Enhancing Your Vocabulary

Learning Objective

  • Describe strategies for enhancing your vocabulary
  • Use structural analysis to understand the meanings of words

Learn Common Roots and Word Etymology

Modern English represents a cornucopia of different languages. In fact, if you limited yourself to words with only specifically “English” origin, you would have a pretty small vocabulary.

History of English language timeline.

Figure 1. This timeline shows that the English language as we know it today evolved over hundreds and thousands of years.

If you learn basic root words, especially Latin and Greek roots, you will be able to break apart words to figure out what they mean. Take a look at this List of Greek and Latin roots in English. You might be surprised.

learn by doing: explore latin roots

Understand Structural Analysis

Structural analysis is the process of breaking words down into their basic parts to determine word meaning. Structural analysis is a powerful vocabulary tool since knowledge of a few word parts can give you clues to the meanings of a large number of words. Although the meaning suggested by the word parts may not be exact, this process can often help you understand the word well enough that you can continue reading without significant interruption.

When using structural analysis, the reader breaks words down into their basic parts:

  • Prefixes – word parts located at the beginning of a word to change meaning
  • Roots – the basic meaningful part of a word
  • Suffixes – word parts attached to the end of a word; suffixes often alter the part of speech of the wordDecorative image.

For example, the word bicyclist can be broken down as follows:

  • bi – prefix meaning two
  • cycle – root meaning wheel
  • ist – a noun suffix meaning ‘a person who’

Therefore, structural analysis suggests that a bicyclist is a person on two wheels—a meaning which is close to the word’s formal definition.

Just to pick an example, when you understand that the prefix “ortho” means straight or right, you start to find connections between seemingly unrelated words, such as orthodontist (a specialist who straightens teeth) and orthography (the correct, or straight, way of writing).

Understanding the logic behind words always pays off in terms of learning and recalling. Consider these examples: “breakfast” means “interrupt the night’s fast,” and “rainbow” means “bow or arc caused by rain.” While these meanings may be trivial to native English speakers, having such insights about words, foreign or otherwise, never fails to deepen your connection to them.

Consider the word part –cide. Though it cannot stand as a word by itself, it does have meaning: to kill. Think about the many words in our language that include the word part –cide. Knowing this one word part gives us knowledge about many words.


In English, there are really only suffixes and prefixes (part of a larger class called affixes). Other languages have things called infixes. They go in the middles of the word. Pianopianissimopianississimo, etc.

English only has one infix:

  • “abso-friggin-lutely”
  • “get it to-freaking-gether”

Put It to Work

To further develop this skill, refer to the convenient reference sheet Structural Analysis: Common Word Parts, for a list of some common prefixes, roots, and suffixes along with their meanings and examples of words that use them.

To practice this skill, try the Structural Analysis Exercises from Lethbridge College.

Although structural analysis is a technique that can be used by anyone, there are definitely certain disciplines that use it more extensively. The medical field, in particular, uses terminology grounded firmly in structural analysis. Check out the following sites to learn some common word parts found in the medical field:

Maintain a Personal Lexicon

By keeping a personalized list of learned words, you’ll have a handy reference you can use to review these words later. It’s very likely you’ll want to go back and refresh your memory on recent words, so keeping them in your own list is much more efficient than going back to the dictionary every time.

Even if you never refer back to your lexicon again, writing words down at least once will greatly enhance your ability to commit them to your permanent memory. Another excellent learning aid is to write an original sentence containing the word — and using your lexicon to do that is a great way of enforcing this habit. You can also add many other details as you see fit, such as the date you first came across the word or maybe a sequential number to help you reach some word quota you define.

There are many ways you can keep your personal word list; each has its own advantages and disadvantages, so make sure to pick the format that works best for you. You may prefer to keep it as a simple text file in the computer, or in a regular paper notebook, or maybe as flash cards in a shoe box.

One option is a computer spreadsheet for its handy features such as searching, sorting, and filtering.

Watch It

It’s one thing to expose yourself to new words—it’s another to internalize these new words and make them part of your working vocabulary.

Enjoy the public service video shared below, originally filmed in 1948. Feel free to laugh at its more artificial elements.

You can view the transcript for “Build Your Vocabulary- 1948” here (download).

Though dated, this video does offer good advice for how to develop a stronger working vocabulary. How would you update these tips to the twenty-first century?

Follow a Process

To make vocabulary improvement a permanent habit in your everyday life, you should make it as habitual, automatic, and tightly integrated into your daily workflow as possible—otherwise you won’t do it when your days get too busy.

In that regard, one particularly useful concept is the one of maintaining a “Word Inbox.” By having a predefined place you use to capture the words you come across, you can process them much more efficiently.

Your process can be as simple as you wish—the key is to specify it beforehand and then follow it. By knowing exactly how and how often to process your inbox, you stay on top of your vocabulary improvement process, even when there are other pressing matters crying out for your attention.

Leverage Every Resource You Can

The internet is a gold mine of resources for vocabulary building. Here are a few to get you started, though many more exist:

There are plenty of vocabulary applications you can try. There are many vocabulary-related books you can explore. There is a wealth of free literature on sites such as Project Gutenberg. If you use the Firefox browser, there are many ways to integrate dictionary lookup functions, such as the plug-ins Answers.com and DictionarySearch. You can find specialized vocabulary lists, such as these feeling words or descriptive words. You can even learn some classy, Shakespearean insults!

The point is that you’re only limited by your willingness to learn: let curiosity be your guide and you will never run out of resources to learn from.

Try It


Did you have an idea for improving this content? We’d love your input.

Improve this pageLearn More