Say it Right: Putting the parts together

None of us is too old to learn new words, and it can actually be fun.

One of the most common ways to acquire unfamiliar words is through context, their setting or surroundings.

This can be either verbal context, the other words in a sentence; or physical context, the situation being discussed. Other words in a sentence can give you a hint, but there wouldn’t be much to help in, “She finally got a strike.” This is where knowledge of the situation comes in handy; knowing whether the circumstances include a baseball game, a bowling excursion, or a fishing trip could make the difference.

Beyond context, parts of words can help us with a new verbal experience.

Prefixes, word parts at the beginning of words, can give insight. The prefix “auto” means self; that should at least help us understand words like autonomous and autobiography. Another common prefix is “dis,” meaning not, opposite of, to remove. This helps us with words like discontent, disloyal or dislodge.

There are so many prefixes, and we cannot hope to have them all in our private repertoire. If we learn a few at a time, though, we may eventually surprise ourselves with the number we know and can use.

Another helpful word part is the suffix, an ending portion. For instance, “ance” and “ence” refer to the state or quality of something. Two examples are attendance and persistence.

The suffix “ism” points to a system or practice: capitalism, socialism. Suffixes can form both nouns (motherhood) and adjectives (pertinent).

In addition to beginnings and endings as clues to word meaning, central parts or core elements help us learn new words.

The Latin root “am” means love or friend (amorous, amenities), and “cred” implies believe (incredible, discredited).

Two helpful Greek roots are “gram” and “graph” (telegram, phonograph). Another Greek gift is the root “phil,” or love (philanthropy, Anglophile).

Again, we could easily become inundated with these roots, but learning a few at a time can carry us a long way.

It is a process, a slow, life-long one. If we observe context, it gives us a start. Adding knowledge of prefixes, suffixes and roots compounds our ability to put bits and pieces together to form a whole … a whole lot of pleasure and enlightenment!

Sandi Ekberg taught high school English in Medford for 30 years. If you have grammar questions, email her at

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