “He took the … and drank“, “She sat on the …” or cause and effect, “The heavy … caused the river to rise“. Words and phrases connected with “and“, “moreover” or “in addition” will have related meanings and clauses connected with “while” or “although” will have opposite meanings.


Exercise 13, Exercise 14.


You will need to use context even with simple words like “like“, “too“, “light“, ” fly“, as they have different meanings and grammatical forms. You will also need to use the context to determine which meaning of a word is being used in a particular situation. See: Exercise 15

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