Making Meaning

A photograph of the word 'create' painted in a parking lot

Source: create, Dayna Bateman, Flickr

So far in this lesson, we have been talking about the word parts that come before (prefixes) and after (suffixes) roots of words. In a way, we have been saving the best for last because without roots, there would be no words at all.

The root or stem of a word is the most important part. Let’s look at the suffix -ology from the Latin word logia referring to “the study of” or “a branch of knowledge.” You wouldn’t tell your friend about your sudden interest in “ology.” They wouldn’t know how to respond, but if you were to talk about the test you aced in “anthropology,” they might just slap you on the back in celebration. That’s because you added to your suffix the root word anthro (from the Greek anthropos, meaning “man” or “humankind”). Of course, the word anthropology isn’t the only word that can be formed using the root anthro. A few more are shown below. Notice that the root of the word does not always come first.

Affix Root Word
anthro- (Gr for “man”) pomorphic (Gr for “having the shape or form”) anthropomorphic (having qualities of a human)
mis- (AS for “bad”) anthrope (Gr for “man”) misanthrope (one who mistrusts humankind)
phil- (Gr for “love”) anthropy (Gr for “man”) philanthropy (love of humanity)
A photograph of a convertible Volkswagen Bug from the rear

Source: VW Trøndelag, Ketil Johansen, Flickr

Take a look at the following words:

avert     introvert      convertible

As you read them, do you notice anything unusual? They are different words to be sure, but they have something in common. Can you see the root vert in each one? This root means “to turn” in Latin. The three words above all share a common root, so the meaning of each word must have something to do with the root’s meaning, to turn. Although the three words have the same root, they have different affixes that change each word’s meaning.

Prefix Root Suffix Word
a- (L for “away”) vert (L for “turn”)
avert (turn away)
intro- (L for “inward”) vert (L for “turn”)
introvert (turn inward)
con- (L for “with”) vert (L for “turn”) -ible (L for “able”) convertible (able to be turned)
A sign in a store window that reads “Official ‘OLOGY Destination Store”

Source: Official 'Ology Destination Store, Timothy Valentine, Flickr

Do you see how it’s possible to take an unfamiliar word like introvert and by using your knowledge of root words and affixes, discover the meaning of the word? Sometimes you still have to do some thinking for the word to make sense to you. For example, if you learn that the word parts for introvert mean “to turn inward,” you might still need to think about what is meant if a person is described as an “introvert.”

You could use some background knowledge to come up with a meaning that makes sense to you. Maybe you know someone who has been described as an “introvert,” and you know that person is quiet and not outgoing. You might then understand that “to turn inward” when referring to a person could mean someone who is more comfortable being alone or in small groups than being around a lot of people. Sometimes you need to spend time figuring out the meaning of new words, but as your vocabulary grows, you will find that you can read challenging text more easily.

A photograph of the outside of a museum that has 'National Museum of Mexican Art' carved into it

Source: National Museum of Mexican Art, Eric Allix Rogers, Flickr

A photograph of the inside of a Museum where the sig is in Spanish. It reads, 'Museo de Arte Alvar Y Carmen T. de Carrillo Gil.'

Source: Museo de Arte de Carrillo Gil, Gary Denness, Flickr

Now, open a chart that contains many roots found in English, along with their meanings and examples of how they are used. Read through the chart, keeping in mind that the words we use every day make sense to us because over 70% of them are built according to their ancient meanings. After you study the chart of common root words, practice recognizing how new words are formed by answering questions about one particular root word, scio, meaning “to know.”

Use your knowledge of how root words from ancient languages are used to form new words as you fill in the blanks in the exercise below. Choose the correct root from each drop-down menu. When you are finished with the exercise, you may go to the next section.

icon for an interactive exercise