How are words built? Improving Spelling and Vocabulary

Image by KaCey97007 (CC BY-NC 2.0)

by Corina Koch MacLeod

You can improve your spelling and vocabulary by paying attention to how words are built.

Sure, written English seems rather unwieldy at times, but that’s because it contains several different languages, each with its own spelling system (that’s right – if you can read and write English, you’re arguably multilingual). But don’t let that put you off. Written English is logical and predictable in its patterns.
If you train yourself to pay attention to the meaningful chunks in words, like prefixes, suffixes, bases and roots, you can pretty much read, spell or gather clues about the meaning of any word. 
Consider the word “familiarization.” What does it mean? What clues can you focus on to figure out its meaning? You can take the word apart by writing a word sum (Bowers, 2009):
familiarization à familyi* + ar + ize* + ate* + ion  
Chances are that you know what  family means – a group of people you live with and that you presumably know well.
When I check a dictionary that tells me where words and word parts come from

  • ar (Latin suffix) means “one who is”;
  • ize (Greek suffix)  means “to make”; 
  • ate (Latin suffix) means  “ having the quality of”; and
  • ion (Latin suffix)  means “in the state of.”

    * Sometimes, when you put word chunks beside each other, a vowel is dropped or changed. See if you can identify this tendency in other words.

    So, familiarization means one who is in the state of getting to know someone or something.
    Do you need to familiarize (you know this word!) yourself with all the word parts in English and what they mean? Probably not. But it does help to know what some of the more common prefixes and suffixes mean. 

    When you encounter a big word, take it apart. (This is particularly helpful for science and math words). Write a word sum. You’ll begin to become familiar with how words are built and you can use this knowledge to improve your spelling, reading and comprehension.

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