by Elena Shvidko

What Does it Mean to Know a Word?

A bunch of scrambled game board pieces with letters imprinted on them, focusing on Words with a shallow depth of field.

Have you ever experienced difficulties retrieving an English word that you learned just a few days ago? Have you wondered why the word had mysteriously disappeared from your memory even though you thought it was so easy to memorize it? Let’s try to understand what might be the problem.

What do you when you learn a new word in English? Do you look it up in a dictionary in order to find the meaning of this word in your native language? Do you then write this word down or repeat it several times trying to remember both the word and its meaning? Or instead of using a dictionary, do you ask a native speaker to explain the meaning of the word to you? Those are certainly great strategies, but unfortunately they are not efficient for effective vocabulary learning. In fact, the meaning of the word is only one of the several components of word knowledge, which helps language learners successfully acquire new words and appropriately use them in different contexts. Let’s look at each of these components.

Meaning

There is doubt that learning a new word in English assumes understanding what the word actually means. And of course, you can implement a whole variety of strategies to get to the meaning of the word. You can translate the word into your native language, you can ask a native speaker to explain the word to you, you can look up the definition of the word in a monolingual dictionary, or you can also try to figure out the meaning of an unfamiliar word from the context. It’s up to you which of these strategies you use to get to the meaning of the word. Keep in mind though that many English words have more than one meaning, so if you are consulting a dictionary in order to find the meaning of the word, make sure you learn the right meaning! For example, in the sentence She went to the bank of the river, you wouldn’t learn the meaning of the word bank as “a business that keeps and lends money”.

definition word from dictionary, close up

Spelling

Once you understand the meaning of the new word, it is helpful to attach it to the correct spelling of this word. This is especially important if you memorize vocabulary items by hearing them: knowing the correct spelling will help you recognize the target word as you later encounter it in reading. And as you probably noticed, English spelling does not always reflect pronunciation, so don’t rely on your ability to guess the correct spelling of the word—it may mislead you. For example, when you hear the new word tough in a conversation with your native English speaking friend, you could certainly ask your friend to explain the meaning of this word to you. But if you don’t know how to spell this word, would you be able to recognize it when you read a newspaper or when you see the word tough on a flyer?

In addition, the English language has words that are called homophones—words that have a similar pronunciation but a different spelling, such as right and wright, bear and bare, hole and whole. Therefore, make sure to check the spelling of the word that you are trying to learn.

Pronunciation

If you want to memorize a word that you encountered during your reading, do not neglect to learn its pronunciation! Knowing the correct pronunciation of the word will help you recognize it later when someone uses it in a conversation. As mentioned above, many English words are pronounced differently from the way they are spelled.

Your task may also be complicated by the fact that some letter combinations in the English language have different pronunciations depending on their word position but also due to other mysterious factors that no one can seem to explain! For example, look at the following words: though, rough, plough, thought, through, lough. Although each of them has the letter combination ough, they are all pronounced differently! Or my other favorite example is the pronunciation of the letter combination ch. Can you correctly pronounce the words champion, cliché, and chaos? Perhaps these examples are not so challenging, but there are definitely a lot of words whose pronunciation may be absolutely surprising. So don’t forget to check it!

Adorable preteen with many letters out of his mouth isolated on a over grey background

Part of Speech

You probably heard about different parts of speech of English content words: nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. Parts of speech are an important component of word knowledge, as they help organize the words in word families (see below). Knowing a part of speech of the target word will help you use it grammatically correctly in a sentence. And this is where your knowledge of English grammar comes to the picture! For example, which of the words—consistent or consistency—would you use in the following sentence? Women and men need to be ___________ in their actions. And what about this sentence? There is no _______________ in the way they deal with the problems.

Knowing a part of speech of the new word is also helpful when the target word has the same spelling and pronunciation in more than one part of speech. In fact, many English words have identical spelling and pronunciation in verb and noun forms. Consider the following examples of very common English words:

table with verb and noun

Word-family relations
Most words in the English language belong to word families—groups of words with a shared base but different suffixes and prefixes. You can think of the words belonging to the same word family as brothers and sisters! Just like in human families, where siblings have similar features while yet being different, words that belong to the same word family share a common root, but at the same time, they have slightly different forms as well as different parts of speech.

For example, the verb to motivate, the noun motivation, and the adjective motivated belong to the same word family as they share the same base “motiv”. So they are brothers and sisters! Therefore, when you learn the verb to motivate as your target word, you should also check the other words that belong to the same word family. Thus, knowing several members of the same word family will help you considerably expand your vocabulary!

Synonyms

Along with word families, synonyms (words with similar meanings) can help you build your vocabulary arsenal. Most monolingual dictionaries provide a list of synonyms related to the target word, so if you already know some of those synonyms, you can better understand the meaning of the word you are trying to learn. Synonyms also allow you to use the words with similar meanings interchangeably or operate with the meanings in different contexts. And this certainly comes handy in academic writing! For example, using the synonyms of the word benefitadvantage, profit, value—can help you avoid repetitions when you compose an essay in English.

Register

When we talk about registers, we usually refer to the level of formality. For example, the word benefit may be used both in formal and informal contexts; however, a synonym of this word – plus – will most likely be used in informal registers.

Look at other examples of formal and informal words:

list of formal and less formal words
Understanding the level of formality of the target word is particularly important when it comes to writing or formal presentations. For example, if you are composing an English academic essay, it’s probably a better idea to use the word challenging (more formal and used in academic genres) opposed to the word tough (less formal and used in less academic genres as well as in conversations).

Connotation

Connotation can be defined as a secondary meaning of the word, or as its flavor. Connotations cause some sort of emotional association. The most common connotations are positive, neutral, and negative. For example, the word ugly tends to have a negative connotation, so you have to be careful using this word as you may unwillingly offend someone. Depending on the context, you could instead use the words unpleasant, unattractive, or unappealing, as each of them has a neutral connotation.

Take a look at some other examples of words that tend to have negative connotations coupled with the synonyms that have positive connotations:

words with positive and negative connotations
As you see, word knowledge is quite complex, and it certainly entails more than just knowing the meaning of the word. These components are: meaning, spelling, pronunciation, part of speech, word-family relations, synonyms, register, and connotation. Applying all of these parts to learning vocabulary certainly takes time and much effort. However, your effort and hard work will pay off by your successful acquisition of English vocabulary.

Let me know what you think about the suggestions offered in this article. If you need more advice about learning English words or if you have questions about other effective ways of acquiring and using vocabulary, please write to me in the comments section below.

About the author:

Elena is originally from Russia and is currently pursuing her doctoral degree in Second Language Studies in the U.S. She has taught various ESL classes in academic and community contexts. In her free time, she enjoys outdoor activities, especially hiking and fishing.

  • Joanan P

    I think, you, Miss Shvidko, make an excellent article summarizing all the point we struggle at some point and we still have today. I wish someone had told me these marvelous advice, when I started learning English, It would have been easier.

    I really liked how you integrated tables and videos in the article; furthermore, I would like to see more examples, maybe some links to practice.

    Definitely, I´m sharing this with my friends in Mexico, and those who are learning English right now. Keep up the work work!.

    • Elena Shvidko

      Dear Joanan, thank you for your thoughtful feedback. I am glad you found the article helpful. Just like you, I did not know about these components of word knowledge when I started to learn English. But when I learned about them and started to apply them to my own language-learning experience, I realized how helpful they really are. Thank you for visiting with us!!

  • Joanan P

    As you said, practice and hard work will pay off our efforts acquiring new abilities and stop looking in a dictionary, or asking someone else for a meaning!

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