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Guessing unknown words How to guess the meaning of unknown words


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Whenever you read extended texts in English, you will come across words which you do not know. Even native speakers will not know all the words when they are reading. Your instinct is probably to look up the unfamiliar words in a dictionary. If you do this for each word, however, it will take you a great deal of time, and you may never reach the end of the text. You therefore need to develop strategies for dealing with unknown words. On this page, you can read about:


There are also some activities to help you practice this area of EAP.


How to deal with unknown words

There are two questions to ask yourself whenever you meet an unfamiliar word. The first question is: 'Do I need to know the meaning of the word?' If not, you can keep reading and ignore the word. In order to answer this question, you need to make sure you have a clear purpose in your reading. The second question you need to ask is: 'Is an approximate meaning enough?' If not, you need to look the word up in a dictionary.


If the answer to both questions above is 'no', it means you can guess what the word means then keep reading. Use the following to help you guess an approximate meaning:

  • examine the immediate context of the word (i.e. the sentence in which it appears, and words which come before and after); pay particular attention to linking words;
  • examine the wider context of the word (i.e. other sentences in the paragraph);
  • look at the structure of the word (i.e. prefix, suffix, root).

The approach to unfamiliar words is summarised in the diagram below.


Do I need to know the meaning of the word?
no Keep reading
yes
Is an approximate meaning enough?
no Use a dictionary
yes
Use the following to help you guess the meaning:

Immediate context (other words in the sentences)
Wider context (other sentences in the paragraph)
Prefix, suffix, root
   

Using context

When you guess the meaning of a word from context, you need to consider first the immediate context, i.e. the other words in the sentence. If this is not enough, you need to use the wider context, i.e. sentences which come before and after the one which contains the word you are guessing.


Immediate context

Consider the following sentence:

Although the company's income from sales was higher than expected, its high costs in the form of salaries and other overheads put it in a disadvantageous position.


Imagine the word you want to guess in this sentence is 'disadvantageous' (it doesn't matter if you already know this word - this is just an example). The immediate context of the word tells you the following:

  • it is probably an adjective, because it comes before a noun ('position')
  • it is probably negative, because it relates to 'high costs', which are not usually good for a company
  • it is probably negative, because the sentence begins with 'although', a contrast marker, so the idea in the second clause contrasts with the first clause, which is positive ('high income' is good for a company)

A good guess for the word at this point would be 'bad'. This is probably close enough for you to understand the main idea, and you would be able to keep reading.


Wider context

Now consider the following paragraph:

Although the company's income from sales was higher than expected, its high costs in the form of salaries and other overheads put it in a disadvantageous position. This was one of the main reasons why the company folded. This put all two hundred of its employees out of work.


Imagine the word you want to guess this time is 'folded' (this is a common word, but it has a special meaning in this sentence). The immediate context of the word does not tell you much: it is clearly a verb, but it is difficult to determine more than this using only the sentence it occurs in. To guess the meaning, you need to use the wider context, i.e. the sentences which come before and after. Using these, you can tell the following:

  • it is probably negative, because it is the result of the company's 'disadvantageous (bad) position'
  • it is something which can happen to companies
  • it resulted in all of the company's employees being 'out of work'

From this, you can guess that the word means something like 'stopped' or 'stopped doing business' (because no one works there any more). In fact, 'to fold' in this context means '(of a company etc.) to close because it is not successful'.

Using prefix, suffix, root

Again consider the following sentence:

Although the company's income from sales was higher than expected, its high costs in the form of salaries and other overheads put it in a disadvantageous position.


Imagine (again) that the word you want to guess in this sentence is 'disadvantageous'. This word can be broken down into three components: dis-, which is the prefix; advantage, which is the root; and -ous, which is the suffix. You can get the following information by studying the word in this way:

  • it is probably an adjective, because it ends in -ous, which is a common suffix for adjectives
  • it is probably negative, because it begins with a negative prefix dis-
  • its meaning is probably opposite to the root of the word, advantage

As before, a good guess for the word at this point would be 'bad'. Again, this would be close enough to allow you to understand the main idea and keep reading.



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Sheldon Smith

Author: Sheldon Smith    ‖    Last modified: 18 September 2019.

Sheldon Smith is the founder and editor of EAPFoundation.com. He has been teaching English for Academic Purposes since 2004. Find out more about him in the about section and connect with him on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.



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