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Technical vocabulary Subject-specific words and phrases

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In addition to general words and academic words, you will also need to learn subject-specific or 'technical' vocabulary. This page explains what subject-specific vocabulary is, and gives an overview of some of the technical lists available for academic study.

What is subject-specific vocabulary?

Each subject has words which are either used specifically in that subject area (and not in general English), or common words which are used with special meaning in that subject area. Such words are known as technical, domain-specific or subject-specific words. The following are two examples of non-general words used in the subject area of genetics:

  • haploid: an organism or cell having only one complete set of chromosomes;
  • diploid: an organism or cell having two sets of chromosomes or twice the haploid number.

Words such as these can be difficult even for native speakers to learn, though native speakers may have some advantage in being able to recognise prefixes, suffixes or roots which give the word meaning, e.g. 'di-' in diploid, meaning 'two'.

The second type of subject-specific vocabulary, i.e. common words used with special meaning, are similar to the type of academic vocabulary in which general words have a special meaning in academic contexts. In this case, though, such words take on a special meaning according to the subject they are being used in, as shown in the following examples.


  • general:  a group of students who are taught together
  • biology:  taxonomic group containing one or more orders


  • general:  a social unit living together
  • biology:  a taxonomic group containing one or more genera, e.g. 'sharks belong to the fish family'


  • general:  an insect or similar creeping or crawling invertebrate
  • computer science:  an error or flaw in a computer program or hardware system


  • general:  the state of cohering or sticking together
  • botany:  the process in some plants of parts growing together that are usually separate (e.g. petals)
  • physics:  the intermolecular force that holds together the molecules in a solid or liquid
  • language:  how parts of a text are connected together (see the writing section on cohesion for more details)


  • general:  an insect or similar creeping or crawling invertebrate
  • computer science:  an error or flaw in a computer program or hardware system

Technical vocabulary lists

There are two types of list which include technical words. One of these is subject-specific (also called field-specific) academic lists. These lists, however, are not specifically technical in nature, since their purpose is to include academic words which occur frequently in specific academic disciplines, providing better coverage for those disciplines than general academic lists such as the AWL (Academic Word List) or AVL (Academic Vocabulary List). The following are some examples.

The other type of list is purely technical in nature. These lists are often derived using the same principles as the academic lists given above. Examples of such lists, containing single words, are the following.

The above are both single-word lists, though there also multi-word technical word lists. These include the following.

Next section

Check out the Secondary School Vocabulary Lists (SVL) in the next section.

Previous section

Read the previous section about general vocabulary.


Sheldon Smith

Author: Sheldon Smith    ‖    Last modified: 07 February 2022.

Sheldon Smith is the founder and editor of 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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