Reading Skills: Guessing New Words from Context Part 2: Affixes!


Hey everyone.

This post is Part 2 of “Guessing Vocabulary from Context”. Today I want to help you improve your ability to guess difficult vocabulary, by learning about some common affixes.

“Wait! …What’s an affix?”

An affix is a small group of letters that comes before (a prefix) or after (a suffix) a word.

For example, the word unbelievable has two affixes: a prefix (un-) and a suffix (-able).

The root word is the verb “believe”. Un- means not, and able- means can. So, unbelievable means cannot be believed.

Affixes are super useful because their meaning doesn’t change much, so they can help us to guess and learn the meaning of new English words!


Guessing New Words from Context – A Quick Review!

Let me be clear: guessing new words from context is mostly just a good habit that will increase your English vocabulary and your reading skills over time. You should practice it every time you read anything in English.

If you become good at it, it will also help you in your IELTS Reading Test.

HOWEVER… it’s really important to do it the right way! Do you remember the order?

Guessing New Words from Context steps graphic


Step 1: Check the word itself for any prefixes or suffixes to help you guess.

Step 2: Check the sentence and the grammar around the word. You can usually tell if the word is a noun, adjective, verb, or something else… then you can figure out the subject and the object of the sentence. 

Step 3: Think about the overall meaning of the word, according to the paragraph and article. Does the word seem important? Is it positive, or negative? Is it a scientific word, part of some research?

Step 4: Check a dictionary! How good was your guess? Remember, it’s not that important to be completely accurate with your guess… it is the process of guessing that is important.



So, today we will learn about affixes, which will help you with step 1.

“How can affixes help me understand new words?”

Affixes can help you because they don’t change in meaning much. A lot of difficult English words are build out of smaller pieces… a main part (the root) and a collection of prefixes and suffixes.

For example, look at the following word:


You may not know the meaning of this word (or maybe you do!)… but, looking at the suffix -ous, you can at least tell that it is an adjective.

What about this one?


Again, it’s a difficult word… but if we know our affixes, we have a lot of help. Re- means again, and -ion indicates a noun form. So even if you don’t know the word, knowing at least that “something” is being done “again”. (a requisition is a formal request or demand).

Let’s look at some of the more common affixes in English. How many do you know?


Common English Affixes


Common prefixes                           Meaning                                                    Examples

Re-                                                   again                                                          review, redo, recreate

Pre-                                                  before                                                        predict, prefix, preview

Dis- / in- / im- / il- / ir- / un-               not                                                             disregard, impossible, illegal

Mis-                                                  wrongly                                                      mistake, misfire, miscue

Over-                                                too much                                                   overdo, overcook, overeat


Common suffixes                           Meaning                                                     Examples

-ed / d                                    past tense regular verb                                         walked, generated

-ing                                        continuous tense verb OR gerund                        walking, obstructing

-er / or                                   comparative OR one who does this action            walker / bigger

-est                                       superlative                                                              biggest, worthiest

-ist                                        one who does this as a job or an expert                scientist, guitarist

-logy                                     the study of something                                           biology, theology

-able / -ible                           can                                                                         enjoyable, illegible

-ment / -ion                          noun form of a verb                                                government, section

-less                                    without (adjective form)                                           doubtless, fearless

-ful                                       full of (adjective form)                                             doubtful, fearful

-ous                                     adjective form                                                         generous, contagious

-ly                                        added to adjective to make an adverb                   generously, doubtlessly


Remember, even complicated words follow these rules. Even if you don't know the word, recognizing affixes can help you to guess the meaning!

Now that we are familiar with a handful of affixes, let’s get some practice.


Practice Exercise #2: Guess New Words from Context

Let’s try guessing new words from context again, and see if paying attention to affixes can help us out a little bit.

Remember to look at affixes first, then the grammar of the sentence, then finally think about the overall meaning.


Early Earthquake Science

At the Earth's surface, earthquakes manifest themselves with shaking and sometimes displacement of the ground. The Lisbon earthquake of 1755, coinciding with the flourishing of science in Europe, set in motion intensified scientific attempts to understand the behaviour and causation of earthquakes. Seismologist John Michell (1761) determined that earthquakes originate within the Earth and were waves of movement caused by shifting masses of rock miles below the surface. In 1857, Robert Mallet further laid the foundations of modern seismology and carried out seismological experiments using explosives.